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‘The Alienist’ Bosses on Crafting a Scene as ‘Microcosm for the Triangle of the Series’

Caleb Carr’s first in his Kreizler series of novels, “The Alienist,” introduces a rich world of turn-of-the-century crime-solving. Set in 1896 on the cusp of the introduction of forensic science and psychology in investigations, the story focuses on one man’s perspective of the job in the historic New York City setting. But when Hossein Amini and E. Max Frye worked on adapting the story into a 10-episode limited series for TNT, they knew immediately they had to expand the points of view.

“One of the things that I always loved about the book was the combination of an incredibly dark world with violence and murder and corruption but with almost incredibly innocent characters at the heart of it,” Amini says. “We felt keeping the balance of those tones was important, but it leans on character a bit more than the procedural.”

Traveling Back to the Turn of a Century

In addition to Carr’s novel, Amini and Frye had about “a dozen books” that they read in order to more fully research the crime-solving techniques of the time period.

“People are used to technology now and used to crime, but back in 1896 that was all new. So we wanted to take the path of that introduction into the contemporary society of the time,” Frye notes.

Although the distinct time period would immediately put the audience ahead of the characters in terms of knowledge, Amini says part of the draw is watching characters “in absolute awe of fingerprints, for example, when we know it’s the future.”

Similarly, the character of Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) defies expectations of the others in her midst, especially crime reporter John Moore (Luke Evans) and psychologist Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl), when she reveals she is an employee of the NYPD and gets involved in investigations herself.

A Tense Trio

In the novel, Sara meets Moore and Kreizler independently, but in order to create more immediate conflict, Amini and Frye created a new scene for the premiere episode: In their version, Moore and Kreizler come to her together — while she is at her desk, focused on her work.

“In the book in the same scene, she sort of gets on with John Moore,” Amini says, “We just felt right off the bat we wanted to get her in a position of not just stating she’s the first woman [at the NYPD] but also [addressing] the idea that she belongs in the gossip pages as opposed to the world of policing.”

Sara initially responds to the men out of frustration at being interrupted — and being underestimated. When Moore calls Sara simply by her first name, which establishes their familiarity and history, she quickly corrects him. Just moments later, she quotes an unfavorable line in an article he wrote about her back to him to further put him in his place.

“We wanted to establish very quickly that she is going to be a formidable character,” Amini explains. “The scene is really a microcosm for the triangle of the series.”

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