Page vs Screen: The Alienist

Last year, TNT premiered the mini-series The Alienist, based on Caleb Carr’s novel of the same name (here’s my review of the book). I binged it over the summer, but thought I’d do an analysis/comparison to see which is better!

I’ll ramble, then I’ll score both versions. The categories I’ve chosen are: plot, characters, setting (which means set design/costuming—anything that visually brings us into the world— or worldbuilding, depending on which medium), writing, and overall watch/readability. Of course, this is purely my opinion. You’ll have different feelings and ratings, I’m sure.

There will be SPOILERS for both show and novel

So the show does a good job with a lot of things: casting, tone, pacing, cinematography, costuming, and music. I doubt fans of the novel will be disappointed in those aspects.

The casting was nearly flawless. The minor characters—Mary, Stevie, Cyrus, Lucius, Marcus, Teddy, Joseph, Connor—were all perfect. And the mains—Kreizler, Sara, Moore—are played by well-known actors who own the screen.

Luke Evans, as rather generic narrator Moore, portrays the everyman well. He’s kind of Watson to Kreizler’s Holmes, only less interesting (not a criticism of Evans’ performance, just of my views of the character).

I wasn’t sold on Dakota Fanning’s Sara in the first episode, but she soon reminded me why Sara’s my favorite character. Fanning plays her a little more serious than Sara struck me in the book, but she nails Sara’s confidence and unwillingness to let societal conventions slow her down.

Kreizler… I’m more conflicted about, but I can’t decide if that’s because of the writing, or Daniel Brühl’s performance. Probably a combination. While I can’t say exactly how I pictured Kreizler while reading, when I first saw Brühl… he wasn’t what I imagined. And something about his portrayal didn’t endear me to this version of this layered, compelling character. I feel like Brühl/the writers leaned too much on the tortured genius, socially awkward Sherlock-y figure, which was not as major an aspect of Kreizler in the novel. I liked how in the book he was a bit of a departure from that trope, but the show took that away from me. Even more, I found myself more angry at him in this, often. He did a couple things I saw as out of (book) character, namely when he and Sara argue and he slaps her. The Kreizler I know would never do that. And overall, he somehow wasn’t exactly what I wanted.

Which brings me to the writing. Granted, I know adaptations always make alterations to more easily transfer to the screen, but… that doesn’t mean I have to love every change the writers/directors make. And with The Alienist, I didn’t like many of the changes.

First, in the novel, I loved that Moore and Sara were longtime friends. Friends being the operative word. But the show made it a romance, I guess because stories are required to have romance to be marketable (*eyeroll*). I wasn’t a fan; I don’t think it added anything to the story.

Second—this is minor—I wished they’d kept Teddy as more of an ally. In the show, he’s frustrated by Kreizler and co. and far from accommodating while they investigate. Not to say the character dynamics didn’t work in the show, but I missed him threading the needle between being eager to help them and pretending he wasn’t to the others in his profession.

Finally, most significantly, the plot alterations in the show were… baffling. For several episodes, they pursue a lead that’s completely invented, which I call the Silver Smile story arc. It’s a mashup of a couple leads from the book but did nothing but confuse me. It had been months since reading the book, apparently long enough for me to forget the minor aspects of the investigation. So when Silver Smile/Willem van Bergen man appeared, I was so perplexed. I thought I was supposed to remember him but had no idea who he was, so when they stayed on his case (pun intended) I started to fear they were entirely changing whodunit. They might have meant it as a red herring, but it didn’t work for me.

The other major change is from the ending. Yes, Japheth Dury/John Beecham is the killer, and the build-up to that was pretty much straight out of the book, but… Joseph lives. Not that I wanted him to die, but I was expecting him to. The show’s choice to spare him, while a relatively more triumphant outcome, struck me as strange. In the novel, finding Joseph’s body is the last straw for the crew, which enables them to catch Dury. Besides, it isn’t as if killing a child was a line this show hadn’t crossed already; it’s the story’s premise. So why not stay loyal to the book here? Don’t get me wrong, I want Joseph to live. I was crushed when he died in the book. But it’s a change I can’t see a solid story-related reason for making.

Okay, I’ve been critical long enough, and no one is reading anymore anyway. But there were many things done well in this show, which I must elaborate on. The tone—perfect. From the first, we’re enveloped in the haunting, tense, grotesque environment just like in the book. The mood is compelling even as it’s repelling.

And for all the divergences (many I haven’t mentioned because they’re minor), there are many scenes that follow the book almost precisely. Some examples: Kreizler meeting Sara; the first crime scene; Moore realizing Kreizler’s in love but being stupid about who with (one of my favorite scenes, seeing Lazlo lose his composure in amusement); Mary’s funeral; the investigation into Japheth; and all Moore’s interactions with Joseph. For me, this show’s strongest when it follows the book. Carr provided some pretty impressive material, so why not use it?

In the end, my problems with this show—and frankly, with the novel—aside, this is one of the better book-to-screen examples recently. It’s got a lot going for it, from score and costumes and sets to casting and tone and storyline. I enjoyed some aspects, really disliked others, but in the end, if you’re interested in historical psychological mysteries with a dark story (and some gore), give this a try

The breakdown:

Plot: 7/10
Characters: 8/10
Setting (set design/costuming): 9/10
Writing: 7/10
Watchability: 6.5/10
TOTAL: 37.5 points

Plot: 8/10
Characters: 9/10
Setting (worldbuilding): 9/10
Writing: 8/10
Readability (for me): 7.5/10
TOTAL 41.5 points

Verdict: The Alienist (novel by Caleb Carr) > The Alienist (TNT television series)

If you’re still reading, thank you!

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