The Devil in the White City: Scorsese and Leo make a killing at the World's Fair

The book came out a dozen years ago; movie rumors swirled for years, but I hadn’t heard anything in quite some time. Now there’s one of those Hollywood packages in the works, with deals signed, etc. The Devil in the White City will finally get closer to being adapted into a movie!

The Devil in the White City takes place in the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893. Cool neoclassical edifices were constructed. There were rides (for instance, the very first Ferris Wheel!) and amusements, musics, art, and technologies, and types of food and peoples imported from around the globe. They even assassinated a mayor of Chicago there, just for the closing ceremonies!

Also, not on the fairgrounds, there was a guy who built a murder-tenement and killed some people. Leonardo DiCaprio is going to be playing that guy.

I’m looking forward to it, once it finally comes out!

Hah wow, I am reading that book right now and am really enjoying it. I could see a movie working well if done right. :)

I read that book a few year’s back. It’s well researched & written; a fascinating look into that period of US history and the Chicago design scene. The setting, aesthetic and tone of Bioshock Infinite was largely inspired by Devil in the White City from what I’ve heard.

Reading the book brought to the forefront that writing about the machinations of serial killers is now simply horrifying for me. When I was younger reading stuff like Helter Skelter, The Zodiac, Fatal Vision, et al was simultaneously repulsive and fascinating. Now it’s plain old repulsive to read about the countless people that dude killed, including suffocating children.

It’s a fascinating situation all over. The 1893 World’s Fair had an immense influence on America that we take for granted. The White City’s design was used as inspiration for architects for decades, and Walt Disney would go on to model his amusement park after it. At the same time, you had one of America’s most twisted murderers constructing a hotel that was purpose-built for killing.

The most engaging story for me was the Ferris Wheel. Just the idea of building that monstrosity was nuts!

It’s a great book and I’m a huge Scorcese fan. Don’t know whether it’s the best candidate for a conventional movie, though - the serial killer and the building-the-World’s-Fair parts of the book happen in parallel, without much in the way of direct links (other than “town enjoying World’s Fair boom doesn’t notice serial killer in its midst.”) But without the building-the-World’s-Fair parts, it’s pretty much just another serial killer yarn, just in an old-timey setting. It would really work better as a documentary.

The real question is, how is Marty gonna shoehorn old Rolling Stones songs into a movie set in the 1890s?

Didn’t really get grabbed by the book but I will see the shit out of this.

You are, in all honesty, the first person of dozens I know who have read the book and weren’t grabbed by it.


It’ll be interesting to see how fully they replicate the fairgrounds, and how they do it (digital, versus on stage (or on site) construction).

One of my disappointments when I finally got around to seeing Meet Me In St. Louis (set around the time of the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904), is that the fair itself is barely shown onscreen. But that movie was filmed back in the 1940s I think. With modern techniques and budgets, both the Chicago World’s Fair, and the surrounding city, may be well shown.

That said, IIRC, the book (and the case it was based on) is grim - not light stuff…

Based on this thread, I think I’ll read the book - it sounds fascinating.

I love H.H. Holmes. In college, I took an expository writing class called Modern Monsters. We had to compare and contrast Devil in the White City to the Wannsee Conference (seen in Conspiracy).

Since I like taking impossible positions, I argued that neither Holmes nor the men who decided the Final Solution could be tried for their actions, because they were “slaves to the devils inside of them.” (which came from H.H. Holmes)

I can’t wait to see a recreation of his “castle.” And I absolutely love the way he had it constructed, though I doubt they’ll even scratch the surface of how genius that was. I’m realizing now that I might be a bit fanatical about Holmes.

It was only Holmes’ stuff that grabbed me. Though I love architecture, the second story just wasn’t as interesting.

This is probably the most amazing non-fiction book I have ever read. I don’t think any of his subsequent books have come close to achieving what he did with this one.

I enjoyed the book but I thought the non-murder parts were more interesting. Holmes was just freaky. Seems like the guy really just killed for personal gain. His murder house was a bit crazy, but killing for money is sort of boring – serial killers are supposed to kill for other reasons.

The stuff about how the fair came together, the achievements of the fair (Tesla’s electric current was used and essentially displaced Edison’s electric current for good throughout the country) were fascinating. I doubt the movie will do much with that stuff. It really should be a mini-series.

Yeah, honestly Holmes seemed kind of uninteresting to me, once you get past his motivation and easy success. He’s an asshole who killed young women. He’s not three-dimensional, and I have to disagree completely with Justin. There was no “genius” to the construction of the castle. It was a hodge podge of shoddy engineering, and had there not been so many distractions with the World’s Fair, this self-absorbed maniac would’ve been caught much earlier.

So…I’m a little bummed that with Scorcese directing and Leo playing Holmes, that’s going to be the center of the film I’m afraid. Going to be hard to get someone particularly dynamic to play Burnham.

The problem to a filmmaker (and investors) would be that the killer with a funhouse of horrors is your audience draw. I totally agree that the story of Burnham and the actual planning and construction of the fair is more interesting in the book, but not many people are going to want to see that movie.

That was the thing for me, the centerpiece of the story wasn’t the killer, but rather the city. Having lived most of my life in the Chicago area it was a fascinating look at the formation of the city as I know it. It is no exaggeration that Chicago would not be anything close to what it is today without the Worlds Fair.

It is a quite literal Phoenix story, albeit one delayed about 20 years. The book is worth it for the stuff on architecture alone.

Yup, it was actually the least enjoyable of Larson’s books for me as I was significantly disinterested in the chapters about Holmes. I found the rest of the book quite interesting.

My favorite of Larson’s books is “Isaac’s Storm”. I also quite enjoyed “Dead Wake” and “In the Garden of Beasts”. All three of them have easily as much movie potential as “Devil in the White City”, if not more.

While you’re right about him being caught sooner if the World’s Fair hadn’t been happening, I love the idea of that block long building. I would argue that, while it was a hodgepodge, he managed to get it constructed because of his ability to manipulate people. That he would have people build part of a staircase, then berate them until they quit, so no one ever knew what they were building. Add to that how he screwed over the lenders by building rooms around the stuff (i.e. the safe) just so they couldn’t get it back without him coming at them for everything they were worth… As I’ve stated, I’m a big fan of the lengths he went to to get his way. I honestly can’t even think of a modern example to it.

Unlike their movie counterparts, real life serial killers are a bunch of uninteresting losers with depressing motivations.

Hmmm, I dunno about the movie potential of In the Garden of Beasts. It’s about how evil triumphs while good men stand by and do nothing - nothing effective, anyway.

The only way Hollywood would bite is if they changed the story so the upright US ambassador stopped Nazism by punching Hitler in the face. (They could call it Inglorious Beasts!)

Isaac’s Storm is probably OK, though. Not even Hollywood expects its heroes to be able to stop hurricanes, and disaster movies make bank.

Losers, certainly, and awful human beings obviously. There are plenty of killers who are interesting though. Folks like Ted Bundy are interesting to me. A guy like Dennis Rader is fascinating, because of his devout, middle class Red State Christianity. David Berkowitz is fascinating to me, because it seems clear now that he was friends with the two actual sons of Sam, and those two fellows ended up very dead, very violently, very shortly after David went to prison and may have been active participants in some of the shootings.