Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Houdini miniseries adapted from controversial 1976 biography

In the interview posted on Screen World News last week, producer Gerald W. Abrams revealed that screenwriter Nicholas Meyer "adapted" his screenplay for the 4-hour Houdini miniseries from the 1976 book, Houdini: A Mind in Chains. That book was written by Meyer's father, Bernard C. Meyer, M.D.

Houdini: A Mind in Chains is a "Psychoanalytic Portrait" of Houdini. It's a controversial book as it puts forth some highly Freudian interpretations of Houdini's Milk Can escape (a womb), hints of bondage in his act, and even suggests that Houdini might have suffered from claustrophobia. It was also the first book to reveal the family conflict between Houdini, his brother Leo, and Sadie Weiss (who divorced Houdini's brother Nathan to marry Leo). Some Houdini scholars dismiss the book as too much psychobabble, but I find it interesting reading, and in 1976 it broke new ground as far as revealing new information. Unfortunately, the book was never published in paperback or any edition after the 1976 hardcover.

If Meyer really did use this book as the main source for his Houdini miniseries script, might we expect see some of these psychological issues explored? The most recent trailer, in which Houdini speaks about "fears", suggests the movie might indeed spend at least some time inside that mind of chains. I'm also wondering if this means we might finally see a reprint of the Meyer book.

"What's your biggest fear?"



  1. I hate to say this, but knowing the source (the book), I'm slightly less excited about seeing this mini-series. Though, I'm sure it has to be better than that awful Houdini movie with Catherine Zeta Jones as the medium. I didn't care for that one at all.

  2. I'm wondering how much he really used this book and how much he might just be tipping his hat to his dad. Maybe he got the production to option it -- a little extra cash for the family. Most biopics want some kind of book. Why not his dads.

  3. I totally agree with you, Dean. Adrien Brody is not my ideal Houdini at all, but after being disappointed by the liberties taken with the previous Houdini films, I was hoping that this mini-series might begin to make amends. It's really getting on my nerves how biographers and filmmakers insist on portraying Houdini as some sort of tortured hero with dozens of complexes; it's as if they think he isn't already interesting enough!

  4. I was having this conversation the other day. One of the "problems" with Houdini's life story - at least for Hollywood executives -- is it doesn't have the kind of "conflict" that they think a biopic needs. Houdini wasn't a drug addict, no divorces, and his career didn't really have ups and downs. He has a sustained success and a happy life. Hollywood hates that. So screenwriters have to invent "conflict" to get a Houdini movie through.

    But I for one am THRILLED we are at least getting a biopic instead of "Harry Houdini Vampire Hunter." So many of those in development. For me, it doesn't need to be 100% factual. Just respectful.

  5. You've hit the nail square on the head. I'm currently writing a screenplay about Harry and Bessie, and while I don't agree that their life lacked conflict, it wasn't nearly as troubled as that of your typical biopic subject. Not that I find them any less interesting for it!

    I understand the need to go slightly beyond the facts, as I've been guilty of it myself, but I just hope that the biopic doesn't favor the psychological and less factual aspects over actual events. Fingers crossed for a nice character-driven story over a sensationalized spectacle!

    - Meredith

    (P.S. The previous anonymous post was me as well.)

  6. For us the best, and most respectful is still the Tony Curtis version. A great Houdini Film.

    Closest to when he was alive so they could not stray that much.

    Followed the respectful Al Jolson biopics that were also laudatory

    Dick Brookz & Dorothy Dietrich
    The Houdini Museum
    The Only Building in the World Dedicated to Houdini

  7. Gosh, if Hollywood wants conflict and drama, Houdini's life was filled with it really. He struggled for a long time as 'Dime Museum Harry' and eventually broke out into a larger career and then stardom. He was constantly ripped off and dealing with competitors. His mother's death was devastating to the poor man. He could be the kindest person, quietly helping his struggling fellow artists, and then extremely fierce when his ego went into overdrive. I've always felt his 'real life' was so much more interesting than the stuff they make up. Imagine a movie that left you feeling 'inspired' rather than questioning his motivations. Sure he was a complex individual, but look how many of us got into this business because of him! There is a movie there, a block buster, for the right team of creative people.

    1. I am completely in accordance, Dean. One of the reasons that "Houdini" (1953) was so disappointing to me is that so much of the script was pure fabrication. I guess what really annoys me is that it makes his life appear far more trite and boring than it actually was, and for those who have never picked up a book about him, they don't know any better. Houdini's story is one of the most inspirational I know, and it's high time a decent film about him hit the big screen.


  8. Line from the official press release appears to support a somewhat psychological approach:

    "A thrilling ride throughout Harry’s psyche, HOUDINI delves deep behind the curtain into his life through his stunts, his visions, and his mastery of illusion."