One day someone will make a great movie or television series about the life of the great Houdini. Sadly this Adrien Brody starring two-part mini-series isn’t it. The show isn’t a total bust; it’s a handsome looking production and Brody is good (if miscast) in the lead role. However, this feels very slight, even with a three hour running time. The reason this History Channel production doesn’t work is simple – nobody had the balls to keep the integrity of the story.
A couple of years ago I talked with Kevin Costner about his record-breaking western mini-series Hatfields and McCoys (which also aired on the History Channel). Executives wanted to shoe-horn that show into two episodes (like Houdini); however Costner wanted to make sure that he could tell the full story the way that he wanted, simply spread over three nights instead of two. The History Channel objected to this, and Costner threatened to walk away unless they did it. Costner believed that the risk wasn’t in making a western mini-series in a time when westerns and the TV mini-series were unpopular, but that the big risk would be butchering the story rather than letting it breathe. Emmys and ratings success tell the rest of the story.
Uli Edel or writer Nicholas Meyer should have had the balls to demand that Houdini have enough room to tell its full story. Instead we have a three hour drama that tells much of its story by voice over. It’s obvious that much of the weightier moments were cut down in the edit, leaving a show that may be digestible for the masses, but it’s lacking in storytelling grandeur.
Houdini isn’t bad, but it’s infuriating to know that it could have been so much better. It’s a good starter for those who want to know about the iconic magician, but it’s very superficial. The amount of voice-over is a clear indication that a lot of the plot was excised in the edit, leaving Brody’s narration to cover the plot. You could listen to this with the image and miss very little.
Houdini is worth your time, but if you want to know more then you should read The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero (itself primed for a screen adaptation). Sometimes the reviews write themselves but this mini-series on Houdini’s life really does lack magic.