Every year during the holidays, Turner Classic Movies trots out Meet Me in St. Louis with Judy Garland’s heartrending rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The centerpiece of the film is, of course, the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. This leads to an obvious question for moviegoers: What happened to Chicago’s World’s Fair movie? What happened to The Devil in the White City?
Published in 2003, Erik Larson’s novel-style nonfiction book covered two parallel stories—how Chicago acquired the World’s Columbian Exposition and how architect Daniel Burnham made it happen, while serial killer H. H. Holmes used the event to commit and cover up his gruesome crimes of murder, mutilation, and dismemberment. It’s a compelling story of creative and destructive impulses, with the growing, exciting, dangerous, post-fire Chicago as its backdrop.
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America has all the hallmarks of a blockbuster film. In addition to the fabulous setting, there’s the larger-than-life cast of characters, including Burnham, Louis Sullivan, Frederick Law Olmsted, and the infamous Holmes among many others. There’s drama in the race to win the fair and then to complete the White City in time. There’s also the growing realization that some of the women who had disappeared in the fair’s bustle met their ends at the hands of an unfamiliar kind of killer—the charming and psychotic Holmes. A dramatic postscript could show the remnants of the World’s Columbian Exposition: the Museum of Science and Industry (originally the Palace of Fine Arts), the replica of the Statue of the Republic by Daniel Chester French, and the Midway Plaisance as well as the Englewood block covered by the Holmes Murder Castle.
What’s the holdup? According to Lee Bey, the rights have been sold several times since Larson’s book was published and are now in the hands of Leo DiCaprio. IMDB shows two listings, with release dates of 2011 and 2013 and DiCaprio cast as Holmes. The issue can’t be just cost. If a production team could create a steampunk London for Sherlock Holmes, surely the White City, the Murder Castle, and 1890s Chicago could be no more difficult or expensive to recreate.
Here’s the irony: Even with all the shortcuts taken during construction and the pieces left out or unfinished, the White City was completed in far less time than it’s taken to get the film version of The Devil in the White City off the ground. It’s time for lights! Camera! Action!
Contact Diane Schirf.