The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America (Erik Larson, 2003) I hope that they construct at least part of the set for the 19th century World Fair at Navy Pier, similar to the dysptopic carnival recently erected by the crew of another Chicago-based film, Veronica Roth’s Divergent. The director will most likely turn to CGI to create that epic first Ferris Wheel, but enlisting an actor like Robert Downey Jr. to play George Ferris Jr. (they kind of look alike, don’t they?) would be real-life marvel enough for me.
Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago (Mike Royko, 1988) The Showtime series Boss, starring Kelsey Grammar as a corrupt Chicago mayor, was unofficially yet obviously based on former Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley. However, the show was cancelled after very low-rated two seasons, likely because it veered too far in the direction of outlandish Shakespearean soap opera instead of digging into the ample historical dirt that producers were probably too frightened to touch. Perhaps a film adaptation of Royko’s scathing and immensely compelling biography of the late Daley Sr. would be brave enough to go there.
The Jungle (Upton Sinclair, 1906) This one is kind of cheating, since a silent film version of the book was made in 1914 and later lost. Still, Sinclair’s groundbreaking exposé of corruption in Chicago’s meatpacking business during the early 20th century, hailed by writer Jack London as “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of wage slavery,” would be a sure-fire Oscar contender in the hands of a director like David Fincher or Danny Boyle.
Everybody Pays (Maurice Possley and Rick Kogan, 2002) Forget Al Capone—Chicago’s deadliest hitman, Harry Aleman, is the kind of monumental figure that A-list actors would kill to play. Pair a riveting street-to-courtroom script from Chicago Tribune co-writers Possley and Kogan with a young Al Pacino type, and this true-story gangster film could be a huge hit.
The Lazarus Project (Aleksander Hemon, 2008) Not to be confused with the horrible Paul Walker movie of the same name, Hemon’s award-winning novel about tensions between Chicago immigrants and police at the turn of the 20th century eerily echoes modern-day events (i.e. the death of Trayvon Martin) and provides a sweeping canvas for gritty cinematic vision to take hold.
Trumball Park (Frank London Brown, 1959) Brown’s highly underrated account of the first black families to integrate Chicago’s Trumball Park housing project in the 1950s recalls the easy book-to-film conversion of The Help, except a film version of this story hasn’t been made yet. Still, in the hands of a director like Lee Daniels and a charismatic actor like Denzel Washington in the lead role of Buggy Martin, the moving story of a man protecting his family from race riots in Trumball Park could translate to a modern-day movie masterpiece.
The House on Mango Street (Sandra Cisneros, 1984) While this coming-of-age novel is made up of stand-alone vignettes rather than sequential chapters of a continuing narrative, Cisneros’ rich and poetic source material—filled with humor, charm and acute observation— is an indie filmmaker’s dream. Told from the perspective of a young Latina girl who longs for a better life but struggles to leave her family behind, The House on Mango Street is an enchanting collection of stories that would shine just as brightly on the big screen.
47th Street Black (Bayo Ojikuto, 2003) Ojikuto’s debut is a stunning and incendiary work of fiction that hits all too close to home: the story of two black teenagers whose rise in Chicago’s gangster-driven ghettos is “just as swift as it is brutal.” With the amount of media attention we’ve received for our gang violence over the past year (the “Chiraq” episode of Vice being the most recent example), a film version of one of the best black American novels since 1940’s Native Son could open millennial eyes even wider.
The Man with the Golden Arm (Nelson Algren, 1949) Okay, this one is really cheating—a well-received film version of this book starring Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak was released in 1955. Still, some remakes are better than their original films (for example: Cronenberg’s The Fly and Scorsese’s The Departed) and this beautifully-written novel about a heroin junkie chased by card sharks might make an even better movie today.
Tall Money (John Cappas, 2012) Does that name ring a bell? At the age of 21, John Cappas was a Chicago drug lord and one of the most infamous cocaine dealers in the U.S. during the mid to late 1980s. His shocking autobiography chronicles these early years, including a bust by the feds in 1988 and a 45-year jail sentence (reduced to 15 years on appeal) that lasted until his release in 2003. Today, Cappas runs a hot dog stand in Markham, IL called Johnny’s Wee Nee Wagon and regularly speaks to students about the dangers of drug abuse. And with Cappas’ connections in the movie business, it’s only a matter of time before Hollywood comes knocking.
Which Chicago books would you like to see adapated for the silver screen?