Harlan Coben Exposes the Secrets of ‘The Stranger’

Harlan Coben Exposes the Secrets of ‘The Stranger’

There are many writers of best-selling thrillers out there, but few are as savvy about television as Harlan Coben.

Not content with 75 million books in print in 44 languages, Coben, 58, has forged a fruitful collaboration with Netflix in recent years, beginning in 2016 with the original mini-series “The Five” and continuing with “Safe,” starring Michael C. Hall, from 2018. That same year, he made a deal granting the streaming service the rights to 14 stand-alone novels, as well as first-refusal rights to new TV ideas.

His newest Netflix collaboration is an eight-episode adaptation of Coben’s 2015 novel “The Stranger.” It begins as the titular stranger, a mysterious woman played by Hannah John-Kamen, informs the lawyer Adam Price (Richard Armitage) that his wife, Corinne (Dervla Kirwan), faked a pregnancy and the ensuing miscarriage — the first in a startlingly high number of twists and revelations that make the show addictively bingeable.

As with most Coben works, “The Stranger” exposes secrets and lies behind the happy facades of his suburban families, with devastating results. But viewers familiar with the novel will notice some fresh material having to do with the teenagers in the series. Their shenanigans were hatched partly by Coben’s 25-year-old daughter, Charlotte, who wrote Episode 5.

“It was kind of difficult because there’s a story that already exists, so you have to be careful throwing in a whole other side plot,” she said in a recent phone interview. “You change one thing and then weeks later you realize, ‘Shoot, there’s a reason it was set up that way.’”

One key to Coben’s global success is that his books travel very well: All his writing and producing credits so far have come from shows produced outside the United States, including Britain (“The Five,” “Safe” and “The Stranger”) and France (“No Second Chance,” “Just One Look”), as well as Poland and Spain (“The Woods” and “The Innocent,” both forthcoming).

“Harlan writes largely about New York or New Jersey, but his characters and themes are universal,” the screenwriter Danny Brocklehurst, who has worked on Coben’s three English-language projects, said. “They’re usually about families, and they’re usually about love and friendship.

“The biggest complications about adapting the books for us in England always have to do with guns,” he added, laughing. “Ordinary people in the U.K. just don’t have them in the house.”

Coben spoke on the phone last week from his home in New Jersey, describing his ever-evolving relationship with TV and why so many second seasons aren’t just unnecessary; they’re also unfair. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What do you enjoy about working in television?

I think my new book, “The Boy from the Woods,” is my 31st or 32nd novel, and that’s a lot of time alone in a room. [Laughs.] So to get the chance to collaborate with people I respect and like has been joyful. Maybe I would not have been nearly as interested in doing this 15 or 20 years ago. But I was lucky to have a very positive experience when I did [the 2006 French film] “Tell No One” with Guillaume Canet, where they kept me involved and I didn’t experience the nightmare stories you hear about Hollywood.

Are those stories part of why your books have been adapted so much outside of the United States? Was it just easier outside of Hollywood?

When I optioned “Tell No One” with France, people thought I was nuts. But I knew I had a much better chance of getting a good film made by Guillaume. And because I like changes, to me it’s interesting to move the story’s location a bit, to have a hybrid of an American sensibility and a European sensibility. I think it’s worked for us.

Can you talk a bit about those changes — the ones you make in your adaptations? The title character in “The Stranger,” for example, is a white man in the book, but on Netflix she’s a biracial woman.

Part of it was, when we started to audition people, the men just weren’t working. It didn’t look or feel right. Once I saw Hannah do it, there was no one else for me. She has the right touch of being a little cool, a little damaged, really interesting and mysterious. She’s a great actress, and with Richard in that very first scene, they just worked.

You changed the gender of the lead in the French production “No Second Chance” as well.

In that series, the director, François Velle, made the suggestion. When I found out that Alexandra Lamy, who is a magnificent actress, was interested, I thought it would make for a great series.

How hands-on are you in the television process?

For “The Stranger,” I was involved in pretty much everything. I probably watched 300 audition tapes for different roles. Some of the big actresses and actors, like Richard or Siobhan [Finneran], we did not audition. Jennifer Saunders I wrote a half-begging letter to. They said she’d never do it, she just does comedy. But I said, “She’d be perfect in this role!” So I wrote to her and sent her the script, and she said, “Yeah, this looks like fun; I’d love to do it.” This is her first dramatic role.

Why do you remain committed to the mini-series in our age of sprawl?

I’m attached to it for now. I don’t think it’s fair to ask people to watch an eight-episode crime story like this and not give you the ending, and make you wait for Season 2. That’s just not fair to me. We’ll do a Season 2 only if we can think of an idea that’s just as good for the characters, but I’m not going to hold something back or not give the full answer in Season 1. And really, the novels don’t lend themselves to more than one season.

Everyday technology, like social media and phone-tracking apps, plays a big part in your plots. How do you use it as a thriller writer?

We all remember those great old movies where you’d see someone desperately call somebody and you’d say: “Pick up the phone! Pick up the phone!” Well, I can’t do that because everybody has a cellphone. If you’re going out with somebody, you’re going to Google their name first.

But that presents new opportunities, too. How easy would it have been to fake a pregnancy before? Where would you have gotten a fake sonogram? Now you find everything on the internet. That makes easier to produce secrets, but harder to keep them. My technology is never particularly cutting-edge, it’s just what’s going on.

Why do you focus so much on ordinary people whose happy lives suddenly disintegrate?

I live in a very nice suburban community in New Jersey, but if you look at the houses, there’s a whole world you know nothing about. It’s a little modern-day Hitchcock — in “The Stranger,” Adam is an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. We can all relate to him and Corinne, we can all relate to the bombs the stranger drops on people.

I think that’s what makes for a gripping story. Even the bad guy is trying to do best by his family. He’s just going a little too far!

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