In 1996, back in the day when November sweeps was a thing, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was resurrected as a two-night miniseries on CBS, starring Anthony Edwards (top), Eric Roberts and Sam Neill. It wasn’t the first screen treatment of In Cold Blood, and it won’t be the last.
Richard Brooks adapted Capote’s true-crime book, originally published in 1966, as a feature film in just a year after it was published, in 1967. Brooks was nominated for both director and adapted screenplay at that year’s Oscars, for a film that the Library of Congress selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2008, for being culturally, historically and aesthetically significant.
Capote wrote In Cold Blood as both a painstakingly detailed and painfully personal account of the true-life murder of a farm family in the small, rural town of Holcomb, Kansas in 1959, and the subsequent investigation, court case, conviction and eventual death-sentence appeals.
Despite its seemingly pulpy origins, In Cold Blood was always destined for the highbrow screen treatment, in part because Capote himself, a star reporter for The New Yorker, was himself considered a prestigious writer for a prestige publication. In 2005, just three years before the Library of Congress would select In Cold Blood for the posterity of preservation, Philip Seymour Hoffman (left) won a best actor Academy Award for playing the author in the eponymous film Capote.
Toby Jones would play the writer again, just a year later, in 2006’s Infamous.
Interestingly, despite its title, Capote was focused on Capote during the writing of his book In Cold Blood, and not a birth-to-death biopic in the traditional sense.
TV has not finished with the story yet.
In 2015, the Weinstein Company optioned In Cold Blood for a new TV event treatment, “TV event” being the modern-day equivalent of the TV miniseries. Only now, the more logical home is likely to be HBO or FX, or even Amazon or Netflix, rather than one of the traditional broadcast networks that made Roots, North and South, QB VII and Rich Man, Poor Man such indelible parts of TV history.
Clearly, we’re not talking Forensic Files or Dateline here.
In Cold Blood, along with Helter Skelter widely considered to be the finest example of true crime as a respected, respectable literary genre in its own right, is worth mentioning today because 2016 may go down in TV history as the year true-crime stories moved away from the tabloid newsmagazines and back onto the Peabody mantelpiece where they belong.
This was a year that began with Making a Murderer (right), Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos’ 10-years-in-the-making documentary series from Netflix about the wrongful conviction of Wisconsin native Steven Avery for sexual assault and attempted murder. Avery would be exonerated by DNA evidence, but not until serving 18 years of a 32-year prison sentence.
Making a Murderer appeared just months after HBO turned the genre on its ear with Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst about the real-estate heir and noted eccentric suspected in the deaths and disappearances of three people in three separate states. Incredibly, Durst officially pleaded not guilty in a murder charge just last month in Los Angeles County court after being extradited from New Orleans, where he was apprehended a year earlier, in a classic case of art predicting life. As with Making a Murderer, now being primed for a second season as Avery seeks more answers and recompense, the Robert Durst story isn’t over.
The TV year was also marked by The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, an FX docudrama from writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski and director-producer Ryan Murphy that went on to win nine Emmys at this past summer’s ceremony.
The People v. O.J. may yet pale in comparison, though, to Ezra Edelman’s five-part, 10-hour ESPN 30 for 30 documentary O.J: Made in America, a true-crime documentary series that used Simpson’s life, from high-school football star to broken-down prison convict as a prism through which to view such divisive issues as race in America and the lingering potential for miscarriage of justice in today’s court system.
O.J: Made in America is the best example of a true-crime tale that takes an original case, as high-profile and prominent it might have seemed at the time, and turns it into something much bigger: an all-encompassing look at where we are as a society, how we got there, and where we go from here.
Some of the best fictional drama on the small screen this past year mimicked true-crime in both style and substance, from Fargo to The Night Of, Rectify, The Americans, Better Call Saul and The Missing.
The bigger-picture question — why now? why this year of all years? — is best left to social scientists and academics, except in the broadest strokes that will be obvious to anyone and everyone: This has been a hard year and true-crime tales are a natural extension of our increasingly unsettled, more jaded view of the world. It may be that we no longer want to be just entertained. We want authenticity and social awareness, as well.