“Devil in the White City” treatment and promotion

This nonfiction work by Erik Larson has strong potential to be a successful three part series on HBO or Showtime. Each part would fill an hour and a half time slot and would premier on Columbus Day due to the fact that the fair itself was a celebration of Columbus’s arrival in America and also inspired the national holiday.  The first part of the series would focus on the events leading up to the fair, the second part would show the events occurring during the fair, and the third part would focus on the events after the fair centering on the investigation of the serial killer.


Plot Summery

Although the book goes into excruciating detail about the designs and trials of the architects, it would be best to avoid this plot line as it will most likely only be interesting to people with a subscription to architectural digest.  The fair and its novel architecture would be mainly a visually exciting background to the main story of a charming, methodical psychopath, “Dr.” Holmes.

            The first part of the series would show the killer as he establishes himself in Chicago by defrauding creditors and construction workers.  There would be great contrast value in showing his construction of a “gloomy castle” complete with sound proof vaults, gas chambers, and a crematorium and the construction of the grand Romanesque buildings for the fair.  The killer also had several relationships during this period, all of which ended with the disappearance of the women involved.  One possible subplot that could be explored is the union struggles associated with the construction and the rise of Mayor Harrison, who would be killed by an altogether different kind of lunatic at the beginning of part three.

            The second part of the series would show Holmes as his hotel filled up with victims.  He appears to have done the majority of his killing during the fair because of an abundance of visitors to the city. We also see him romancing his victims by taking them to the fair and enjoying the exhibits before taking them home and killing them.  Holmes also has creditors piling up and letters from his victim’s families coming in as well.  One darkly humorous part of the story is the fact that Holmes sold his victim’s skeletons to medical schools as a way to dispose of the bodies.  Again there is a great contrast between Holmes canvassing the fair for victims and historically famous people visiting at the same time such as Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley as well as visiting dignitaries.

            The third part of the series would show primarily the detective work that led to the arrest and execution of Holmes.  The final part would begin with the murder of the mayor at the hands of a disturbed lunatic and the deterioration of both the economy and the once majestic white city. This would set the tone for the more disturbing elements uncovered during the investigation of Dr. Holmes.  The investigation itself would be compelling because of the techniques used in those days compared to the criminal justice system we are used to seeing on TV or film.  There is no forensics, profiling or even fingerprints so the detective simply went to an enormous number of hotels in many cities, asking questions and showing low quality black and white photographs.  One novel aspect of criminal investigations was the unrestricted access the press had to crime scenes.  This would be effective in showing the progress of the investigation in conjunction with colorful headlines.



The author has had great success with his previous book “Isaac’s Storm”, a non fiction national best seller about the Galveston hurricane in 1900.  Reviews of “The Devil in the White City” often compliment the author’s ability to take historical events and show them in an accessible and interesting way.



The serial killer Genre has been very successful with films like “Seven” and “Taking Lives”, among other films.  Particularly successful have been the ones where the killer is outwardly charming and inwardly disturbed and homicidal.  This series would not be as graphic as the average serial killer film mainly because the killer used gas and suffocation with explicit violence and gore occurring rarely.  This would make it more acceptable for the mainstream audience.



Dr. Holmes—Vince Vaughn (has played a serial killer in two films), Jeremy Irons

            –Both actors can be very charming as well as very disturbing and dangerous

Mayor Harrison—John Goodman

Burnham (inspired Architect)—Television actor fitting description

Olmstead (oversaw fair) — Donald Sutherland



The first major promotional possibility would be with Westinghouse INC, whose founder George Westinghouse introduced large scale electric power at the fair, outbid Tomas Edison for the concession and also pioneered the alternating currant system.  Because Westinghouse is now a large corporation, it would be a significant product placement.


Another product placement strategy would be to tie in the consumer products first presented to the public at the fair.  Aunt Jemima’s Pancake mix, Cream of Wheat, Quaker Oats, Juicy Fruit Gum, Cracker Jack, Shredded Wheat, and Pabst Blue Ribbon were all pioneered at the fair.  The fact that these products have been in popular use since 1893 gives the product placements added power.


Advertising for the series could be placed across all media platforms.  As HBO is part of Time Warner, the possibilities for cross promotion are huge.  Ads could also be placed in the monthly cable bills of HBO subscribers.


Like it did with “Rome”, HBO could make several short ‘making of’ specials.  These could include a virtual tour of the 1893 exhibition, an examination of the working conditions and labor problems leading up to the great depression.  HBO could also include interviews with cast members and historians.  These specials would also be available online and on demand. They would serve to create buzz and give the viewer more context that will not be shown in the series itself.


The book is a #1 national bestseller and a finalist in the national book award and as such, an audience for the series already exists.  A new edition with the movie cover and perhaps a short promotional DVD with extras and previews would insure readers’ interest in seeing the series.  All this could be co-financed with the publishers as the series would in turn provide increased book sales.


The potential for DVD extras is also significant because there is an abundance of material that could personalize the fair for viewers.  A copy of the original fair maps, an admission ticket, or a replica of the Ferris wheel could all aid in creating a unique package fans of the series would want.  There could also be expanded documentary extras in this area.




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