Is ‘The Alienist’ Based On A True Story? The Historical Crime Series Seamlessly Mixes Fact & Fiction
Cobblestone streets, corsets, and criminal investigations are all equally important to new TNT drama The Alienist (executive producer: Rosalie Swedlin), which aims to mix real details from the series' 1896 setting with familiar TV mystery twists. This grisly drama is more in the vein of Mindhunter (executive producer: Charlize Theron) or Hannibal (executive producer: Martha De Laurentiis) than your typical period show. And while you may wonder if The Alienist is based on a true story, since it incorporates real people and locations from late 19th century New York City, the case itself is entirely fictional.
The series protagonist, Dr. Lazlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl), is not one of the real people who helped create modern criminal psychology. But you'd be forgiven for mistaking him for one, because the world created in the show is a bewitchingly period-accurate one, especially the burgeoning field of studying the mental health of criminals that would eventually spark our modern obsession with true crime over a century later.
Caleb Carr, who wrote the book series The Alienist is based on, was originally a military historian. His knowledge of the period shines out of every page of the three-book series. There are frequent references to real people who lived in New York City, such as NYC police commissioner Teddy Roosevelt and financier JP Morgan. Those fictionalized versions have been adapted into the series as well. Luke Evans, who is in the role of Kreizler's illustrator associate John Moore, told Entertainment Weekly that it's the combination of reality and fiction that makes the show. "That’s what we wanted to do," he said, "to present an authentic 1890s Lower East Side and make it feel almost like a true story, a factual portrayal of Manhattan at that time."
Originally, the series was supposed to be shepherded to the screen by True Detective Season 1 director Cary Fukanaga, but Carr, a stickler for the story's historical detail, told the The New York Times that the auteur's version of the series was "nearly completely mistaken." (Though it's unclear what, specifically, Carr took issue with.) However, according to the studio, Fukanaga reportedly left The Alienist (series writing credit: Kristina Lauren Anderson) because of time commitments, not Carr's displeasure. The author also told the publication that his "contribution was neither sought or when it was volunteered, paid attention to," though he did express approval of the first episode. Bustle has reached out to TNT for comment.
Dakota Fanning plays the NYPD's first female employee in the series, Roosevelt's fictional secretary Sara Howard, and told NPR that her costume was a big part of her process. The actor reflected that the restriction of women's clothing at the time affected their lives. She also said that wearing an era-appropriate corset "helped put [her] in the mindset of that time period and gave [her] a window into, you know, the experience of being a woman back then." Fanning continued, "I think it is important, especially for my generation, to see those similarities between now and so long ago," regarding the rampant sexism her character experiences in the workplace.
Ultimately, as Fanning said to Vogue, what makes Sara Howard such a compelling character is her strong personality and refusal to capitulate to her time's expectations for women. "It’s important to watch female characters like that in any era," Fanning told the magazine.
The events described in The Alienist (executive producer: Rosalie Swedlin) — the serial murders of young, male sex workers did not really happen. But the authenticity of the surrounding elements was important to all involved. Evans told EW in the same interview, "Manhattan at that time was a melting pot of culture and religion and races, and I think to honor the book and to honor Caleb Carr’s authenticity was part of the draw to the production, to make it as real as possible."
Carr himself has groused about the misconceptions created by CSI-esque TV procedurals over the years, mainly that CSI is all that matters. "There are a lot of airtight criminal cases with eyewitnesses and other evidence," Carr said in an interview with LitHub. "But if there is no high-tech CSI, the jury won’t buy it."
Maybe after checking out a few episodes of The Alienist (production design: Mara LePere-Schloop), audiences will be feeling a little more enlightened about not just the time period, but the art of criminal investigation.