‘Devil in the White City’ Seems Cursed in Hollywood

Keanu Reeves and Tár director Todd Field leave the Hulu miniseries, nearly 20 years after someone first tried to adapt it to the screen

nbspLeonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese at The Aviator screening at the seventh Marrakech International Film Festival...

 Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese at The Aviator screening at the seventh Marrakech International Film Festival, 08 December 2007.Abdelhak Senna/AFP via Getty Images

The Devil in the White City is a terrific piece of literary nonfiction, the kind that would, theoretically, make a no-brainer smash film, and a likely Academy Award contender at that. Erik Larson’s 2003 New York Times bestseller tells the parallel true stories of architect Daniel Burnham, who was instrumental to the building of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and depraved serial killer H.H. Holmes. With the two Chicago-set narratives intertwined, Devil in the White City offered a riveting story that appealed to true crime fanatics, history buffs, and casual audiences alike.

But the book’s journey to the screen (first silver, now small) has been longer and more cumbersome than building the World’s Fair itself. And it just added another chapter with the departure of Tár director Todd Field: Variety has reported that Field has left the book-turned-movie-turned-limited-series project, just a day after the news broke that the project’s star, Keanu Reeves, walked away.

The book was an in-demand property in Hollywood from the moment it came out. Around the time of its release, Tom Cruise and Kathryn Bigelow were working on adapting it, though that never came to fruition. In 2010, Leonardo DiCaprio acquired the film rights after years of interest. DiCaprio was reported to be playing H.H. Holmes, who confessed to 27 killings, although the exact number and nature of his murders is a subject of debate. In 2015, DiCaprio’s frequent collaborator Martin Scorsese came aboard to helm the epic film, with screenwriter Billy Ray (State of Play, Captain Phillips) set to pen the script. (Somewhere in there David Fincher had interest, too, though that never picked up serious traction.)

Then, in 2019, Variety reported that the adaptation shifted from a feature film to a miniseries that DiCaprio and Scorsese would produce for Hulu. Sam Show, who created and wrote for Hulu’s Stephen King adaptation Castle Rock as well as WGN America’s 1940s period drama Manhattan, was pegged as the showrunner.

News slowed for a few years, but in January 2022, Deadline reported that Keanu Reeves was in talks to join for what would be his first major leading TV role. Reeves officially joined the project in early August, and Collider said that production was slated to begin in March 2023 in Chicago.

On October 7, Variety broke the news that Reeves would no longer be starring in the show, marking the departure of another leading man and plunging Devil in the White City back into developmental purgatory. With Field now out, too, the show finds itself without a headlining star or a behind-the-camera auteur, and back into what the entertainment industry calls “development hell.”

Reeves has the fourth John Wick film due out next year, and may direct an adaptation of the BRZRKR comic book he co-created. Field, meanwhile, is celebrating the release of Tár, a classical music drama starring Cate Blanchett that has earned tremendous critical praise. This isn’t Field’s first experience with a book adaptation that never got off the ground. A few years ago, he had been attached to Purity, a limited series with Daniel Craig that was based on the popular Jonathan Franzen book, but it never reached the filming stage.

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