Spoiler warning: the following story contains spoilers for both the novel and series The Outsider. Stop reading here if you don't want to be spoiled.
HBO's The Outsider is the True Detective-meets-supernatural horror mashup that TV fans had no idea they needed. What seemed to start as a straight-up murder mystery eventually evolved into anything but, and the series on HBO has captivated audiences watching both live and on streaming. Based on Stephen King's book of the same name, the series has mostly kept the story and characters on a similar track as the book, but there are always going to be key differences between a 10-episode series and the nearly-600-page book on which it's based. From character changes, to setting changes, to entirely new storylines (much of Holly's story is written directly for the series; she's a major character in the book, but only enters the story about 300 pages in).
Here are just a few of the differences between The Outsider on screen and The Outsider on the page:
We've got a more thorough take on the ending of the series and book right here. But a few cliffnote differences: Claude Bolton, who shoots El Cuco with a shotgun, is not involved at all in the final confrontation in the novel (outside of the monster wearing his face). In King's version, Holly kills El Cuco using a weapon called a 'Happy Slapper' (a reference to her appearance in the Mr. Mercedes series. Characters who don't exist in the book are killed; Ralph gets a more significant 'hero moment' when he talks to El Cuco alone, and crushes his head with a cinderblock.
The finale also makes a significant departure from the book to set up a potential second season on HBO: the credits scene tease with Holly. She sees Jack briefly in her mirror, but brushes it off as paranoia. In the final shot, though, we see a scratch on Holly's arm. If the show returns for a second season—and HBO is referring to this as a 'season finale' and not a 'series finale' —Holly's 'infection' will certainly be at the show's center.
While the outcome and result remain the same, for some reason the story's setting has moved to Georgia in the show, whereas the book was set in the fictional Flint City, Oklahoma. Some minor changes are made in other settings, too: the little league game where Terry is arrested, for instance, takes place in front of more than 1,500 people in the book, but in the show the crowd is only referred to as 100.
Detective Ralph Anderson
The hero of the story, Detective Ralph Anderson, has a significantly different physical appearance in the book than what's on screen. Primarily, in the book he's supposed to be of massive physical stature; the very first page describes him sitting in the back seat of a police cruiser, being "as big as a house." His towering height and long legs are also referenced multiple times. In the show, Anderson is played by Ben Mendelsohn, who at 5'11 obviously doesn't have those attributes.
The show also depicts the Andersons' son, Derek, as having passed away from cancer; in King's book, Derek is merely away at summer camp. This makes Ralph's mindset toward Terry—knowing that Terry, someone he trusted, could be extremely dangerous toward his son who's no longer around—that much more intense. It makes the idea of Ralph's overwhelming emotion that much more believable; the stakes are raised.
The character of Holly Gibney is one not unique to The Outsider; she also appears in Stephen King's 'Bill Hodges' trilogy, which has been adapted into the Audience Network's Mr. Mercedes series. The novel describes Holly as a pale woman with grey bangs; in Mr. Mercedes she's played by Justine Lupe of Succession fame, but in The Outsider, of course, she's a black woman (Cynthia Erivo).
In the book, Holly is introduced as a connection of Alec Pelley's character. He's looking for Bill Hodges, who is unavailable, leading him to Holly. In the series, it seems to be ignoring the Mr. Mercedes characters and story altogether; Holly appears to run her own practice, and it's Howie who suggests using her rather than Alec. Though Alec and her do seem to already know one another (which is not the case in the book).
In the show, Holly is basically shown to have an encyclopedic knowledge of, well, everything, but she's introduced identifying every single car that drives by her window. In the book, her obsession of choice is movies; King's narration describes her as having over 9,000 DVDs in her personal collection.
Holly is also depicted in the show as having a fear of flying; this is not the case at all in the book, where she takes multiple connecting flights to get from Dayton to Oklahoma.
Terry Maitland's Death
This one in part comes just by sheer difference of mediums; where King has an unlimited amount of pages to set the scene and describe everything at Terry's arraignment (the chapter comes from Ralph's perspective, so we see and think everything that he sees and thinks), the show has the unenviable task of adapting this into a quick scene that lasts a minute, if that.
But a couple key differences have come in the adaptation. First, the book has a whole conundrum about whether or not Terry should have worn a bulletproof vest on his way into the courthouse. He opts not to, something that characters in the story (obviously) end up regretting.
But the more interesting difference within the story comes with the actual circumstance of Terry's death. When he's shot in the neck in the book, that's not the lethal wound—it's a later shot to his gut that does him in. As Ralph observes the wound, he jumps into action and offers Terry the chance to confess. "Terry, you are going to die. Do you understand me? He got you, and he got you good. You are going to die," Ralph tells a bleeding-out Terry in the book. Eventually, he gives Terry the chance to confess, to clear his conscience; with Marcy right by his side, he denies it one final time before dying.
The series, again, has the tough burden of depicting so much action in just a quick scene. But in the show Ralph doesn't ask anything of the wounded Terry—Terry offers up his final denial himself. Ralph simply listens.
You may have noticed a few moments in the first two episodes of the show where the show slowly pans in on an extremely creepy hooded figure with extremely blurred—possibly burnt—features. It's a creepy character that looks positively unhuman, and as anyone would guess, would almost certainly be a key part of what's happening. And you're probably right—but this figure doesn't show up until much later in the book.
The difference here—and probably a good idea—is to let audiences know basically right off the bat: this isn't a regular detective mystery like True Detective or Sharp Objects; there are other forces at play. We don't want to let you know what they are, of course, but just keep in mind that there are creepy, ominous forces lingering.
This is a character, who, again, doesn't exist in the novel at all. In the show, he's a former homicide detective in Ohio, and also a love interest for Holly. He also joins the investigation in Georgia in the show—which obviously is not a thing in the novel.
Most major character names—like Detective Ralph Anderson and Terry Maitland—are the same in both the book and the series. However, Terry's wife's name is 'Marcy' in the book, and it's been changed to Glory in the series. The Maitlands' lawyer is Howie Gold in the novel, and in the show it's been changed to Howie Saloman. The district attorney, named Bill Samuels in the book, has an entirely different name in the show—Kenneth Hayes.
The show takes the liberty of having Holly meet with Ralph and Alec prior to her doing any investigating; this makes sense because it gives us a connection between main characters earlier on than within the book. Holly also meets a security officer named Andy Katcavage when she's investigating the case in Ohio—a character that doesn't exist in the book.
Holly also lies about her connection to Terry's dad in an effort to see him; in the book, she hesitates before saying anything about her dad, justifying her lie as "technically not a lie" in her head.
Ralph's Backstory and Therapy
Ralph seeing a therapist/counselor is briefly mentioned and glossed over in The Outsider the book, but his self-reflection with the specialist is a fairly major part of the HBO show. It also introduces a dark past after his son's passing, when he would drink a lot and get into bar fights; this is not in the book at all.
As we've detailed, it's a significant change from the Andersons of the book, with Ralph made to be significantly more troubled. Ben Mendelsohn is a talented actor and he's doing the job well, but the character in the show is depicted as more of a flawed anti-hero archetype here than he was in the source material.
Glory Maitland and Jeannie Anderson
Terry's widow is clearly more comfortable with Jeannie than Ralph in the series, allowing her daughter to tell Jeannie about her dream with the intrude rather than Ralph—in the book, she tells Ralph directly. There's much more interaction between these two characters in the series than in the book.
Throughout the third episode, a plot is intercut back and forth of a prisoner being teased and mocked and plotted against. We see his fellow inmates preparing to attack him with a shiv, and we see him carving a razor out of a piece of glass or plastic (it's unclear what exactly it is). By the end of the episode, this fits into the larger picture and with more depth than the in-book explanation. The magic of film!
Jeannie Anderson's strange encounter
When Jeannie sees the hooded figure in their downstairs dining room—which may or may not have been a dream—it plays out almost identical to the way it does in the book. However, the book makes a big point of the hooded figure having tattooed figures, something that wasn't harped on in the show at all.
The way El Cuco is introduced is significantly changed from the book, and in a way that actually makes the series more dense and fully-formed. Even without getting too deep into the 'El Cuco' mythology, you can see that there's a chain of similar effects forming. In the book, this is only depicted going back from Terry Maitland to Heath Holmes (Heath Hoffstedder in the show), with further crimes going backwards only being inferred. In the show, a third crime, depicted in New York City, is added. That criminal is also alive, with a dark backstory added; bringing a new setting into the mix and fleshing the story out that much more (her family was killed my the victim's family member) adds to the pattern that viewers see forming.
Additionally, the way that El Cuco enters the story is different in the series. In the series, Holly is told of El Cuco ('The Boogeyman') by a woman who overheard her in prison; in the book, Yune explains the myth and its similarities to Ralph.
Detective Jack Hoskins/Neck
Obviously, when dealing with a book the characters get more detail; in the case of King's The Outsider, certain point-of-view characters get an internal monologue (even from an omniscent narrator) that they aren't afforded in the series. This means that the show's creative forces need to go to different means to show what's happening to a character, rather than have that character's thoughts explicitly say what they're feeling or thinking.
In The Outsider, we're seeing a lot of what Hoskins is doing without much explanation as to why—except for the strange rash on the back of his neck. Is it sunburn? Is it something more nefarious? The answer to that comes eventually, and the show explores it in a very interesting way; Marc Menchaca plays Hoskins' turmoil wonderfully. But it takes a while to figure certain things out.
This one plays out pretty darn closely to the book, but with a couple key exceptions. In the book, a big factor in identifying Claude as who El Cuco is forming as comes with his tattooed fingers; that's not a thing at all in the show. Additionally, when Ralph, Holly, and the rest of the crew head out to spend time with Claude and confirm he doesn't leave the house, in the book he's with his wheelchair-bound mother; in the show he's with a roughneck brother.
When Terry is in jail, he's taunted by other prisoners. This doesn't happen in the book.
Arlene Peterson, mother of Frankie and Ollie and wife of Fred, is described in the book as being massively overweight and at major health risk. In the show, she's of an average build and her size doesn't figure into the character.
When Ollie opens up shooting at Terry, he's described from Ralph's vantage point as hiding under a newscap with a red bag over his shoulder. In the show, he's wearing more of a paintball outfit.
When Ralph and his co-workers are reviewing footage of Terry at the train station, one notes when zooming in that it appears that he's giving the security camera 'the finger.' This is another piece of added foreshadowing, and is not in the book.
When Jack Hoskins is introduced in the book, he's sent to the crime scene that the show depicts at the end of the second episode. He does stop at the strip club bar on his way there, but he doesn't get into the drunken fight (no wedgie either) with his fellow patron.
When Fred Peterson attempts suicide, he ties himself to his bedroom ceiling and throws himself off the bed, crashing through his home's front window; he's only "saved" by a jogger running by. This is similar to what happens in the book, but not exactly the same. In the novel, he hangs himself from a tree branch in his back yard, which breaks; he only survives because an old female neighbor hears the branch break, comes outside, and performs CPR.
The teacher conference that Terry attends in the show is about Censorship; in the book, he and his fellow teachers are going to hear Harlan Coben (the real-life mystery author) give a speech and answer questions.
The friend of Heath's who appears both at the beginning and end of the episode (and at his grave with Holly in the middle) isn't in the book. But we see that he has the same rash on the back of his neck as Jack Hoskins, and we see that whatever force is at hand is affecting others along the way.
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