Warning: contains huge plot spoilers. Steer clear until you’ve seen The Stranger. Our spoiler-free review is here.
Harlan Coben’s 2015 novel The Stranger is a story to give pause to anybody who thinks that an incognito tab or a fake online username will keep their secrets. Barring the most sophisticated spook tech, whatever an ordinary person does online is traceable to someone, somewhere. In Coben’s novel, that someone is the titular stranger, a revealer-of-wrongs who sets off a devastating chain reaction when they spill family secrets.
Coben’s novel is now an eight-part Netflix show starring Richard Armitage, Siobhan Finneran, Dervla Kirwan, Shaun Dooley, Stephen Rea, Tony Head, Jennifer Saunders and Black Mirror’s Hannah John Kamen. From the book to the series, the action’s moved continents, the stranger’s changed gender and a host of small and fundamental changes have been made to create a perfectly bingeable UK thriller. With major spoilers for both, here’s how the two differ…
The book is set in America
Not just in America, but all over America. The plots unfurl in various locations from the upscale Cedarfield area of the New Jersey suburbs where the Price family live, to the Ohio home of blackmail victim Heidi Dunn and police chief Johanna Griffin, to the lakeside Pennsylvanian garage out of which the Stranger and his crew operate. The UK series, on the other hand, condenses the action only to the fictional area of Cedarfield, Greater Manchester, where the episodes were filmed.
The US-to-UK shift means fewer guns, fewer people named Tripp and Logan, a much more closely knit set of characters, the local lacrosse club being swapped for a football ground, and nobody in the TV series being described as an ass-waffle (must be an American thing).
The Stranger is a man with four accomplices
His name is Chris Taylor, a young man who became disillusioned working for the online Fake-A-Pregnancy company, so gathers together a group of like-minded people (Eduardo, Merton, Ingrid and Gabrielle – in the TV show, it’s just a female Chris and Ingrid, a couple who are saving to buy a beach bar in Hawaii. One of Ingrid’s pseudonyms is Gabrielle) with access to personal online data in order to expose people’s online secrets. Chris believes secrets were cancers because when he was 16, he learned that his father wasn’t his biological dad. The five of them expose secrets and blackmail victims for moral reasons (Chris) and for cash (the rest of them).
In this BT.com interview, novelist Harlan Coben says it was his idea to make the stranger female for the TV series, where she’s played by Hannah John Kamen, whom you may have seen in Black Mirror episode Playtest.
No alpacas are decapitated
The entire Shameless-ish subplot involving teenagers Dante, Mike, Daisy, Thomas, the silent disco bonfire and the beheaded alpaca was an invention for the TV series, which gives the kids their own separate plot involving Dante ending up in a coma after a night of partying and Daisy’s sister Ella being cyber-bullied by her schoolfriend Olivia. Keeping it all in the family, the kids all attend the same school in the TV series, where Thomas’ mum Corinne (Dervla Kirwin), Daisy and Ella’s mum Vicky (Jade Harrison) and Mike’s dad Doug (Shaun Dooley) all work as teachers.
Paul Kaye’s character has an er, different name
In the TV series, Johanna’s corrupt police colleague played by Paul Kaye is named John Katz. In the book, he’s an ex-copper (publicly disgraced after he used undue force on a black suspect, killed him and was forced to resign) called John Kuntz. Seeing how many times that surname is said aloud in the TV series, you can understand the change. (Fact fans might be interested to know that Kaye’s wife has the surname Katz in real-life.)
A few other names have been changed for localisation reasons, as you’d never meet an Englishman called Tripp, Shaun Dooley’s character Tripp Evans (a teacher in the series, an ad exec in the book) was renamed Doug Tripp.
Side note – John Kuntz is a real person, one of several who donated money to charities of Harlan Coben’s choosing for the chance to appear as a character in the book.
Katz’s sick kid really is sick
In the TV series, Katz has one child – Olivia, who lives with her mother after their parents’ divorce. Olivia’s ongoing unspecified illness is revealed to have been caused by her mother, who is suffering from Munchausen By Proxy and deliberately making her daughter sick using medication and rat poison. Corinne suspected something was up with Olivia’s illness before she disappeared, and it was her son Thomas who eventually discovered the truth and told Olivia’s father.
In the book, Katz has three sons, one of whom Robby, has bone cancer. He undertakes the shady security work with businessman Larry Power to be able to pay for Robby’s expensive hospital bills.
Adam meets Johanna because he’s a suspect in Ingrid’s murder
In the TV series, Johanna is first led to the Price house because Katz plants Corinne’s key fob at the scene of Heidi’s murder (which takes place in her Ohio home, not her cafe). In the book, Ingrid is discovered shot dead (by Kuntz) in her hotel room, and Johanna interviews Adam because he’s initially a suspect in Ingrid’s murder after he bribed the lacrosse club car park security guard for her licence plate number so he could track her down.
Adam’s dad isn’t in it
Tony Head’s property developer character Ed Price, Adam’s largely estranged father, isn’t in the book (where Adam’s dad died of a heart attack when Adam was sixteen). In the TV series, we learn that Ed is Chris the Stranger’s biological father, but the identity of Chris’ real dad isn’t revealed in the novel.
The TV series plot in which Ed tries to force Martin Killane (Stephen Rea) out of his dilapidated terraced house so it can be demolished to make way for a swish new development belongs to a character named Mayor Gusherowski in the book. He’s a slimy politician who attempts to get Old Man Rinsky and his wife to leave their home so that a strip mall can be built on the land.
Stephen Rea’s character’s wife is still alive
Martin Killane’s book counterpart is retired cop Lieutenant Colonel Michael Rinsky, an old pillar of the community type whose beloved wife Eunice is suffering from dementia. Unlike Killane, who was resisting moving house because he’d stored his wife’s dead body (the mother of Chris ‘The Stranger’) behind a wall after beating her to death when she tried to leave him and take their daughter, Old Man Rinsky doesn’t want to move because his wife Eunice is suffering from dementia and it soothes her to stay in familiar surroundings. Both characters are ex-cops with a sideline in investigating John and Jane Doe cold cases.
There’s no Wes
DC Wesley Ross (Kadiff Kirwan), Johanna’s partner and provider of much-needed comic relief, doesn’t feature in the book. Instead, Johanna works with a rookie called Norbert Prendergast (named after another real person who donated to charity for the chance to appear in the novel). We love Wes.
The book has an epigraph by TS Eliot
Taken from Eliot’s pageant play The Rock are the lines: Oh my soul be prepared for the coming of the stranger/ Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions./There is one who remembers the way to your door/ Life you may evade, but death you shall not.
Some of it is autobiographically inspired by Richard Armitage
Speaking to BT.com, Richard Armitage explained that “There was also some personal stuff in there as well, like I’d written some biography things that came out of my own life that sort of found their way into the script somehow. And so it was kind of tailored to me.”
We’re thinking it’s probably not the beheaded-an-Alpaca-on-PCP thing.
The ending is slightly different
When Johanna tracks Tripp and Adam to the forest clearing where Tripp has buried Corinne, Adam shoots Tripp dead using the gun he wrestled off Katz when he was being held by Chris and Ingrid, just like in the book (except there, Kuntz also shoots and kills the Stranger’s accomplices Mason, Eduardo and Gabrielle).
In the TV series, Johanna wipes the gun clean of Adam’s prints and hides it in Chris and Ingrid’s apartment to be found by the police, thereby framing Katz for Tripp and Corinne’s murders, telling him “Katz can deny it all he wants but his gun links all the deaths together. Look, Adam, your boys lost their mum. If the truth come out, they’ll lose you as well.” On the show, the locals never find out that Tripp was the one who killed Corinne, not Katz, and Bob (who was in cahoots with Tripp about framing Corinne for stealing the club money and had hired the Stranger to dig up dirt on her) is still coaching the football team.
In the book, Johanna falsely testifies that she overheard Tripp’s confession and witnessed Adam shoot him in self defence, faking DNA evidence by using Tripp’s dead hand to scratch Adam to make it look as though there’d been a fight. Tripp’s family get a huge insurance payout after his death, making Adam wonder if that had been Tripp’s plan once Adam had discovered he had framed and killed Corinne – to provoke Adam into killing him. After a trial, Adam gets off and goes free.
In the book, the Stranger is never seen after Katz kills his accomplices, but in the TV series, Chris is spotted at the boys’ football match attended by Adam and her father, leaving the possibility open for a second series.
The Stranger is available now to stream on Netflix. Read about the new British TV drama on its way here.