Set to air its finale this weekend, The Outsider, HBO's limited series chronicling the unraveling of a small Georgia town following the gruesome murder of a young boy, is the latest in a recent uptick of Stephen King adaptations. It may also be the best to make the transition to TV thus far. Helmed by Richard Price (The Night Of, The Wire), the series has featured a stellar cast — particularly Ben Mendelson and Cynthia Erivo — and enough nightmare fuel to keep us itching for the next installment from one week to the next.
Like most book-to-screen adaptations, The Outsider has made a number of changes from King's source material. Some are relatively minor name changes. With the exception of Terry, the Maitlands in particular all got new names. Pregnant detective Tamika Collins was originally Betsy Riggins. DA Bill Samuels is now "Kenneth Hayes." And attorney Howie Salomon and suspect Heath Hofstadter originally had the surnames "Gold" and "Holmes," respectively. The show's pacing and sequence of events are also predictably more cinematic than the book's pages of questioning and exposition that precede any real progress in the case. But HBO's version of The Outsider has also made some more significant changes in its transition from page to screen, and overall, they've affected the show quite positively. Obviously, many a spoiler lies ahead.
This may not seem like a particularly massive change, but shifting The Outsider's setting from the fictional town of Flint City, Oklahoma, to Cherokee City, Georgia has benefited the show in several ways. There's something a little stickier, a bit more unsettling about the series taking place in the humid south that makes all the evil lurking beneath the surface of this case seem all the more tense and effective. The group having to venture to Tennessee (rather than Marysville, Texas) also heightens the drama, taking them much further away from their loved ones. Some locations and essential story beats remain the same: The Maitlands still take a trip to Dayton, Ohio, where Terry has his fate sealed by Heath Hofstadter, but the general vibe of The Outsider is definitely altered thanks to the new southeastern setting.
One of the biggest (and best) leaps the show has taken was casting the incomparable Cynthia Erivo in the role of Holly Gibney. Her character in the book is described as a pale middle-aged woman with graying hair who suffers from clinical anxiety. In the show, she still boasts many of the same personality traits — and still reads as autistic, even if she's never explicitly diagnosed as such. But rather than attributing her abilities to science as King does in the book, the series implies there might be something supernatural at work within her. Price has said he made all of these changes with King's blessing, but there was one area where King didn't budge — her name.
If there's one thing The Outsider does incredibly well, it's correcting the oft-unbearable whiteness of its source material. Holly is just one example of this. In the novel, almost every character we encounter is described as white; Price pretty much tosses this out the window, and the show is all the better for it.
Another change that largely seems to exist to serve Holly is the addition of ex-detective Andy Katcavage (portrayed by Derek Cecil). Katcavage is entirely a show creation, perhaps added because Holly's often lonely detective work would not have worked as well on screen as it does in the book. Andy has not only helped to give Holly her own separate life from what's happening in Cherokee City and beyond, but he's provided us with more insight into her wants and desires, giving her a constant friend to depend on (and on a show this frequently depressing, a love interest to get excited about). Of course, their relationship also ups the stakes for Holly should something happen to him.
These two show-created characters further help to illustrate the horror of El Cuco and the way it destroys families and leaves devastation in its wake. New Yorker Maria Caneles (Diany Rodriguez) is the only surviving "murderer" and El Cuco victim they're able to find, and Holly is first introduced to the concept of El Cuco after a nearby woman at the prison overhears her discussion with Maria. (In the book, Yunis Sablo introduces the monster with the help of a Mexican film). It takes quite a while for the rest of the gang to get on board with Holly's theory after she brings it to the table, and in the interim, El Cuco only grows stronger.
Similarly, the show creates a cousin for Heath Hofstadter named Tracey Powell (Drez Ryan), who falls victim to the same heinous neck rash as Jack Hoskins. Tracey's DNA is also found in the car where Hofstadter kidnapped the murdered little girls, and he evidently dies by suicide via cops, unable to face what he did or what he knows about the evil that now controls him. Tracy doesn't appear at all in the book, but his existence in the series offers us more insight into El Cuco's ability to eradicate entire families and its delight in feeding on unthinkable grief and pain.
One of the biggest changes between the book and the series is the death of Derek Anderson, the son of Detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn). In the book, he spends the summer safely at summer camp; in the series he's recently died of cancer. While there is certainly something to be said for how the emotional weight of losing a child affects our protagonist, The Outsider's handling of his grief occasionally borders on cliched, and — even worse — cheesy. (I'm not sure I can discuss the "Dad, you have to let me go" scene with a straight face, and I am someone who likes this show and Ben Mendelsohn's performance a lot).
It makes sense on many levels to immerse Ralph in grief on a much more personal level. We know that El Cuco feeds on this kind of devastation, and that Ralph deeply feels the weight of Frankie Peterson's death, in part due to his own loss. It just feels as though we could have done with a little more showing (rather than telling) how this family is actually moving through their lives following the death of their son.
For a show that has so effectively built on its source material, it will be interesting to see where it goes from here. Originally pitched as a limited series, Price reportedly working on a second season for which there will be no source material.
The Outsider airs its season finale on HBO this Sunday, March 8th at 9:00 PM ET.
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Jade Budowski is a freelance writer with a knack for ruining punchlines and harboring dad-aged celebrity crushes. She was previously a reporter/producer at Decider and is a member of the Television Critics Association. Follow her on Twitter: @jadebudowski.