Kate Winkler Dawson’s Death in the Air is one of the books I spotted today at Half Price Books. It recount the 1952 killer pea-soup fog in London, England, and the serial killer who stalked it. It’s a case nearly forgotten but worth preserving in the annals of true crime and history.
Dawson is a documentary journalist. This means she turned to a book when unable to fund a documentary about this topic, or as a way of drumming up interest.
I’ve read several true-crime or historical crime books written by documentarians. They know how to gather facts and organize them for the most-effective presentation. They’d do well in court.
Historical true crime is a favorite of mine, a realm filled with great stories to mine or rejuvenate. Books are the key transmission form. Movies are too costly and collaborative to guarantee even the most compelling stories will make it to the screen.
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson is a prime example. Superb book and no one has yet produced a coherent script or found a producer to commit to a film.
Perhaps it needs to be a small movie done for love and with high quality, but it’s owned by big money Hollywood. Options are beneficial to Mr. Larson but they also keep it churning in production limbo. Names such as Burton, Depp, and DiCaprio have been linked to it; who can get backing if that level of star can’t?
It’s likely because they can’t figure out how to make it about a hero. To focus on Herman Webster Mudgett, who went by the moniker H. H. Holmes as he went about his appalling, almost unbelievable crime spree, is to make it anti-heroic. To focus on the detectives who eventually chased him down is disingenuous and far less interesting. How can someone create a script using that material to let the big name actor triumph? They can’t bend H. H. Holmes toward sympathy, let alone to fit their childish patterns.
A smaller production company, an independent dedicated to fealty to the original material, could ignore all that Hollywood stuff.
So books will remain the best source for the best historical true crime tales. This seems inescapable…
HOWEVER: Cable and digital content providers such as Hulu, Amazon, and Netflix are revolutionizing Audio/Visual entertainment. They have no censorship, no time or budget constraints. Big names gladly work with them. Their productions need no approval from advertisers or ratings boards and routinely win wards.
If good properties can be released from production spirals in big money Hollywood, then digital providers can get hold of them and make them properly.
We’re seeing The Alienist by Caleb Carr on Hulu now. It never made the big screen.
“All of us labor in webs spun long before we were born.”
/ Wm. Faulkner