While reading Petra Hammesfahr’s 1999 novel “The Sinner,” Derek Simonds responded strongly to the “frank” way the story dealt with issues of sexuality, abuse and religion. Although the novel was written with a German sensibility, Simonds wanted to keep the same tone when adapting it for an American audience. He did want to expand the point of view of the characters and the narrative structure, though. His result was crafted as a suspense thriller that allowed the central character Cora (Jessica Biel) to have a hero’s journey despite being a killer, as well as to work as a two-hander with the newly fleshed out Detective Ambrose (Bill Pullman).
Detailing a Dynamic Duo
The novel unfolds from Cora’s point of view, which allows the reader insight into her mind. In the early pages, she is clearly “incredibly depressed” and suicidal, haunted by years-ago trauma, says Simonds.
“You’re privy to a lot of information that you don’t really get from a visual medium like TV,” he says of the book. “In the adaptation we meet someone who has something brewing under the surface, but for all intents and purposes is holding her life together relatively well and is identifiable and relatable as an average wife and mother.”
Simonds chose to focus more on the act of murder Cora commits as the inciting incident that launched viewers into the series — and then take them on a journey through her psyche.
The journey includes Cora meeting and connecting with Ambrose. While Simonds acknowledges the male detective in the novel, he considers him more of a “cipher” in the story. For the series, Simonds was interested in creating a “really strong relationship” between the characters.
“I kind of created a new thesis for the story. I wanted to see Ambrose and Cora connect as two people who have survived trauma and find healing in each other because of the intimacy they have established,” he says. “In the book she kind of remains a victim who is mentally unstable and the Ambrose character is the one making significant moves. We wanted to shake up that dynamic.”
Reading Between the Lines
“Petra is a brilliant author, and she has a lot going on in this story,” Simonds says, noting that she dropped a particularly “juicy nugget” during a scene in which the detective was interviewing witnesses to the crime and one claimed the victim “let her butcher him.”
“I read that moment, and I was like, as an investigator, if I heard someone say this — that the victim recognized the attacker in this moment — I’d be like ‘This is huge!’ ” he says.
Simonds notes that such a revelation pointed “to an entire potential past narrative between these two characters [where] we had assumed they were strangers.” That is one he was able to run with for the USA limited series version of the tale.
In this case, Simonds took the “great idea that popped into the story” and turned it into a whole detective-driven scene to not only give Ambrose “a moment to demonstrate his skills,” but also to add to the feeling of “creeping dread and disorientation” he wanted viewers to have.
“Frankie recognized her, but Cora didn’t seem to recognize Frankie,” he says of the man Cora stabbed to death on the beach in the show’s premiere.
“Frankie let her hand go and continue stabbing him, which implied a death wish, ultimately,” he continues. “There were all of these interesting psychological things coming into play all at once that I thought deserved a slow unpacking.”