Caleb Carr’s novel, The Alienist, has been described as Silence of the Lambs meets Sherlock Holmes, and it isn’t hard to see why. The murders inside its covers are some of the most brutal I’ve ever read, and its killer could easily give Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill a run for their money.
The story blends fiction with history including the role of Theodore Roosevelt long before his years as President, when he served as a police commissioner trying to exorcise the corruption from the New York Police Department.
It also takes into account the history of psychiatric practice in the 19th century including the term “alienist” itself. It was believed that a man or woman who suffered from mental illness was alienated from their nature and therefore the doctors who treated them were called alienists.
In other words, there were a lot of layers to this story and adaptation was going to be a tough needle to thread…
So, when I settled in for the first episode of TNT’s adaptation of the best-selling book, I wondered just how they’d go about dealing with its particular brand of violence and the melding of historic fact and fiction. They did it, in a word, masterfully.
The Alienist centers on a series of murders in New York City in 1896. The victims, young and impoverished boys barely into their teenage years who have been pulled into a life of sex work, are largely faceless, and their murders raise little alarm among the city’s police force, and even less among society at large despite the details of their deaths.
Their eyes have been removed, you see. Their genitalia has been cut off and stuffed into the mouth, one hand removed, and a series of cuts across their torsos have left them almost disemboweled.
Enter Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, an alienist with a reputation for being a renegade among his fellows, who believes that by using what they learn from the murders, they can create a portrait of who this murderer is. It was an idea unheard of in the late 1800s, and it sets in motion a chain of events you have to see to believe.
Daniel Bruhl brings Kreizler to life with a measured skill. Every gesture and expression is exact and planned, never giving away more than what he wants the audience to know.
In his hands, Kreizler is more than the title character. He is a skilled man with a mind ahead of his time whose every win and loss is monumentally personal to him.
Luke Evans plays John Moore, an illustrator for the New York Times who moves almost casually between high society and the slums of New York. In the novel, Moore is the voice of the narrator and Evans perfectly portrays the man’s uncertainty in a world where his profession is being made obsolete with the advent of the camera.
Rounding out the leads, Dakota Fanning plays Sara Howard, an ambitious young woman who wants to be New York’s first female detective and who is already making inroads to that position by being the first woman to ever work, in any capacity, in the NYPD. Fanning’s considerable acting talents are on full display proving that she’s made the move from child actress to adulthood with alacrity.
Special mention should also be given to Douglas Smith and Matthew Shear who play Detective Sergeants Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, a pair of young, sibling detectives eager to embrace new schools of thought in forensics. The Isaacsons bring much needed humor and exuberance to the series that helps to necessarily ease the tension in certain scenes.
Writer Hossein Amini and director Jakob Verbruggen along with an excellent production crew have re-created 19th century New York on location in modern day Budapest down to the finest details, and a special nod must be given to costume designer Michael Kaplan who clothes the characters in authentic materials and textures.
In their capable hands, New York is a living breathing character of its own that is equal parts decadence and filth-covered poverty.
Verbruggen has managed, in each of the first three episodes, to methodically build a tension that is palpable as new clues and murders reveal more about the man behind them while simultaneously offering the audience a growing list of suspects.
“The Alienist” airs Monday nights on TNT (check local listings for times), and it’s a perfect fit for horror fans who love a good mystery with a brutal serial killer as its villain.