Leonardo DiCaprio made big movie news last November when he nabbed the rights to bring Erik Larson's best-selling non-fiction story "The Devil in the White City" to the big screen. The richly detailed book intertwines the stories of two very different men during the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago: the architect who designed and organized the event, and the serial killer who lured female victims from the fair to his "murder castle." DiCaprio is hoping to star as the villain of the story, but there are substantial roadblocks to realizing his movie vision.
"The Devil in the White City" attracted other Hollywood filmmakers before DiCaprio, including Tom Cruise and his producing partner Paula Wagner. THR reports that "the period setting always seemed to pose budgetary roadblocks" to previous adaptation attempts.
It's not surprising. The 19th century World's Fair was a square mile of brilliant white Greco-Roman style buildings, only a handful of which still exist in Chicago. The city itself has changed drastically; the numerous trains, stockyards, and much of the vintage architecture portrayed in the story are long since gone.
The Chicago Larson's book covers is a marvel straddling the past and future, with steam-powered vehicles riding on the street next to horses and carriages, with both electric and gas lamps burning an eerie glow through the coal dust and pollution. The set design would be complex and pricey. Digital effects could help create the ethereal World's Fair columned structures and the giant Ferris wheel, but the maze of a building that killer Dr. H.H. Holmes created, with secret rooms and vaults and slides, would be trickier to accomplish. (Though they might steal some plans from this suburban Chicago haunted house that mimics Holmes' hotel.)
Larson's "The Devil in the White City" has an intriguingly interwoven story that would be difficult to reproduce onscreen. The tale of architect Daniel H. Burnham, and the seemingly insurmountable obstacles he climbed to build a small city in two years, would be tough enough to cover effectively. It's not just Burnham's story, but that of the extensive cast of architects, engineers, artists, and workers who joined him in his effort.
Then there is the story of Holmes, his many aliases and lives, his seductions, and macabre inventions. The book is exciting and chilling at times, but it's told from a historical, somewhat detached point of view that conveys the horror and sadness without being heavy-handed about it.
The problem with a DiCaprio-led Holmes film project is that the focus might rest too strongly on the gruesome angle, losing all the deeper themes of the city and society in transition. As author Larson recently stated to Star-Telegram's The Big Mac Blog, "my hope is that they don't turn ('Devil in the White City') into a 19th century 'Silence of the Lambs.'"
Another problem with getting "The Devil in the White City" to the big screen is the prolific actor's busy schedule. The three-time Oscar nominee has several other films in the works, including the upcoming release "J. Edgar" and in-progress project "The Great Gatsby" with director Baz Luhrmann ("Moulin Rouge," "Romeo + Juliet"). Will he find time to squeeze in a movie that will require an incredibly complex script, a large cast, and a big budget to cover the sets and effects?
Author Larson thinks it is possible to blend the two stories onscreen. If done well, and soon, it could potentially be both a blockbuster and Oscar-worthy material. It might settle for being a B-movie thriller that goes over big with theater-goers and DVD sales, but not so much with critics. Hopefully, like the World's Fair itself, a movie that appears impossible to make will actually hit screens, perhaps just a little later than everyone hoped for.
More From This Contributor:
Heading to the movies? Get an instant mobile coupon to use at select theaters for free popcorn!