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How ‘The Outsider’ HBO Show Compares to the Stephen King Book
Recent years have brought lots of Stephen King tales to both the big and small screens. And on Sunday, HBO is debuting the latest, a 10-part adaptation of his recent novel, The Outsider. (The book came out in May 2018 and is hitting our TVs barely a week into 2020—that’s how hot King properties are right now.)
The author is best known for scary stories like Carrie, It, and The Shining, along with some beloved non-scary ones like The Shawshank Redemption and Stand by Me. But in recent years, he’s also written his Bill Hodges trilogy, hard-boiled detective novels that are full of murder and intrigue but very light on the paranormal. In The Outsider, classic King and the Hodges trilogy collide, both literally and stylistically. The book features some character overlap with that series, but in terms of its structure and tone, it also often feels far more like a murder mystery than a horror story. Mild spoiler alert: It’s both. Here’s what you should know.
What’s the story about?
The Outsider tells the story of the gruesome murder of a young boy in the fictional town of Flint City, Oklahoma. Detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) investigates, though it’s not a tough case to crack as mountains of forensic and eyewitness evidence point to beloved local teacher and baseball coach Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman, who also executive produced the series and directed its first two episodes). But Maitland has a solid alibi for the crime, which means that it looks like Frankie was murdered by a man who was somehow in two places at once.
The series is loyal to the novel’s dryly grim tone, with Mendelsohn perfect as the weary but honorable small-town cop and Jason Bateman cooly moving as a man who’s watching his life explode in front of him. The first two episodes play out pretty much like the beginning of the book, slowly unfurling the mystery: After the discovery of Frankie Peterson’s body, witness after witness can tie local coach and family man Maitland to the crime. He was spotted offering the kid a ride in his van, and then later seen covered with blood. The crime scene is fingerpainted in his prints, his blood type was present, too. But Maitland was also captured on video in a totally different town at the time the crime was committed, attending a teaching conference with countless colleagues who can all vouch for his presence. And his fingerprints are found at the conference site, too.
In the face of the strong evidence that somehow suggests that the coach was in two places at the same time, the local DA reluctantly withdraws the charges against him. Meanwhile, the crime tears the Peterson family apart, and his mother suffers a fatal heart attack, leaving her husband and elder son, Ollie, suddenly doubly bereaved. His family shattered, Ollie Peterson shoots Terry Maitland to death outside of court, and with his last breaths the coach again swears that he’s innocent. Deeply guilty over the coach’s death, Detective Anderson’s certainty that Maitland was the murderer turns to doubt as he delves deeper into the mystery.
Mare Winningham and Ben Mendelsohn as Jeannie and Ralph Anderson in The Outsider.
Are there any differences between the book and the show?
The first episodes of The Outsider hew very closely to the story as it played out in King’s novel. There are some minor differences. The pet dog that discovers Frankie Peterson’s body is a German Shepherd, not a beagle, and some characters have been slightly reimagined—for example, the pregnant member of the Flint City detective team is Tamika in the show, and Betsy in the book.
But there is one significant difference: In the novel, Anderson’s son Derek, who Maitland once coached in Little League, is largely absent from the story because he’s away at summer camp. But in the show, Derek has died of cancer. It’s not a major alteration to the plot—either way, Derek isn’t a big player in the story, at least so far. But the change helps reshape the detective’s motivations and re-contextualizes one of his most important decisions.
Julianne Nicholson, who starred in another Stephen King adaptation, 2017’s 1922, plays Coach Maitland’s wife, Glory.
Rather than arresting the suspected murderer quietly at his home, Anderson arranges for Maitland to be apprehended while he’s in the middle of coaching a game, with half the town on hand witnesses. It turns the proceedings into a spectacle, and all-but does away with the possibility that the public would ever treat Maitland as someone who’s innocent until proven guilty—which paves the way for the coach’s murder in Episode Two.
Anderson’s a good cop who’s not usually prone to such unprofessional theatrics, but horror of Frankie Peterson’s murder combined with his understanding that it was committed by the man who coached his own son drives him to proceed with the case in a way he later regrets. Now, the added change of Derek’s death makes the situation all the more emotional for Anderson—Maitland, an accused child rapist and murderer, didn’t just coach Anderson’s son. He coached his dead son, whom he continues to mourn deeply. Derek’s death strengthens the explanation for Anderson’s rash behavior, while still being a generally minor change from the book.
Gabrielle Bruney is a writer and editor for Esquire, where she focuses on politics and culture.