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PBS Brings “Poisoner’s Handbook” To the Small Screen

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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If you’re a fan of poisons and 1920s New York City, be sure and tune into PBS American Experience at 8 PM EST tonight, when it debuts the TV adaptation of Deborah Blum’s bestselling The Poisoner’s Handbook. Here’s the official synopsis:

“In 1918, on the brink of becoming the largest metropolis in the world, New York City hired Charles Norris as its first scientifically trained medical examiner. Norris and his extraordinarily driven and talented chief toxicologist, Alexander Gettler, turned forensic chemistry into a formidable science, sending impatient heirs, jilted lovers, and desperate debtors to the electric chair.”

It doesn’t even begin to capture the rich tapestry of science and nifty forensic casework featured in Blum’s book, which — like many people — Jen-Luc Piquant devoured in a single sitting when it came out last year. And we were delighted to discover that the PBS series is an intelligent, artful, and quite faithful adaptation. We chatted briefly with the director, Rob Rapley, last week about his thoughts on working on The Poisoner’s Handbook.

Jen-Luc Piquant: What drew you to do this particular project?

Rob Rapley: Those decisions are made collectively with the executives of American Experience, but certainly this book caught everybody’s attention, and it seemed like a great balance of science and information. And 1920s New York is just endlessly fascinating. We take so many things for granted about the way society is run, how we are shielded from certain harmful things. It’s difficult to convey how different things were then, of just how few constraints there were. Companies could misrepresent what they were selling, drug companies could sell heroin or cocaine — there was no control. It is a moment where the function of government really changed. And to a surprising extent that was the result of the labors of a very few people, Gettler and Norris chief among them.

JLP: The book version certainly has a lot going for it: a strong narrative, good central characters, and colorful murder cases. What were some of most challenging aspects you faced in adapting this book and bringing it to the screen?

RR: There were a lot of them. Let me email you. (laughs) I’m not a scientist so presenting the science in a compelling fashion was a big challenge. It’s done very well in the book — we had to repackage that visually for television. In some cases I opted to do that through presenting some of the scientific testimony in the courtroom. That way the viewer wouldn’t be subjected to five straight minutes in the lab following some chemical procedure.

Another challenge was getting the right balance of dialogue and narration for characters. Other programs in the past have often focused on characters who left a lot of letters, so you really had a good sense of how they would have spoken and sounded, and that wasn’t so much the case here. The documents we had were more formal letters and testimony. How could we make them sound human, without distorting their characters? We talked to the families and people who knew them to make those portrayals concise, entertaining and accurate.

JLP: You also recreated a period chemistry lab from the 1920s; some of that old lab equipment is hard to come by!

RR: It really was. Some pieces I bought on E-bay, but we shot the recreations in Prague, in an old psychiatric hospital that was no longer in use, and worked with a lot of chemistry students there. They went far above the call of duty in gathering what we needed. It was worth the effort. We’d been staring at the archival photographs forever, so it was a very rewarding moment for all of us when we walked into the room and it felt like you were in that lab in Bellevue in 1927. It was very emotional.

JLP: You made the choice to use actors for a series of re-enactments, that I personally found worked very effectively. Why did you opt for that approach, as opposed to a more conventional format?

RR: For a historical documentary I feel it really frees us up. If you fully dramatize a story, especially when you’re trying to convey a lot of information, it really burdens the dialogue with all sorts of information that just doesn’t suit dialogue. On the other hand, if you do a purely narrated talking heads kind of program, you never get to know the characters. You never really develop an emotional connection with them when you’re being told about the characters and their lives as opposed to depicting them walking around. So this approach allows us to really get to know the characters — in Norris’s case, to feel his devotion to this cause and the obstacles he faced. Gettler is an even more elusive character, by all accounts a very quiet kind of difficult person to get to know, except on the subject of chemistry. He had his passions, the Yankees and so on, but his internal life, I think, was a lot of chemistry.

JLP: What was the highlight for you in making this?

RR: It’s always satisfying to tell a story that isn’t that well-known. The murders are very entertaining, but for me, the most satisfying aspects were things like the leaded gas story, the public health aspects, the extent to which a very small crew of people really changed government in a profound way that we don’t really appreciate, that we take for granted.

Again, The Poisoner’s Handbook debuts tonight on PBS. There’s also a wonderful digital interactive graphic novel, Tales From The Poisoner’s Handbook, that lets players participate in Norris and Gettler’s four most notorious cases (carbon monoxide, radium, cyanide and arsenic poisoning). Per the site: “Players find the visual evidence, chemical trails and supporting evidence to solve these real-life mysteries and learn about the biochemical impact of poisons on the human body.”  It’s well worth checking out!

Jennifer Ouellette About the Author: Jennifer Ouellette is a science writer who loves to indulge her inner geek by finding quirky connections between physics, popular culture, and the world at large. Follow on Twitter @JenLucPiquant.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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