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The Outsider: Biggest Differences Between The Stephen King Book & HBO Show

Before The Outsider was an HBO show, it was a Stephen King novel. We break down everything the show changed from its original source material.

The Outsider: Biggest Differences Between The Stephen King Book & HBO Show
The Outsider: Biggest Differences Between The Stephen King Book & HBO Show

Fans were captivated by HBO’s The Outsider, but before it graced the small screen, it was a Stephen King book. Naturally, many changes had to occur from page to screen in order to make the show work. As is the case with most adaptations, some changes made were rather significant.

The Outsider starts off as a straightforward crime show, following Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman) as he’s arrested for the gruesome murder of a young boy named Frankie Peterson. Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn), the detective in charge of the case, hires private detective Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo) as a consultant. Ralph and Holly slowly realize supernatural forces are at a play and race to stop the dark entity El Cuco, who ends up being responsible for a string of murders.

Characters and storylines were added, changed, and removed to make the television adaptation work. Ultimately, each major change ended up serving the show. Here’s a look at every major change the HBO show made to King’s novel.

Ralph Anderson’s Son Derek

The Outsider: Biggest Differences Between The Stephen King Book & HBO Show
The Outsider: Biggest Differences Between The Stephen King Book & HBO Show

In the TV show, Ralph and his wife, Jeannie (Mare Winningham), tragically lost their son, Derek, to cancer. The boy’s death was recent, so The Outsider shows Jeannie in a deep depression behind closed doors and Ralph turning to alcohol in an attempt to cope with the loss. At one point in the show, Ralph is haunted by a vision of his late son. Needless to say, Derek’s death looms over Ralph and Jeannie throughout the entire series.

That’s not the case in the book — King’s story barely mentions Derek. In fact, he’s away at a camp during the murder that leads to the arrest of Terry Maitland. The show’s decision for Ralph and Jeannie to lose their son was a wise one. Terry was accused of murdering a young boy so, as a father who recently lost his own son, this obviously hit Ralph differently. Terry used to coach Derek in little league, so it’s assumed that he and Ralph were on generally friendly terms before the murder. However, when Ralph arrests him, he acts coldly toward Terry, even asking if Terry ever touched Derek.

While Ralph was still dedicated to the case in the book, the show made it more personal. Ralph likely wouldn’t have acted the way he did if he didn’t recently lose his own son. After Terry was murdered and Holly helped Ralph understand that there was no way Terry killed Frankie, it undoubtedly led to immense guilt. That feeling is likely what drove him to find the real cause of Frankie’s murder.

The Character Of Holly Gibney

The Outsider: Biggest Differences Between The Stephen King Book & HBO Show
The Outsider: Biggest Differences Between The Stephen King Book & HBO Show

Fans of the Stephen King book likely noticed that the character of Holly Gibney looked quite different on show than she was described. In the book, she’s depicted as a Caucasian woman in her mid 40’s to 50’s, with graying hair. In the show, she is a Black woman who is likely in her 30s. Holly’s appearance was not vital to the story, meaning there was nothing stopping the show from casting a woman who looked completely different than the way the character was described in the book. With that, they were able to cast Erivo, who garnered praise for her role in the HBO adaptation.

In keeping with the story’s title, Holly is something of an outsider herself, as she is depicted having a hard time with social interactions. The show keeps this characteristic of Holly’s, but tweaks it slightly. In the novel, she suffers from OCD, sensory processing disorder, and is likely somewhere on the autism spectrum. The show nixes the first two characteristics, but holds onto her autistic tendencies. A hallmark trait of autism is a fixation on certain subjects. The show was wise to keep this, as it’s what helped her to figure out how she and Ralph could defeat El Cuco.

El Cuco’s Introduction

The Outsider: Biggest Differences Between The Stephen King Book & HBO Show
The Outsider: Biggest Differences Between The Stephen King Book & HBO Show

The show lays down more foreshadowing prior to El Cuco’s introduction than the book does. During the first two episodes of The Outsider, the show occasionally shows a hooded figure in the background that doesn’t look quite right. There’s something about the person’s facial figures that feel off. It’s the audience’s first introduction to El Cuco. In the book, the entity doesn’t appear until much later in the story. The show cleverly drops hints early on that there’s more to the case of Terry Maitland than meets the eye.

Once Holly pieces the clues together, she gives a formal presentation to all involved on what El Cuco is and how it’s connected to the current case. She is able to put together such a thorough presentation because her research led her to a string of people who have likely fallen victim to El Cuco, just as Terry Maitland did. The book doesn’t include such a large chain of events. Terry and Heath Hofstadter (originally Heath Holmes in the novel) are the only ones affected by the entity. This change was wise, as it added to the fear and mystery surrounding El Cuco early on, allowing it to be a foreboding monster for the majority of the show.

The Outsider’s Ending

The Outsider: Biggest Differences Between The Stephen King Book & HBO Show
The Outsider: Biggest Differences Between The Stephen King Book & HBO Show

The ending of the HBO show included a major departure from the novel in order to set itself up for a potential season 2. Both versions of the story end with El Cuco being defeated, although the show and book go about it in different ways. All seems well in the season finale of the HBO adaptation until the mid-credits scene. After the final showdown, Holly briefly sees Jack in the mirror. She brushes it off as paranoia, but the final lingering shot of the scratch on her arm says otherwise. Early in the show, Holly figures out that El Cuco jumped from person to person by scratching its next victim. So the wound on her arm implies that she was infected.

While the ending of season 1 was clearly intended to set up The Outsider season 2, the fate of the show remains up in the air as of this writing. HBO ended up canceling the horror series after season 1, but work is still being done on season 2. The series is currently being shopped around to different networks. Every major change from the original book to the TV show added layers of depth and mystery that easily set up The Outsider to continue, but fans will have to keep holding on a little longer to see if those changes were worth it in the end.

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