Harlan Coben’s The Stranger: From novel to Netflix - How we made it

The Stranger comes to Netflix with a different setting, new characters, and Jennifer Saunders! We chat to cast and crew to find out how it was adapted from book to TV series.

By Sophia Moir Published: 06 February 2020 - 3.20pm

Hit Play above to watch The Stranger cast talk adaptation for Netflix in our BT TV video

Cancel all your plans because the first of Harlan Coben's TV adaptations as part of a multi-million exclusive Netflix deal is nearly here.

The Stranger - adapted from the 2015 book of the same name - centres on Adam Price (Richard Armitage), an ordinary man whose life changes when The Stranger tells him a devastating secret about his wife.

With a cast that includes Armitage, Jennifer Saunders and Siobhan Finneran, The Stranger is definitely one to watch for fans of compelling crime dramas like Traces, Trust Me and The Five.

But how did the process of adapting the book into a TV series work? Were there challenges in making it for Netflix, rather than a traditional broadcaster? Why did they decide to set it in Manchester? And how did they get Jennifer Saunders on board?!

Speaking to BT TV and other journalists at the show’s world premiere in London, the cast and crew of The Stranger reveal how it went from a novel to Netflix - or jump to a specific section from the list below:

The Stranger still Richard Armitage Netflix

The ‘challenge’ of making it binge-worthy for Netflix

Harlan Coben's worked with Netflix before - on 2018 TV series Safe - but that wasn't an adaptation of one of his books. Harlan reunites with the streaming service, as well as Red Production Company, for the TV adaptation of The Stranger.

The crime author, below, worked closely with Red’s Danny Brocklehurst (Ordinary Lies) and Nicola Shindler (Happy Valley) to take the story from novel to screenplay.

Shindler says that the process of adapting a book for Netflix - where all the episodes are released at once - differs to a terrestrial channel. She explains: “Richard and Harlan spend a long time extending the story and looking at where we put acts, breaks, and episode hooks. We structure the whole story along the episode hooks so that you’re always going to come back. 

“With Netflix, when you know the audience can watch it straight away, you really have to ramp up those last three minutes so they go to the next episode. It’s exciting though. It’s like a challenge getting people to watch it as quickly as possible.”

The Stranger Harlan Coben Netflix

Danny confirms that the start and end of the TV series are very similar to the story of the original book, but that some story in the middle has been changed.

He says: “I think Harlan would be the first to admit, you don’t just pick up the book and copy and paste it [into a screenplay]. We made a lot of creative decisions about things we wanted to change and things we wanted to keep.”

Somewhat surprisingly, Harlan was not precious at all about his original story, and gave the show's writers a lot of freedom to make it work for the Netflix TV series.

He explains: “I don’t like an adaptation that’s a slave to the book - just read the book if you want the book. I probably drove more of the changes than most. We added stuff - we didn't really take that much away from the book.”

They all agreed that Netflix gave them the creative freedom to make the show on their terms. Harlan says: “They've been really good partners. The short answer is yes they gave us a freedom that I think a lot of people don't get."

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Moving the location from the US to the UK 

People who have read Harlan Coben’s novel will soon notice one major difference - the TV series is set in England, rather than the book's setting of the United States.

Harlan explains: “We condensed the world. In the book, The Stranger is dropping bombs all over the country, here The Stranger is dropping the bombs in one community.” 

The Stranger was filmed around Stockport, Greater Manchester, but the location isn’t actually specified as Manchester in the series - although many of the characters have northern accents.

One of those characters is DS Johanna Griffin, played by Happy Valley and Downton Abbey star Siobhan Finneran, who speaks in her natural Mancunian accent.

She jokes: "Hopefully I make sense and it’s clear, or they’ll have to put subtitles up, won’t they?!”

The Stranger Siobhan Finneran still Netflix

Of course there’s more to a change in setting than simply altering the filming locations and character’s accents - cultural changes are needed too. One element of the book that was omitted from the adaptation was the use of guns.

Danny explains: ”Culturally it’s difficult as people have got access to weapons much more easily in America than in the UK, so we're forever having this discussion. As the plot moves through Harlan's books, inevitably someone pulls out a gun, which is not, even now, that common for people to have in the UK, so it does become tricky.”

In the end, a lot of the guns are removed but the team found 'creative' ways to give characters guns if they're needed - like a police officer for example.

Another change that came with the new UK setting is the sports club that Adam (played by Richard Armitage, below left) frequents. In the book, it's a huge lacrosse sports club, but the team knew that that “wasn’t gonna fly” in England. 

Harlan says: “Lacrosse is not a sport that's widely played in the UK, so we decided visually that football would be more interesting.”

The Stranger football club Netflix

You might notice that the football game played by fathers and sons in the show is referenced as 'lads vs dads' - a very British turn of phrase that Harlan had to be convinced of.

Harlan admits: “I was surprised at lads vs dads. We call it the father/son game so I was a little confused actually... [but I thought] let's stick with it anyway, the Americans will pick it up.

“There were a few things like that but we usually discuss those. Every once in a while I say ‘that may be too British’ and they'll tease me, and [they’ll say] ‘that may be too American’ and we figure it out.”

Making The Stranger a woman and changing the characters

Another major change that fans of the book will recognise is that The Stranger is now a woman, played by Hannah John-Kamen (Ant-Man and The Wasp, Ready Player One), rather than a man in the book.

This change was spearheaded by Harlan Coben himself, who now says he can’t believe he ever wrote the character without Hannah, below as The Stranger, in mind.

Of making the change, he says: “I was the one that had the idea to make The Stranger female. We realised Hannah could do it, she’s just The Stranger.

"The first time we did the table read, I was like ‘oh my God’. We were trying to figure out who should be The Stranger, and frankly we did have a lot of auditions, it wasn’t really working, we tried with guys, then Hannah was there and it was just like ‘bang’. It was perfect.”

The Stranger Hannah-John Kamen Netflix

The character of DC Wesley Ross, played by Kadiff Kirwan, was created for the TV series specifically - he's not in the book.

Kadiff’s character works closely with DS Johanna Griffin (Siobhan Finneran) in the series, the pair appearing as a police double act of sorts, adding some light relief to proceedings. 

Writer Danny Brocklehurst admits he enjoyed writing their scenes. He says: “I try and amuse myself along the way by adding things [to the script] that make me smile, like how Johanna and Wes talk to each other. You start off with them being this comic double act, but over eight episodes you take them somewhere very different.”

Kadiff concurs: “It was written so well that we didn’t really need to ad-lib much. Of course we twisted and bent a bit of language once we got to know our characters more, but on the whole what you see on screen was what was on the page.” 

The Stranger Siobhan Finneran and Kadiff Kirwan still Netflix

Richard Armitage (The Hobbit, Hannibal), plays the lead character of Adam Price. He used both the original book and the script to learn more about his character.

He says: “The book becomes like a bedrock and then the script becomes the tool that you're going to use to bring the character to life."

He continues: “There were things that weren't in the book and things that were in the book, and rather than trying to be to block out what shouldn't be there, I just let it all be there, and just focus on the parts of the story that the TV series is going to capture.

“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.”

Getting the cast on board - including Jennifer Saunders

We can’t mention the cast without talking about the supremely talented Hannah John-Kamen, who plays The Stranger.

Within the first 10 minutes of the first episode, she’s giving scene-stealing performances. And if Harlan Coben was sold on Hannah from her first audition, Hannah was sold from her first read of the script.

She says: “For me, the story is just so gripping. The character is just so mysterious and has so much depth. To come in, drop the bomb and just disappear. It was very fun to play.”

But someone who you wouldn’t expect to see in a Netflix drama is Jennifer Saunders, best known for her comedic performances in TV shows such as Absolutely Fabulous and French and Saunders. The Stranger will be her first major drama role.

Of getting on board, she admits: “I was thrilled to be asked, and also slightly scared because it really is quite a departure for me, but the script was so amazingly gripping. It was an absolute no-brainer. I found the action thrilling.”

The Stranger Jennifer Saunders Netflix

Richard Armitage says the fact The Stranger is the type of show he’d watch on TV appealed to him. He says: “This is the type of show that I would gravitate to. I'd read Harlan's book in preparation for the meeting, and it's such a page turner."

He adds that the journey his character Adam Price takes over the duration of the eight episodes intrigued him. He says: “I loved the journey... who he is at the beginning of this story and who he becomes by the end of it, it's a very fast collapse of a person and collapse of a family.

“I love the fact that he wasn't a maverick of some kind, he was just an ordinary guy dealing with something absurd and shocking, and I think as a viewer you put yourself in that situation and think ‘how would I respond to this?' That was what interested me about it.”

Kadiff agreed that he was hooked from the first time he laid eyes on the script. He told BT TV: “Honestly it was such wonderful writing. Wes had such humour to him. I’m always attracted to characters who use humour in various ways, sometimes as a weapon to disarm people, and as a [police] detective that’s a wonderful gift to have.”

Keeping spoilers spoilers - the secrets of the set 

If you’re watching the show and desperate to find out what happens, you wouldn’t be alone as the actors felt exactly the same when they were handed the script.

Jennifer Saunders was so engrossed in the story that she asked for the full script with everyone else’s episodes to be sent to her so she could find out what happened.

Kadiff, below, agrees: “It was one of the scripts that was an absolute page turner. I think I read the first three episodes in one sitting - I just had to know what was going on. 

“I think that shows on the screen as it’s constantly tense and there is a lots of twists and turns which I think gives our show such a special quality to it.”

Kadiff Kirwan Netflix

So when everyone found out what happens at the end of the series, did they struggle to keep secrets of the script, well, secret?

Hannah says: “I don’t find it hard to not spoil things, because I know I don’t want to ruin it for everyone, and I find it such a shame when people do.”

Jennifer agrees: “The whole thing is so full of spoiler alerts. You think ‘Oh no, should I have said that? Oh God!’ People could read the book, that’s the truth. It is different, but there is a book of it.”

Not that the serious nature of the book reflected on the actors' time on set - it sounds like they all had a ball, with Siobhan Finneran one of the most popular cast members.

Of working with the Downton Abbey star, Kadiff tells BT TV: “Quite honestly there’s so many highlights about working with Siobhan and we’ve developed a wonderful friendship outside of this job too. 

“She’s wonderful, and an absolute riot. We spent most of our days filming in fits of laughter, just making each other laugh and corpse and just enjoying the company that we were in. It was blissful.” 

Hit Play below to watch The Stranger cast talk all things secrets & lies

The Stranger premieres on Netflix worldwide on Thursday, January 30.