I'm Kate Risheill. Welcome to my blog on writing.

The Alienist: What Writers Can Learn From Adaptations

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If there is one thing all bookish people seem to complain about, it is the fact that tv and film adaptations never live up to their expectations. "The movie is never as good as the book," is  a common refrain. However, I think this is chiefly because people all want what they see on the screen to reflect the book exactly. But that just isn't possible. Adaptations always make changes, compress some sections, expand others, combine characters, and so on. However, I think writers can - and should - take note of the choices adaptations make.

For this post, I am specifically focusing on the adaptation of Caleb Carr's novel, The Alienist. Let this be your warning: the rest of the post contains major spoilers for both the book and the TNT tv series adaptation. 

The novel The Alienist focuses on the investigation of a series of gruesome murders that take place in 1890s New York. These murders are covertly investigated by Laszlo Kreizler, a psychologist or, as they were called back then, an alienist. Teaming up with John Moore, Laszlo's friend and crime journalist, and Sara Howard, secretary to Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (yes, that Teddy Roosevelt), Laszlo creates a psychological profile to catch the killer. 

The tv series follows the same general storyline as the book and hits all of the major plot points. That said, the book and the tv series do diverge in some notable ways. Some changes relate to plot structure and pacing, others are changes to the characters themselves. With few exceptions, I like the changes the tv series made and I think it is worth exploring why these changes work.

  • John Moore becomes an artist - 
    In the book, we see the entire story through John's eyes. He is a seasoned crime reporter with the New York Times and immediately has much to offer the investigation. In the tv series, John is a society artist whose usefulness to the investigation isn't always obvious. John flounders a bit throughout the series. It creates additional tension and also provides the opportunity to incorporate some sketch artist scenes, allowing us to have some kind of the glimpse of the killer before the final showdown.
  • The man with a silver smile - 
    The progression of the investigation in the novel feels very linear, a tightening of a noose. Though they investigate a few angles that don't pan out, they are always after just one man. In contrast, the tv series brilliantly gives us a red herring. They continually mention a man with a silver smile, a man we get little glimpses of throughout the early stages of the investigation. As someone who had read the book, I wasn't sure if they were altering the character of Japheth Dury/ John Beecham or if it was a separate storyline. As it turns out, it is a red herring. The man the team thinks they should be chasing is promptly dispatched and we get our first glimpse at the real killer. This deception gave a real moment of surprise and added a level of tension that didn't exist in the novel.
  • Sara's derringer - 
    Throughout the novel, Sara is the one saving everyone's skin with her pearl-handled derringer. On multiple occasions, we hear that Sara is an excellent shot and she certainly has no compunction about pulling out her ever-present revolver. However, in the show she doesn't seem to carry her iconic weapon (or if she does, we don't see it on screen) until the penultimate scene. While I understand the disappointment some have with this change, we see an escalation in violence and danger throughout the series. Generally, when the group is all together, detectives Lucius and Marcus Isaacson are wielding their police-issued Colt revolvers. They are the ones with the detective badges, so it only makes sense that they are popping off the shots, especially when John, Laszlo, and Sara aren't even supposed to be publicly involved in the investigation. However, when Sara has an unarmed run-in with Connor, we see her truly shaken by the threat of violence. It makes sense that, after this encounter, she finally feels ready to carry (and use) her gun. Ultimately, she is still the one to kill Connor, but the addition of Connor's personal threats to her makes it feel like she has built up to pulling and using her gun.
  • Laszlo's reaction to Mary's death - 
    When Mary dies in the book, Laszlo disappears from the story, having withdrawn from the investigation. Because the story is told entirely from John's point of view, it makes sense that we don't see or hear from Laszlo during this time. However, the tv series shows us the depth of Laszlo's despair. Book Laszlo can come off a bit disconnected and cold. He is high-handed in his treatment of his servants as well as with his colleagues in the investigation. In the tv series we see Laszlo lash out at others, but we also see how he regrets these actions. In the series, we see the tentative, awkward way Laszlo falls in love with Mary, we see how much they care for each other first hand. When she is killed, Laszlo spirals. We see him sulking in his darkened house, drinking his pain away, even going so far as to stab at his disfigured arm with a broken wine glass. This visceral show of mourning and loss emotionally connects with viewers much more than in the book, where Laszlo grieves off screen and comes back, a bit melancholy, but seeming much the same as he was before Mary's death. 
  • Laszlo & Sara - 
    The relationship between Laszlo and Sara in the book is generally one of mutual admiration and, for the most part, respect. However, it feels a bit distant. Because the book is told through John's perspective, our most intimate glimpses of Laszlo occur in scenes between John and Laszlo. The tv series chooses to develop the relationship between Laszlo and Sara more deeply. It aligns these two misfits, a woman in a man's profession and a self-professed cripple. Both are often underestimated and cast to the side, something which the series highlights. While their relationship is a bit more contentious than in the books, it is also much deeper. After Mary's death, Sara visits Laszlo and the two of them confess their tragic pasts. They find understanding in each other and are able to begin to put the past behind them. I'm not gonna lie, I cried a lot when I watched this scene. It gives the kind of emotional payoff the book fails to deliver.
  • Sara & John - 
    At the core of Sara's character in the book is her insistence that she doesn't want or need a man in her life. She is happy to pursue her career and has no inclination for romance. This is not the case in the tv series. In both the book and the tv series, Sara and John are supposed to be friends who grew up together, but in the tv series, we see the relationship deepen further. John is protective of Sara and Sara is equally protective of John, especially when it comes to Laszlo's sharp comments and callous actions. Their friendship is tinged with flirtation that develops into something more. The series never jams some grand romance down our throats, but it does give us a few tender moments. I've seen many people who have read the books object to the idea of Sara having a love interest. However, I don't think that having a career and falling in love are mutually exclusive. I firmly believe that you can be a strong, independent woman without having to be a spinster. Aside from this, no one understands more than John how good Sara is at what she does and how important her career is to her. More than anything, the tv series emphasizes that people need connections, they need to feel wanted and loved. We have to let go of pain and seek hope. The love between Sara and John absolutely exemplifies this. 

While not every change made in an adaptation is a good one, when they work well, they make you ask, "Why didn't the writer do that in the first place?" There are some changes, like having Stevie go undercover in a brothel, which are just more exciting to see on screen and expand the roles of supporting characters. There are others, like sparing Joseph from gruesome death or showing the gang reunited at Del's to celebrate, that help give the ending an even more buoyant feeling. The weight has been lifted, the monster is defeated, and all will be well. The changes the tv series chose to make focused on increasing tension and emotional payoff.

Books and their adaptations will always differ. There are things you can convey in a novel that are difficult to translate to the screen and vice versa. A novel can be quieter, more intellectual, and moodier than a tv series. Film and tv have to be a bit more dynamic to keep viewer interest. That said, I think writers can definitely benefit from considering what adaptations choose to change and whether they should reevaluate those elements in their own work. 

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