Today I review the flashiest book sale of last year, which should make for one of the best movies of next year.
Premise: In one of the United States’ most shocking untold stories, Killers of the Flower Moon covers the systematic murders of the Osage Indians, who were once the richest people, per capita, in the world.
About: This is a biiiiiiiiig one, guys – one of the hottest deals of last year. Before this book was released, everyone was bidding, and the movie rights ended up going for 5 million bucks to Imperative Entertainment, with an All-Star package that included Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, and Martin Scorsese. To add even more prestige to the package, superstar screenwriter, Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, Benjamin Button), will be adapting. Author David Grann is best known for his last book, “The Lost City of Z.”
Author: David Grann
Most people know Leonardo DiCaprio for his acting. But the reason the actor has been able to keep his star afloat during the decline of the star-driven film is his other talent, his ability to spot great material. Remember, DiCaprio was indirectly linked to the birth of the Black List, as Franklin Leonard was working for his company at the time. So whenever he signs on to something, chances are it’s going to be good. And this one may be his greatest discovery yet.
I mean, you read this story and you think, “How could this not have been told already?” You have a tribe of American Indians who were the richest people in the world. You have a person, or a group of people (we’ll get to that), systematically murdering them. And if that doesn’t solidify your teepee, you have a young J. Edgar Hoover using the case as a test bed for a new idea: a forensics-based super-agency that would go on to become the Federal Bureau of Investigations.
There’s so much to cover in this story, I don’t even know how to summarize it. But here are the key beats…
The story takes place in the early 1920s in Oklahoma. The is where the Osage people live, a tribe of American Indians who, after being torn from their land and forced by the government to settle inside a few thousand acres, ironically ended up in one of the most oil rich areas in the nation. As one oil deposit after another was discovered, the Osage quickly became some of the richest people in the world.
We focus on a young Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, whose sister, Anna, is found murdered, shot in the back of the head. This was a devastating blow, as Mollie had lost another sister just three years earlier. And to make matters worse, her mother was becoming ill. Mollie began to complain to her husband, a white man named Ernest Burkhart (the Osage womens’ extreme wealth often brought them a bevy a white male suitors), that she believed the Osage were slowly being killed.
Mollie was right. Over the past few years, 20 Osage people had died, either murdered or due to mysterious circumstances, the most common of which was a months-long unidentified sickness before dying. Here was the problem with the Osage murders, though. The United States didn’t have the infrastructure to deal with such a problem. In many ways, even in the 1920s, states like Oklahoma were the Wild West, and as the great Drago once said, “If you die… you die.” Wasn’t nobody there to figure out why.
Enter a young J. Edgar Hoover (a spitting image at the time of Mr. Robot actor Rami Malek), who was heading up the predecessor to the FBI, the way more underfunded Bureau of Investigations (future TV show anyone??). The Osage Murders had started to make the papers back East and Hoover wanted to make a name for himself with progressive ideas about how murder needed to be solved (this was at a time where even fingerprints were a new tool in forensics). If he could solve these murders, maybe he would become the big shot he aimed to be.
Hoover hired Tom White, an old-school uncompromising lawmen who used to be a Texas Ranger. White would set up shop in Gray Horse (where all of this was going down), and hire five undercover agents, who moved into the area, one by one, pretending to be regular people, to become friendly with the town and try to dig up information about what was going on.
It takes White awhile, but all signs point towards William K. Hale, whose standing in the community was second to none. Hale, in his estimation, was killing off Osages so that he would be willed the headright to their most valuable pieces of land. White realized Hale had meticulously built up the persona of a “town angel” specifically so that he could act without impunity. And as White began to tighten the reins on Hale, he would learn that Hale had friends not just here in Gray Horse, but everywhere, even back in Washington.
The story becomes about White trying to take Hale down, but the most fascinating thing about The Osage Murders is that even after that story is over, the author discovers, 100 years later, that the Osage Murders were way more expansive than anyone could’ve known. And that maybe, just maybe, they made their way all the way up to the top of the American government.
The amount of shocking details in this story is overwhelming. It’s impossible to cover them all in one review. One of the things I couldn’t get over was the fact that, after all these Osages became rich, with millions upon millions of dollars in their bank accounts, the United States’ government deemed them incapable of managing their own money and assigned them trustees that they had to answer to. So if an Osage man or woman needed 50 bucks to buy food, they needed to go to their trustee and make a case for the money before they could receive it. Even though they were rich, they were poor.
But let’s talk about why this is good material for a movie. For starters, irony. Correct or not, when someone says “Native American,” you think of the old school Indians who rode horses bareback, savages, or just humble spiritual communities of people who live off the land. What you don’t think is: Richest people in the world. So right away, you have a story that’s unlike any other, and that creates intrigue. It’s that “strange attractor” we’re all looking for when we search for an idea.
You also have a clear and compelling story. As old as the murder investigation trope is, it’s still one of the best ways to frame a story. The trick is to find a murder that’s really good – unique, compelling, has layers and levels beyond the obvious. The Osage Murders checks all those boxes. You’ve got greed, deception, secrets, and multiple murders across many years that are each unique and which don’t follow a particular pattern. For example, one murder has someone getting shot in the head, another poisoned, another ran off the road, and another still, their house blown up by a bomb. WTF??
You’ve also got a great villain in Hale. I contend that the best villains are the ones who proclaim to be saints. They ingratiate themselves to the community. They help out the less fortunate. They make friends with the common man. They smile and joke with you. But in the shadows, they’re doing the worst of the worst. That’s Hale. This guy is going to be the villain of the century, I’m telling you.
If Killers of the Flower Moon has a weakness, it’s in the main character. Tom White, without question, is the most uninteresting character in the story. I’m assuming this is the part DiCaprio will play (I suspect that DeNiro might play Hale). Eric Roth has his work cut out for him. Look, the “Vanilla Protagonist Problem” is not a new one in stories like these. Amongst all the craziness, you need a grounded character. And that’s usually the hero. So then how do you make that person interesting if they’re supposed to be the story’s rock? It’s always tricky. And I’m guessing they’ll add something funky to White, since DiCaprio never plays straight characters.
Also, I’m bummed that the author, David Grann, didn’t find out more about the conspiracy. After the 1920s portion of the story is over, Grann follows with 10 chapters in the present, where he admits that the more information he finds on the Osage Murders, the more he realizes that it extends beyond those 24 murders. (spoilers) And that while Hale could theoretically be behind half of them, that he couldn’t have been behind them all. The grandchildren of the victims claim to Grann that the murders not only started way before the 20s, but kept going on way after. Were there 50 murders? 100?
Just when Grann seems to be getting into juicy territory that indicates these murders went up higher than Hale, he ends the book. The reason is likely a simple one. Grann’s clearly been working on this book forever and knew that, theoretically, he could spend another decade on it easily. He wanted to get the book out there. Still, this is one of Grann’s weaknesses as a writer. I remember the same type of ending in Lost City of Z. It was kind of like, “Oh, eh, yeah, here’s the secret city… maybe??” Let’s get some resolution up in here! But who knows, maybe if the movie does well, people dig deeper and find out what was really REALLY going on.
Anyway, I thought this was wonderful. It should be unlike anything else out there.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: Any time you can present a stereotype in a light completely opposite to how we’re used to seeing it, you’re going to create something intriguing. To drive this point home, turn the Osage people in this story into a regular Indian tribe with no money. Is it an interesting movie anymore?
What I learned 2: I always recommend reading these big books before they’re turned into movies so you can imagine how you, yourself, might adapt them. What choices you would make. That way, when you see the finished product, you can compare what you would’ve done to what an A-List screenwriter did, and hopefully learn a few things. Remember, when you make it in screenwriting, one of your primary jobs will be reading books and pitching your takes on an adaptation. So this is a skill you want to get good at.
Scriptshadow Challenge: How do you make characters like Tom White, the “grounded” characters in a movie, interesting? Answer in the comments!