The Alienist Forgets Its History, Which Is All It Has Going For ItPhoto: Kata Vermes/TNT TV Features The Alienist
Caleb Carr’s 1994 crime novel The Alienist, set in Gilded Age New York, operates on the assumption that readers are willing to check their modern knowledge of its subject at the door, eager to learn of the techniques used by cutting-edge crimefighters of the day. Its milquetoast televised adaptation jettisons this hook for the sake of safety, choosing instead to treat these techniques as they are today, at a moment when serial killers are all over the airwaves: as so familiar as to be almost unworthy of mention. TNT knows drama, but here TNT presumes we all know drama too well.
We do know it, which is why if a criminal psychology show is going to be good, it needs to either be the best of what we know (The Silence of the Lambs) or somehow different. Countless entries in the genre—books, TV shows, or films—have charismatic leads that lose themselves in the pursuit of a killer so idiosyncratic that the relationship between cat and mouse becomes the only true use for Facebook’s “It’s Complicated” designation. Carr’s novel distinguished itself through its emphasis on the “Why?” supporting the impressive, sexy, and often effortless-seeming “How?” when it comes to forensic psychology. The show’s biggest problem is that in order to adapt the property for TV, it compromises the book’s biggest selling point: Its dramatization of criminal profiling’s fountainhead is made to conform to TV audience expectations.
It’s not that the show is too violent—the late 19th century was a morbid era, in which accidents were entertainment, “Bills of Mortality” were common reading material, and sensationalism sold papers. It’s that the show is too caught up in its own attempts to suggest “prestige.” The science and history lodged into the book are excised from the show without replacing it with anything similarly novel.
In Carr’s version, an early scene set at Delmonico’s Restaurant is as chockablock with the history of criminology as it is lush descriptions of a multi-course meal—the juxtaposition of which adds some black humor to the proceedings. In the series’ second episode, “A Fruitful Partnership,” this background information is almost entirely absent, curtailed in favor of Kosher jokes. The characters pass around the grisly “Arkansas Toothpick,” detail forensic markings on corpses, and introduce fingerprinting as a technique that may help them catch their prey, but the episode offers very little about how they arrived at these new-fangled theories and ideas, or indeed what they can extrapolate from them to the series’ villain.
The book spends its dinner explaining the eccentric Alphonse Bertillon, who invented the mug shot and was the first policeman to take the measurements of a criminal for identification purposes—which supplanted the previous system of criminal identification, Nothing. Fingerprinting is explained via an anecdote about the Argentinian police officer (and father of the technique in the Spanish-speaking world) Juan Vucetich, while dactyloscopy gets this treatment in the show: “The science behind it has been proved reliable.”
In the book, as all of that is explained, the good Dr. Laszlo Kreizler and his colleagues debate what they know about the case could mean for their unknown subject. A big hunting knife could mean a history of living in the West or of childhood poverty. The post-mortem lacerations to the bodies could indicate a bloodlust accompanying deep-seated rage towards his victims. In the show, Kreizler (played by Daniel Brühl) makes a vague speech about how his team must learn his quarry’s appetites because he walks among them (ooga booga), which makes it sound more like a ghost story than any conclusive statement after a meal feasting on evidence.
Glossing over details like these robs the material of the cutting-edge excitement that makes the setting more than a few horse-drawn carriages, an abundance of suits, and an absence of contractions. Without this interest in the history of policework, the show is simply a mistake in the Criminal Minds costume department.
Now, I know that, realistically, you can’t have a TV show that sits people at a dinner only to have them discuss developments in esoteric policing techniques—at least, not like in the novel. There have to be options, though—flashbacks, stories-within-stories, heated debates, etc.—that don’t compromise the story and are more engaging than having Sara (Dakota Fanning) slowly smoke a cigarette and bemoan girdles like it’s a Pirates of the Caribbean gag.
Maintaining the cerebral zeal of the book is necessary to make The Alienist have adaptive fidelity. It doesn’t have to be word-for-word, but it must capture the tone and spirit of its source. For TNT has sold The Alienist not only as a catch-the-criminal series, but also one set amid the advent of the modern catch-the-criminal techniques that we’ve all had drilled into our brains by the protagonists of countless crime dramas. Showing the work, and thereby making modern(ish) forensic psychology feel like a series of fraught discoveries rather than an inevitable conclusion, would make The Alienist stand out from the line up. Because as long as it elides the main strengths of its source material, it’ll just be one of the usual suspects.
The Alienist airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on TNT. Read Paste’s other coverage of the series here.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.