Genre: Noir/Thriller/Period
Premise: The true story of a serial killer terrorizing the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
About: The Devil In The White City is one of the biggest books of 2005. It originally had Tom Cruise attached, but more recently Leonardo DiCaprio has snatched up the rights, with the hopes of playing the villain in the story. Any property that goes into Leo’s company runs the risk of disappearing, as he options a ton of stuff. But with #1 Black List screenwriter Graham Moore (The Imitation Game) doing the latest draft, it looks like Leo’s pretty serious about the project. Then again, you never know with Hollywood. Charlie Hunnam may be attached tomorrow.
Writer: Graham Moore (based on the book by Erik Larson)
Details: 3/16/13 draft

Cast member Leonardo DiCaprio arrives fo

A lot of you may wonder, “Why does it take so long for projects to be developed?” I mean seven years til a movie gets made? Ten years? Fifteen years? What’s the deal? The last draft I saw of “Devil” had ‘2005’ on the title page. So clearly this project is yet another casualty of this confusing never-ending process.

Let me explain it to as best I can. When you sell a project, and it doesn’t mobilize immediately (like The Counselor or Safe House), you have no choice but to pull back for awhile. The studio’s cooled on you and trying to shove something down their throats isn’t going to solve anything.

So you pull away, then in a year (or two, or three) you come back, with some fresh news attached. Maybe there’s a new director involved. Maybe there’s a new actor who loves it. Maybe there’s a completely new draft. Or maybe someone new rewrites the script.

Having a fresh new take on the material typically gets the buzz going again. And the bigger and flashier that writer is, the more buzz it’s going to get. Which means bigger agents will pay attention which means bigger actors will pay attention, which means bigger directors will pay attention. All of which increases the chances of it getting made. That’s why people pay these big name writers outrageous sums for a rewrite. Because they know that when they go out with the script, people are going to pay attention.

The thing is, if you don’t keep that momentum going and get all the way to the finish line, people get tired of the material. The director gets bored and drops out. The actor (who wanted to work with that director) drops out. And now you risk going back into deep freeze for another two years. And each time you try to bring back the project, it’s tougher, because everyone’s asking, “Well why didn’t they make this already? There must be something wrong with it.” Before you know it, ten years has gone by. It happens all the time.

Something tells me, though, that “Devil” is going to get there at some point. It’s just too lush of a setting to not turn into a movie. Nobody’s ever seen the Chicago World’s Fair in its big budget glory before. And the serial killer angle makes that setting a story. But I say all of that without having read the book. So let’s see if the script backs up my instincts.

Tis the late 19th century in Chicago. Back then, the greatest city in the world hadn’t yet built its 16,000 hot dog stands or had one of its sports teams throw the World Series, or lived through the wrath of Al Capone. It was known more for being a really really dangerous place to live. Walk down the wrong street and you could end up with a knife in your gut.

Seems like the perfect place for HH Holmes to set up shop. The dashing upstart hotel owner engages in one thing and one thing only: killing women. Lots of them. He gets away with it because his murders get buried under everyone else’s. The cops don’t have enough time or manpower to investigate these tragedies properly.

The best part of all this, for Holmes, is that the World’s Fair has come to Chicago, infusing the city with a fresh new crop of young girls hoping to get in on the ground floor of Chicago’s rebirth. Holmes simply waits for these women to show up at his hotel, gets to know them, takes them on a couple of dates, and, well, you know the rest.

Call Holmes intrigued then, when he meets the first girl who isn’t interested in him. Emeline Cigrand is secretary to the fair’s director, Daniel Burnham. Holmes originally approaches Emeline to gleam information about the investigations into the murders he’s committed. But he soon begins to like her, and wants to make her the Mona Lisa of his killings, as it were.

But head of fair security Frank Pickett begins to sense that Holmes isn’t the upstanding citizen he claims to be, and begins investigating him as such. What we then explore is a series of firsts. The first “official” serial killer. The first well-known use of fingerprints to catch a killer. The first ever Ferris Wheel. With each of these characters having something at stake in the fair’s success, they must go through one another in order to come out on top.

This seems to be a byproduct of a lot of these period pieces, and we can now add “Devil” to that list: There wasn’t really a main character in this script. HH Holmes probably gets the most screen time. But Emeline is the one we get closest to. And Detective Pickett plays the closest thing to a traditional protagonist, since he’s the one going after the killer.

I guess to a lot of writers, period equates to “epic” and “sprawling” so they feel they must cover a lot of characters or they’re not doing their job. When you do that, however, you run the risk of spreading yourself too thin. By not getting to know one character extensively, we don’t really connect with any. And worse still, since there isn’t a clear protagonist, we feel left out. We’re not really sure who to claim as our own.

And I’m not saying that multiple protagonists never work. All I’m saying is it makes telling the story harder. And I felt that here. I never really connected to anyone. In her description, I was told Emeline wanted to prove herself. Which is a character I want to see. That makes me think of someone tenacious and driven and goal-oriented. But I never SAW any of this in her actions. She basically just waited for people to tell her what to do. Had we given Emeline more time, got to know why she was here and seen that drive in her actions, of course we would’ve connected to her more.

Another issue is that the script moved at too leisurely a pace. This tends to happen when your main character isn’t active, as is the case with Emeline (I’m going to assume she’s our main character). Emeline is essentially waiting for the world to happen to her. She’s being told what to do by her boss, Burnham, and she’s waiting around for Holmes to keep courting her. So how can the story move if your main character isn’t moving?

Again, if your main character is waiting, we, the reader, are going to feel like we’re waiting, since we feel what our main character does. Now we DO have the threat of Holmes dating Emeline to add suspense to her plotline, keeping things with her somewhat interesting. But I don’t think that suspense ever worked as powerfully as her being a stronger character would’ve.

If I were these guys, I’d try to make Emeline more of a power player. She should be going after something, whether it be moving up the ladder at the company (instead of just being handed the job as Burnham’s secretary) or pushing her own big idea that she’s trying to get into the fair. Because it’s really hard to get on board with a character who’s so passive.

That’s not to say there wasn’t a lot of good here. I enjoyed HH Holmes’s character. He’s by no means unlike any serial killer we’ve ever seen. But he’s so ruthless and such a sociopath that he’s pretty damn scary. When you placed that against the backdrop of this beautiful fair, mixed still with a surrounding city that resembled the modern slums of Bombay, I could so see those images on the big screen.

I also thought Daniel Burnham, the fair director, really got better as the script went on. Whenever you write a character, you always want him to HAVE A HUGE STAKE in the outcome of whatever he’s pursuing, whether it be a trip to the store or creating the World’s Fair. Burnham has millions of dollars of his own money on the line. He’s constantly being pressured by the Mayor to get this right. Investors are all doubting he can provide a return on their investment. We know that if Burnham doesn’t pull this off, his career is over. And that’s stakes. You want to do this not just for one character, but for ALL your characters.

To me, figuring out this project really comes down to the main character. First establishing who it is, and if it is, indeed, Emeline, doing a lot more with her character. She needs a bigger personality. We need to know more about her past. She needs bigger goals and dreams she’s pursuing. She needs to be able to hang with the boys in this script. Right now she’s too thin and passive. I hope they figure it out, cause this project has so much potential!

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read (just came in under the wire)
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Sometimes in a scene, you need to use the action description to explain to the reader what’s going on, even though that’s not what action description is for. Action description is supposed to tell the reader what he’ll see ON THE SCREEN ONLY. A character walking. Two characters kissing. A character peering out from behind a curtain. But once in awhile, when there’s a potentially unclear plot point you need to get across, you can cheat, or else you run the risk of your reader being confused. Early on in “Devil,” HH Holmes goes to the cops as a concerned hotel owner, asking about the recent murders. But it turns out the cops don’t know anything and send him off empty-handed. Now at first, I didn’t know what the point of this scene was. But at the end of the scene, Moore includes this line:

ON HOLMES: Hmmm, How’s he going to get information?

Ah-ha! That’s what the scene was about. Holmes was trying to get information on what the cops knew about his murders. Okay, some of you probably could’ve figured that out via the scene alone. But not every reader catches everything. So it’s nice to clarify something just in case they don’t get it, even though it’s technically a no-no.

  • FD

    I read this book a couple of years ago and there is no way you can get everything that’s in there into one film, so I take my hat off to the people who tried. The DiCaprio role is as evil as Hannibal Lecter, so there’s great potential there, but in the book the two stories have very little to do with each other; they sort of run parallel. That said, the World Exhibition “White City” would look spectacular in 3D, and the joy this guy has in enchanting and then torturing women and the brilliance he exhibits in not getting caught for years make the subject matter enticing.

  • Citizen M

    Four years ago I read an early version of the script, from when Tom Cruise was attached, “Revisions to First Revisions: January 11, 2005″. My notes at the time:

    I didn’t get much pleasure from this. The main characters (Holes, Burnham, Emeline) were not likeable. There was no “thrill of the chase” because they weren’t really on to Holmes. The historical details were interesting, but not enough to rescue the movie.

    Trying to mash together the two storylines doesn’t work very well. It’s also a mixture of two styles — Victorian penny-dreadful (the creepy hotel) and steampunk (the White City).

    Another thing: no suspense. I think because the killer didn’t have a set pattern. The victims we know about were women he knew for quite a while before killing. There was no trigger incident, one day he just decides to kill them. So we never anticipate the killing. It’s too random.

    • crazdwritr

      I’d be curious to find out how the 2005 and 2013 versions differ. Has anyone read both?

  • deanb

    Perhaps the success of The Great Gatsby will kickstart a trend in splashy big budget historical epics with heavy CGI the same way Burton’s Alice in Wonderland spawned Snow White and the Huntsman. I believe Jay Z is producing a remake of Annie next year also.

  • JW

    C, do you think DiCaprio would snatch the rights to this if he was going to develop a female main character? I don’t know, but my experience with this has been that when big actors snatch something up, such as this, it’s often times to get the script to the point where it focuses on the character they’re going to play. This is who actors are and what they want, the spotlight. I’d be surprised if it stays in DiCaprio’s hands and comes out the other end with a stronger female lead.

    • crazedwritr

      As an actor, I would think he would enjoy playing against a stronger female lead. Overall, it would elevate his performance. I bet they do strengthen the female character.
      If anyone has this, I would love to read it. Please email to

      • JW

        I probably phrased that incorrectly. Part of C’s analysis was how the main character was the female (although originally he didn’t feel there was a main character per se) and he felt this may need to become stronger. My point was to say that it’s a rarity for an actor to get behind a project, only to take second fiddle to another character. Not to say it wouldn’t happen and DiCaprio is a good guy, so if it were to, it would happen with him at the helm, but it is, without a doubt, a rarity to see something like that occur, unless the actor is simply producing the project. DiCaprio takes on BIG personalities and we’ve seen this with him doing a shite-load of bio pics from what many would consider some controversial figures, thus, you get the idea that if he’s going to tackle it, it will likely feature him front-and-center. Here’s my uneducated guess on if he takes on this project – it’s likely to center on him as the main character, but focus on his controversial relationship with this protag that is his ultimate kill, but one he comes to not want to have to do. And, as she gets closer to the truth, she realizes this person who she’s become taken with is someone who will inevitably lead to her down fall if she doesn’t take him down. And, since I’ve never read the book, I probably just butchered that!

  • garrett_h

    Regarding the What I Learned, to me I always read those instances as reaction shots. As in, Holmes walks away and with his back turned to the cops we see the look on his face. He’s like, “Hmmm, now what do I do?” And it’s up to the actor to convey that thought or emotion with an action. I’ve even started incorporating it into my scripts.

    I guess it could be viewed as a cheat, but IMO it’s better than writing “Holmes furrows his brow” which could mean anything. Also, it gives the actor leeway to choose the action they think is right for the character they want to portray. One actor might furrow his brow, another one might bang his fist into his hand out of frustration, etc., depending on how they’re interpreting the character. I kinda like it.

    • Citizen M

      Some might say it’s an unfilmable. But it’s not. An actor can convey a lot of information with gesture, body language, facial expression, and voice tone.

      If it’s actable, it’s filmable.

  • brenkilco

    Adapting books, even, and sometimes especially books that seem inherently cinematic can be tough. Books and movies don’t operate the same way. Ragtime was a kaleidoscopic movie-like wow as a book. It became a handsome, rather plodding film. You hint at one difference with your feeling that occasionally there is a need to cheat. Books can place you inside a character’s head in a way movies cannot. The most mundane action scene can be extraordinary if you are made to feel everything the character is feeling. On screen, however, it may just be the same old chase or shootout. And the viewer sits there wondering why the book was so much better.

    Another problem is point of view. Books control the readers point of view totally. Movies can’t. A kiss Before Dying is the book that made Ira Levin.’s reputation. It’s been filmed unsuccessfully twice. The problem is that what was great about the book cant be recreated in a film. The first part is first person from the killer’s point of view. Midway through the point of view shifts to another character. And though we know everything about the killer we are in the same position as this character because we don’t know what the killer looks like. We don’t even know his name. On screen you have to show he killer from the beginning so this unique narrative twist is lost.

    There is also the matter of great prose description. An author’s style is the first thing to go when a book becomes a script. It’s not that The Great Gatsby can’t be made into a movie. But it’s ultimately a pointless exercise. The story is thin, the dialogue mannered. The book’s effect is all in the magic of Fitzgerald’s prose. And that can’t be translated to the screen.

  • ElectricDreamer

    Your “What I learned” can be a double-edged sword when it comes to script notes.

    Yes, I agree it’s a super helpful cheat at key subtle moments.
    But I’ve also found that readers will clobber you if it’s worded too obviously.

    The example you chose from Moore’s script doesn’t spell it all out.
    It poses a QUESTION to prompt the reader to THINK.
    So… the reader “achieves” the “reward” of figuring out the answer from there.

    Psychological tactics in prose like that can work great.
    But for most of us, that’s threading a very small needle that can easily stab you. ;-)

  • Brian Lastname

    Read this a couple of weeks ago and I agree with the comments regarding lack of emphasis on one central character… BUT, as Carson said, I think it’s just a byproduct of the story, coupled with the fact that Emeline is our vehicle throughout most of it — we need to know her if we’re going to care.

    I think Moore played the balancing act extremely well, but it’s hard to imagine that DiCaprio won’t look to beef up the Holmes part, assuming he bought the material to play Holmes. Though, if DiC is open to packing more “oomph” into Emeline, I think it could only be beneficial to the story. In addition, I think that there was just too much material to cram into this thing, so any extraneous character development scenes had to go out the window.

    I liked how every character had a specific, and clear, goal: Holmes and his killings; Emeline and the fair, with a hint of gender role defiance; Burnham and the fair and then the ferris wheel; The Mayor/Investors and their budget; Pickett and the case and wanting to show up ChicagoPD… etc.

    Overall, I think Moore did a nice job. Having lived in Chicago myself, I thought the world really popped off the page and brought the period to life. I like the direction he went with it and think that, with some tweaking, this could make quite a splash.

  • Maggie Clancy

    So I haven’t read this book since high school, but I remember being bored to tears by it. The whole Holmes thing got very annoying – the book goes from Burnham’s story at the world fair for a chapter, then onto Holmes – and EVERY HOLMES CHAPTER would end with one of those terribly cheesy cliffhanger sentences (“But she didn’t know this would be her last glass of brandy.”)

    The book left a bad taste in my mouth, so I am not too eager to read this. Having said that, Chicago is my home city and I feel obligated to see anything that involves it. I guess I will see the movie once it comes out in six years.

  • jaehkim

    more than anything, I thought the character of HH holmes was an actor bait. he is such an interesting character. also, seeing the whole city of chicago in white would be awesome on screen. the 2nd thing I liked was the twists and turns in the story. it’s funny because I thought holmes was the main character of the story.

    anyway, I hope to see this one in theaters soon.

    • Citizen M

      White City referred only to the fairground. The walls of most buildings were stucco painted white and the introduction of a/c electricity made the buildings glow at night.

  • drifting in space

    If anyone has this: driftinginscripts at gmail dot com.


  • J.R.

    I read this book over the summer while vacationing in Africa.

    The book is riveting. The chapters bounce from the innovators to the serial killer. Telling each side of the story. Back and fourth the entire book.

    I didn’t get to read the script but incorporating that same narrative structure might be a way to handle the passive main character while keeping the movie grounded in true historical facts.

    There are plenty of other characters in there besides Emeline that could carry the movie. I would have never guessed reading the book that this is the direction Hollywood would have gone in.

    • Citizen M

      I haven’t read the book, but apparently the two male leads never meet in real life. The screenwriter invents the character Emeline to link the two. A prostitute who becomes Burnham’s mistress and Holmes’s target (in the 2005 version).

      • J.R.

        Interesting. That was never in the books. If I recall correctly there was never any mention about Burnham having any mistress (read the book in July so there’s a 1% chance that I am wrong). He came across like a straight up guy.

        Artistic liberty I suppose.

  • Mike.H

    I’d love to read ” The Devil In The White City “. Please send — may1msg AT GMAIL dot com. Thanks!

  • klmn

    OT: ATTN: Carson!

    Nov 6 is National Healthy Eating Day,

    C’mon Carson. You can do it. It’s only one day.

    Afterward you can celebrate with a pork cake or something like that.

  • Poe_Serling

    An interesting sidenote: H.H. Holmes = Jack the Ripper…. ???

    The author of the book making this claim, Jeff Mudgett, is supposedly a direct descendant of Holmes and inherited Holmes’ personal diaries from a relative. Below is Mudgett’s website with additional info connecting the two infamous figures:

    • ThomasBrownen

      I remember hearing about this too! It was the first thing I thought of when I heard about a serial killer set in late 19th century Chicago.

    • klmn

      Holmes’ story has also been featured on some of the nonfiction channels such as History or ID. Perhaps on Dark Matters (I’m not sure).

      And evidently there is a documentary on him:

      The director of the doc, John Borowski also has a documentary on Albert Fish.

      I read a book on Fish some years ago (titled simply THE CANNIBAL), and he was the most twisted serial killer I ever heard of. Probably too twisted to be featured on tv or in commercial movies.

    • Brian Lastname

      Yeah!! I did some research on this myself after I first read the screenplay. Some seriously interesting stuff.

  • andyjaxfl

    Sounds interesting, but as mentioned before Dicaprio is developing a thousand projects so this one may never see the light of day.

  • MWire

    Not really my thing but the wife is a big fan of the book and would love to read the script. If anyone would care to send it my way, I’d be eternally grateful. michaelawire at gmail dot com. In return, here’s a picture of a giant Dalek being attacked by a backhoe.

  • blueiis0112

    This is probably a stupid question, but my curiosity is peaked. A screenplay goes through so many revisions via so many different people. Then it is revised again as it is being shot. My question is why don’t actors/directors use script doctors and give them credit. if a script gets rewritten by screenwriter A, again by director B and producer C, why is there such a taboo that a script be doctored? I understand that Carrie Fisher is a brilliant script doctor. She is a brilliant writer and one-woman showman.

    • klmn

      I think many scripts receive uncredited rewrites. I believe the limitation on credits is due to WGA rules.

      You might want to read You’ll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again by Julia Phillips for some examples.

    • blue439

      It’s not taboo that scripts get rewritten. As you said, many, if not most, do. Getting credit is a whole different issue, though, which basically boils down to $ and the WGA. A re-writer has to change 51% of the script to get credit — this is to protect the first position writer. Screenwriters fight tooth and nail for credit because the credited writer(s) receive residuals. Uncredited writers just get whatever they’re paid for the rewrite. Also, screen credits are career boosters. You can make a lot of money doing uncredited rewrites but a screen credit can raise you to the next career level.

  • gazrow

    Read this one a couple of months back, I liked it, though not as much as Moore’s excellent: The Imitation Game!

    • jaehkim

      the imitation game was so damn good!

      • gazrow

        Definitely one of my favorite scripts from last year!

  • fragglewriter

    I was reading an article online regarding the movie “Rock of Ages” this morning. Alec Baldwin said that he wanted to leave the film two weeks before filming, but the studio couldn’t find an actor to replace him. He said that it is a good movie but everyone wants to see comic book adaptations. I think for this script to get going, as you said, Emeline needs to be doing something. I think climbing the ladder, blackmail or murder could jump start it.

    Thanks for the tip. I was debating how much of the scene should we foretell and I see that if we’re using subtext, then it might be a neccisity.

  • blue439

    I dunno, this sounds a lot like The Alienist, another bestseller about America’s first serial killer. That never got made. They never could crack the script so it disappeared. This would cost a fortune to make, re-creating 19th century Chicago. Maybe Leo can get this made with the right director and a better female lead character — Rooney Mara maybe. Another thing, with this kind of the story the serial killer has to be a fascinating character — evil is more interesting than good — but it doesn’t seem that Holmes is all that interesting. By now, we’ve seen dozens of serial killers onscreen so to do another one requires a really outstanding one, and Holmes doesn’t seem to be it.

  • StoryMapsDan

    I remember reading that David Fincher was attached at some point. He would be the perfect director to tackle this, not just because of his visual talent (a smoke-filled, crowded, industrial Chicago practically screams for Fincher’s visuals) but because of the shifting character focus within a serial killer story — “Zodiac,” anyone?

  • bruckey

    from variety 02/14

    Off all the film and TV projects Appian has in the works, DiCaprio seems most enthusiastic about the adaptation of Erik Larson’s true tale “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America,” in which the actor would play serial killer H.H. Holmes. “We have a script for that. We’re doing our last couple rewrites, but it’s amazing,” he enthuses. “I want to be in that one. That one is very real.”