Whether you saw the pilot episode of the HBO miniseries 'Boardwalk Empire,' whether you liked it or not, you probably did not escape the multi-million dollar marketing campaign that surrounded the airing of the pilot episode on September 19th. The enormous sums that Martin Scorsese and HBO are spending compel me, to look for clues about how to create such a product with such lucrative potential. What you may not know is that the 'Boardwalk Empire' property was not fiction, but a history book. What did Scorsese and the HBO execs see in an obscure book written by a judge who sits on the Atlantic County New Jersey bench?
In 2002 Nelson Johnson persuaded an English company, Plexus, to publish 'Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City." Some of the book's appeal can be deduced from the subtitle, but the strongest reasons are not quite as obvious. I've read the book and think I know what compelled the big boys to reach into their pockets.
1. CHARACTER: The real Enoch "Nucky" Johnson was known nationally as the Czar of the Ritz, a vice lord and political boss of such power that he was able to exert absolute control of the Las Vegas of the Jazz Age and leverage that influence to the election of Senators and Presidents. Nucky was both a kingmaker and a crook. What makes him so compelling is that he was charismatic AND corrupt. Great fictional characters are contradictory; resolving those contradictions is what good characterization is all about.
2. NOSTALGIA: The old boardwalks were midways, the coastal equivalents of state fairs. Every American has childhood memories of those places. Because we experienced them as children, our memories of them are vivid and magical. When we write description, we try to tap people's memories. Places like the Boardwalk of Atlantic City are so deeply embedded in our memories and so closely associated with pleasure, that they are irresistibly compelling background for any story.
3. POWER: The heroes and villains we invent control their worlds. A story about how such power works is always compelling because readers and viewers, in reality, control very small spheres of influence. But the need for control is gene-deep. The greater a character's ability to change reality, the more appealing the character.