Last month, when Erik Larson cancelled his campus visit to Lenoir-Rhyne, our study of The Devil in the White City took an unexpected turn. No longer would our last weeks of reading be informed by the author’s own commentary. As I asked myself how my students and I might proceed in the absence of Larson, it occurred to me that the film adaptation in development could be the source of a series of assignments. Subsequently, I crafted a research exercise, an individual blog post assignment, and a follow-up collaborative blog assignment that involved looking ahead to the upcoming film while looking back at the pages of Larson’s book for textual support for possible casting choices.
Reading the cast recommendations that my students’ produced–each student’s individual choices as well as the expanded proposals that they produced collaboratively–revealed a level of detail and engagement with the subject that many of their previous short assignments lacked. Notably, most of their individual blog posts far exceeded the 150-word minimum length requirement.
Though I regret that my students and I didn’t have the opportunity to see Larson, I am grateful that his cancellation led me to rethink my approach to teaching The Devil in the White City.
The paragraphs that follow offer my version of the assignment: the casting recommendations that I wrote along with my students.
Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City—now in development at Paramount—will star Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor well suited to play the devil of the title, H. H. Holmes, not because he possesses the same “striking blue eyes” (35), as the charismatic serial killer—though he does—but instead because of DiCaprio’s ability to embody charming characters who trade in deception. Larson’s descriptions of Holmes as someone who could “bewitch men and women alike” (146) and who had “a talent for deflecting scrutiny” (364) bring to mind roles from his previous collaborations with Scorsese—notably Jordan Belfort of The Wolf of Wall Street—as well as Frank Abagnale, Jr. from Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can.
While DiCaprio—who bought the film rights to Larson’s book in 2010—is set to play Holmes, the rest of the film’s casting remains undetermined, or at least unknown to outsiders. One possible contender for Daniel Burnham, the other figure at the center of Larson’s book, is Hugh Bonneville. The Downton Abbey actor’s ability to play a “decisive, blunt, and cordial” (35) figure is evidenced in his portrayal of that other turn-of-century character: Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham. And Larson’s depiction of Burnham as a man who “symbolized all that stood in the way of [young architect Louis] Sullivan’s emerging ethos” recalls the tension between Grantham and his son-in-law, Tom Branson (Allen Leech).
For Frederick Law Olmsted, chief landscape architect and elder statesmen, Scorsese might turn to Anthony Hopkins. Though Hopkins’ frame is not slight, as Larson describes Olmsted’s (53), his face does fit the description of Olmsted’s as “worn and gray, except for his eyes, which gleamed beneath his skull like marbles of lapis” (113). More importantly, with his signature quiet intensity, Hopkins could masterfully convey Olmsted’s struggle as a visionary figure—a benevolent version of Westworld’s Dr. Ford—striving for his field to be “recognized as a distinct branch of the fine arts” (50), as he transforms the landscape of Jackson Park.
Although Dora Root, wife of John Root (Burnham’s partner in architecture) appears only briefly in the book, the passage in which Larson recounts her mixed emotions upon seeing the White City—finding the park “infinitely sad” but “entrancing” all at once (253)—is among the most poignant that Larson writes. As the widow witnessing the fair that her husband didn’t live to see, Laura Linney could deliver a nuanced performance akin to hers as Abigail Adams, beloved wife and advisor to the second president, in the HBO miniseries John Adams. And Linney’s co-star in John Adams, Paul Giamatti, could adeptly portray detective Frank Geyer, who “never tired” (349) in his investigation of Holmes’ crimes, echoing Giamatti’s role in The Illusionist as Uhl, the police inspector who doggedly pursued Eisenheim (Edward Norton).
Lastly, Paul Dano comes to mind as an apt candidate for the role of Patrick Prendergast, the young Irish immigrant whose murder of Carter Henry Harrison turns the fair’s closing ceremony into a memorial for the slain Chicago mayor. The meltdown that Dano exhibited as Dwayne Hoover in Little Miss Sunshine, when Dwayne’s sister, Olive (Abigail Breslin) reveals to him that he can’t become a pilot (because he’s colorblind), illustrates Dano’s ability to convincingly play the unstable—and eventually delusional assassin—in his “accelerating mental decline” (183).
Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City. Vintage, 2004.
Scorsese’s choices will likely differ from the ones that my students and I have presented, but the process, itself, of returning to the pages of Larson’s book to explore casting possibilities has offered a valuable exercise in textual analysis, one I may return to in future semesters. Even if the books that my students and I study aren’t slated for film production–and many of them will not be–we can still ask the question, whom would I cast? as a starting point for exercising our imaginations along with our intellects.