Erik Larson’s non-fiction tome “The Devil in the White City” was something of a phenomenon when released in 2003, winning a shelf-full of prizes and topping best-seller lists. It’s no suprise that movie-rights were snapped up quickly. Tracking the parallel lives of Daniel H. Burnham, the architect behind the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and H.H. Holmes, a doctor who used the influx of tourists visiting the Fair to murder at least 27 people (with as many as 200 victims according to some), it originally attracted the attention of Tom Cruise, who was to have played Holmes, while Kathryn Bigelow was signed up to direct the project.
It proved a difficult nut to crack, however, and the option lapsed. Renewed in 2007, again it languished in development hell. But a year ago, Leonardo DiCaprio‘s Appian Way production company acquired the rights, with the producer/star looking to play the serial killer. There’s been no movement in the intervening time, until now, as Deadline reports that Warner Bros. have acquired the project, with DiCaprio, Appian Way and Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher‘s Double Feature involved. The hottest new writer of 2011 has also been appointed to pen the script.
Graham Moore, whose script “The Imitation Game” topped this year’s Black List of the best unproduced screenplays, and was acquired by the studio for seven figures a few months back (with DiCaprio circling the lead), has been hired to try and crack the adaptation. The writer, who hails from Chicago, claims he’s been “obsessed with ‘The Devil and the White City’ for a decade,” and says of the project, “I’m drawn to stories where the role of villain and hero get murky and I thought it would be different to tell the Holmes story from his perspective, and put a little humanity into him.”
There are reasons that the book hasn’t yet made it to screens. First, there is the tricky structure of the book, where the more grabby serial killer elements are alternated with the architectural history of the Fair. It’s not surprising that Moore seems to be focusing on Holmes – not once in Deadline’s story is Burnham mentioned, and we imagine the architect will be, if not jettisoned entirely, significantly reduced from the book. Even so, it’s still a tough proposition. The World’s Fair would be expensive to put on screen, potentially costing along the same lines as “Hugo“. Even Scorsese’s box office disappointment didn’t involve Ben Kingsley murdering women and children, stripping the flesh from their bones and selling the skeletons.
Still, DiCaprio’s a golden boy, and if anyone can get the project to move forward right now, it’s him. Assuming Moore cracks the writing (and considering the acclaim for “The Imitation Game,” there’s no reason to think he won’t), the next job will be to find a director, and we’re sure the studio will be looking for an A-lister. Could Martin Scorsese be tempted away from rival serial killer tale “The Snowman” to work with his frequent collaborator? Could Clint Eastwood be persuaded to take on something even darker than usual? Might Christopher Nolan take a left-turn after his Batman trilogy wraps up to reunite with his “Inception” star? We’re sure all these names will be on the studio’s list (along with people like David Yates and Rupert Wyatt), but time will tell.