Television has reminded us that Hannibal Lecter is a character that we need in our lives. Television made a trip to Fargo worth it. Television reminded us why mothers and sons aren’t the best motel operators. Television has never been better. We think we can make television better.
Between True Detective and Fargo, it seems networks are more willing to experiment with the anthology format (i.e. a one-off storyline instead of multiple seasons). And while multiple seasons allow networks to adapt a series of books (Game of Thrones), it’s also entirely possible to have an anthology series for one novel. With that in mind, I propose we adapt James Ellroy’s American Tabloid into a TV show.
What Is It?
James Ellroy is an author of modern detective fiction, the sort of writer who remains on the literary fringe in the United States but is discussed in series academic circles in France. His most famous novels were adapted into films: LA Confidential won two Academy Awards, while Brian DePalma’s The Black Dahlia was an utter fiasco. Since then, Ellroy’s work has been languishing in the world of film and television (Joe Carnahan tried to adapt White Jazz into a film unsuccessfully, and Rampart has devolved into a shitty reddit meme).
Despite these setbacks, American Tabloid is Ellroy’s masterpiece. The pitch is simple: it’s a hard-boiled, noir vision of the Kennedy assassination. It mixes pulp dialogue with tons of sex and violence, sometimes between well-known historical figures, and the pace is breakneck (not to mention Ellroy’s terse writing style is practically a screenplay anyhow). The main characters are Kemper Boyd, a dashing FBI agent; Ward Littell, a doughy FBI agent who hates organized crime; and Pete Bondurant, a former cop who now works as a shakedown artist for Howard Hughes. All three men meet because they plan to entrap Kennedy with a prostitute, albeit for different reasons, and then conspire to kill him for reasons too complex to explain here (it involves collusion with the radical left, Cuban communists, the mob, and several other shadow organizations I’m forgetting). Also, there is a lot of double-crossing, and I mean a ridiculous amount.
Why This Would Work
It’s pretty simple, actually: American Tabloid would fall easily into the mold of any premium network. We know from Boardwalk Empire and Masters of Sex that people enjoy period pieces with real-life characters (these shows also have plenty of sex/nudity, which helps). Nearly every prestige drama, everywhere, has dark protagonists who resort to grisly violence – they are simply too legion to name here – and a shrewd adapter could wring suspense out of the Kennedy assassination. There’s already been a few attempts to adapt this property: according to Wikipedia, Bruce Willis had the rights for several years, and then they passed onto Tom Hanks’ Playtone production company. HBO in particular has proven they’re willing to throw their money behind risky projects – any property that’s bounced around like American Tabloid loses its value – so all that’s really necessary is the will of a creative person who realizes that this would be excellent, superlative television.
HBO in particular has a habit of casting the same actors across several TV series, and with that in mind, my ideal cast comes directly from True Blood, which is wrapping its final season.
I want Alexander Skarsgård for Kemper Boyd. He’s a smooth operator, a Southerner who’s capable of deception, yet he’s easily enticed by the warm glow of the Kennedys. A lot of these qualities already exist in Erik Northman, and we know from the Straw Dogs remake that he can do a southern accent. Bonus: Boyd’s love interest is the secret love child of a Kennedy and a Hollywood actor, I won’t say who, and those sex scenes would be killer.
I want Chris Bauer for Ward Littell. The character is frumpy, determined, and smart. His arc – he veers from FBI agent, to mob lawyer, back into J. Edgar Hoover’s good graces – and Bauer’s turn as Andy Bellefleur shows he’s capable at that kind of depth. He’s the sort of character the audience feels contempt for, initially, only to embrace him reluctantly. With his beady eyes and gruff demeanor, Bauer is a perfect choice.
I want Joe Manganiello for Pete Bondurant. The Showrunner would have to rough him up a little; in American Tabloid, he’s gigantic and handsome but not entirely a sex symbol. Still, he’s the sort of guy who’s comfortable with shifting his alliances, and above all he must be physically intimidating. Bondurant ultimately becomes the book’s moral center, in an unseemly way, and Manganiello’s shift from fringe character to love interest mirrors Bondurant’s development.
As noted earlier, I prefer HBO for this pitch. That being said, I think Netflix could steal HBO’s thunder with a property that’s firmly in its wheelhouse (e.g. sexy historical revisionism). Cinemax might be a good fit, too, but I’m waiting to see whether The Knick is any good.
American Tabloid seems to be languishing to pre-development hell, yet recent years demonstrate a potential for the series. James Franco has shown interest in the adaptation, although there hasn’t been much of an update since early 2013 (I’d personally want showrunner with more experience, but if Franco can get it off the ground, by all means, let him). Note: the novel is actually the first of a trilogy, which would tempt showrunners to stretch out the story into multiple seasons. That would be a mistake. The sequels have diminishing marginal returns, as no event broke America’s heart quite like the death of John F. Kennedy.