“How could the ending go so wrong?” Finales, endings, and ‘The Alienist’

Like 47 million other people, I’ve been glued to my TV for the last several weeks, watching the television adaptation of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. If you’ve somehow had your head in the sand since January – well, let me catch you up. Trump is being sued by a porn star, Linda Brown died this past week, millions marched for safer schools, and The Alienist is a novel set in 1896 New York, about a trio of allies trying to save the city’s most vulnerable children from a predator.

The trio is as follows:

  • Dr. Lazlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl) – One of a new breed of psychologists who want to explain crimes by explaining why criminals act as they do – in short, a forensic psychologist.
  • John Schuyler Moore (Luke Evans) – well-born, wealthy, and living with his grandmother after his engagement was called off in what we suspect was a very bad manner. Also a newspaper artist.
  • Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) – an intrepid woman intent on making her own way in the world. She’s starting by being the first woman ever hired by the New York City Police Department.

Truthfully – I loved this show. As a historian, I appreciated the reality of it – the grittiness, the dirt, the obvious disconnect between the social classes (there’s a scene in which John gives money to a child prostitute, hoping it will help him escape that life . . . and only later realizes that he could/should have actually taken the child in. But it takes him nearly the entire series to even give him money!), and the sheer reality. History’s not clean. It’s not neat and tidy. It shouldn’t be, anyway, because it wasn’t. And The Alienist never shied away from that.

the alienistI loved the historic reality, which included Theodore Roosevelt as a main character (he was Commissioner of the New York City Police Force during this time anyway; he kind of had to be in there). Now, I haven’t read the book yet – it’s in my to-be-read list – but I suspect a great deal of Roosevelt’s character in the show came from Carr’s novel. If so, my hat’s off to Carr. 🙂 There’s one scene in particular that I love:  at the opera, Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan come face-to-face. In real life, and in the show, the two are enemies; they despise each other completely. And in this scene, the disgust is palpable. Both stare at each other; then Roosevelt, as the social inferior, gives Morgan the barest of nods. “Morgan.” Morgan, in return, gives him a curt, “Roosevelt.” And I’m sitting there in my mind screaming Yeah, in ten  years, you’re going DOWN, Morgan! And Roosevelt’s going to be the one that brings you down! (Yeah, you’ve got to be a historian to get it, I know.)

So for the past several weeks, I’ve been glued to my television at 8pm. Great storytelling, fantastic acting. Luke Evans is my new fantasy crush. You do get the sense that you’re missing things – adaptations from 600+ page novels do need to cut things, I suppose – but overall, it’s been a hell of a ride.

That is . . . until the finale.

And I hate to say it – you’ve no idea how much I hate to say it – but I’ve rarely been more disappointed in a series finale in my life.

Not the acting. No, LOVE the actors! Luke Evans is amazing, Dakota Fanning is amazing, everyone is amazing. No. Sadly . . . it was the writing.

Like most writers, I can only imagine what it would be like to have my novel adapted for either film or television. What most people don’t understand is that the authors may actually have very little input into how that adaptation is made. Look at Outlander, for crying out loud – I don’t think the writers on that show could screw things up more. I imagine that rabid fans of Caleb Carr were equally aghast at changes made to their beloved novel, but I have to say that as a viewer only, I didn’t see them, so they didn’t affect me.

Yeah. Well. Until tonight.

The entire series has been about seeking a murderer – a sick psycho who preys on boy prostitutes, killing them gruesomely on holy days. Many of them have been on their own for ages; they have created a family, but they have also learned to be street-smart and self-reliant. One of these boys, Joseph, is befriended by John Moore – and then kidnapped by the killer and held in a secure location until the next holy day.

That’s not the problem. Raise the stakes. Every good writer knows that. MY problem stemmed from the way these scenes were handled by the writers. Joseph is street-smart and resourceful (he’s lived to the ripe old age of ten or twelve, after all). Yet here he lies on a stone floor, with his hands tied in front of him, left alone for most of the time, and yet he never tries, not once, to escape? This is the point where the entire show just – stopped. And lost all credibility with me. Joseph’s a prostitute, for God’s sake. He’s done and seen just about everything. He knows this man is going to kill him. Yet . . . he does nothing to save himself. Not one freaking thing. It’s as if the writers needed an excuse to get John, Kreizler, and Sarah to the scene of the crime, so they let Joseph be helpless. It was truly disappointing. I don’t know if the ending in the novel is the same way or not, but if so, it’s going to be disappointing, too.

And yes, grittiness is good, but in this same scene, the killer kills a cat in front of Joseph, for no reason. This really bothered on several levels, not the least of which is that I’m a cat lover and I hated this scene. But as a writer, it was – pardon the pun – overkill. Newsflash:  we KNOW the bastard’s evil. We get it. We don’t need more evidence. Show us the villain is evil . . . make us believe it . . . and then get on with things.

And for things out of character . . . Kreizler. OMG.

For the entire season, Kreizler has described the killer – rightfully so – as a ‘monster.’ He wants to understand him in order to stop him. That’s it. He doesn’t want to feel pity for him. He doesn’t want to feel sympathy for him. He wants to stop him. End of discussion. But at the end, when the killer is shot and runs away, Kreizler first tries to stop the shooting, and then runs after the killer and cradles his head as he dies. He calls him a ‘damaged child.’

I can’t even. Seriously. It was SO disappointing to see this sudden about-face. The thing murdered innocent children and cats, for God’s sake! I just can’t see Kreizler suddenly changing his mind and feeling sympathy for him. I just can’t. Again, I don’t know if Kreizler does this in the book or not – I hope not, or at least, if he does, I hope the reasons for it are better explained than they were in the show – but for me, it was a slap in the face.

So a great show, a great season, kind of ruined by the writers. Sure, there have been other disappointing series finales. The X-Files comes to mind. But that came at the end of three years that really never should have been. There was never any hope for that finale. But this one? I feel like the writers let me down. Big time. It might have helped if Joseph had been tied up correctly (hands behind the back, chained to a pipe in the wall, ANYTHING) – at least, in some manner that he couldn’t escape on his own. It might have helped if they had made it more clear why Kreizler had his sudden change of heart (and no, the fact that his father was borderline abusive doesn’t cut it with me; Kreizler turned out fine, after all).

In a show that go so much right . . . how could the ending have gone so wrong?

 

 

 

What Can Writers Learn from Movies?

A couple of years ago, there was a question posted on one of the writing forums that I belong to:  can we actually learn anything about the writing craft from watching movies and TV shows?

The person who posed the question was hard-core NO. In fact, the question wasn’t really a question as much as a challenge to prove her wrong. As I recall, it blew up into one of those multi-page virtual fistfights before the mods shut it down, because many people were arguing that there’s a lot you can learn from other forms of writing.

We always say that in order to write well, you have to read. But what about our other guilty pleasure:  TV and movies?

I say YES! If you’re willing to study them, that is.

Here’s some examples.

S1L-CartazLucifer. OMG, I love this show and the reason why is the characterization. Yes, the one-liners are great and I’m sorry, but the Prince of Darkness as a tall, dark, gorgeous Brit is just icing on my fantasy cake. 🙂 But this show takes the basic premise most of us have grown up with and does a 18o with it. Lucifer is charming, suave, elegant. But he also sees himself as both the hero of his own story, and the victim. It’s a coming-of-age story with a twist. He doesn’t see himself as the rebellious archangel gone bad. He sees himself as a son, unfairly treated and abandoned. (The show is also based on some work by Neil Gaiman, so . . . if you needed another reason to watch, there you are!) If you want an example of how the traditional villain views himself – this is the one to watch.

dpsDead Poets Society. My Philosophy class just finished watching this, and I was reminded anew of how perfectly this story unfolds and draws you in. Sure, it can be difficult to do in writing what movies can do in visuals – set the scene, drop a few hints and clues as to what’s going on – but it’s certainly something to strive for. From the opening minutes, we know we’re at a boys’ boarding school; from the cars, we see it’s the 1950s or 60s; and the convocation clearly demonstrates what the school’s motto is:  tradition, discipline, excellence. We know these are going to be part of the plot; it’s a great foreshadowing technique. We also see quite a lot of book-ending in this movie. Take, for instance, the first class in which Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) has the boys rip out the introduction to their poetry books, and encourages them to stand on their desks in order to see the world differently. Then – that last scene (that always leaves me in tears!), when the headmaster orders them to read the introduction – which they can’t do – and then, when Keating comes back to the classroom for his items . . . the boys stand on their desks in salute to him, even knowing it will result in their expulsion. The lesson is learned, for them; tradition, discipline, excellence have given way to something else.

indexDirty Dancing. Yes, I hear the groans, but again – the character development! Watch it again, and not because those of us in a certain generation still consider Patrick Swayze to be one of the most beautiful men ever. Study the characterization this time, and how the different plots weave together seamlessly and merge in the ending. Look at the themes and the symbolism, like the lift. The lift is about trust, which is one of the reasons why Baby can never do it – until the very end. And watch how the different characters evolve and change, even the minor characters like Lisa. (For this, you need the full version; I swear I see new scenes in this movie every time I watch it!) And watch how the characters’ internal struggles are actually more important than the external forces acting on them. There are no real villains in this story – not even, I would argue, Robbie the Creep. Yet there’s conflict.

76e94e70-1d77-40c7-83bc-ffdf4ab3a32cThe X-Files, Doctor Who, and Supernatural. Yes, I just love them, but . . . even if you’ve never seen them, go online and read synopses of the seasons. What do you see? Story arcs! (Okay, to be clear, I’m talking about The X-Files the way it used to be, not that 6-episode whatsit that Chris Carter gave us in January.) Doctor Who is probably the best at this, back in the days of Russell T. Davies. Clues left in the first episode were perfectly slotted into place in that last episode. Some carried over into the next season, even. For example:  River Song. We firs meet her in “The Forbidden Library,” with David Tenant’s 10th Doctor. She clearly knows him, and knows him well. The question is, how? We don’t really know . . . until three seasons later! Look at the first season of Supernatural. Sam and Dean have two goals:  find their father, and hunt down the demon that killed their mother and Sam’s girlfriend. Yes, there are stand-alone episodes in which they are hunting monsters, but everything comes back to focus on those two goals.

In fact – I think most writers should study how TV series are structured. Study episodes. Look how they open; look at the resolution. Look at all the conflict in each one. Study the flow. Can you make your chapters do this? You should! The best-written chapters, especially for thrillers and mysteries, end on mini-cliffhangers. Never let the reader go. Each chapter should work hard to move the story and all the plotlines forward.

You may not like shows that I do, or movies that I do – but start studying your own favorites. If you’re a writer, chances are that you already like well-written shows with great characters and excellent story telling – you just might not be aware of it. Yet! 🙂