Bestselling Author Harlan Coben on ‘The Stranger’ and Adapting His Novels for Netflix Around the World

Netflix the Stranger
Courtesy Netflix

Harlan Coben has been a bestselling mystery author for decades, but until a few years ago the only adaptation of his books was the acclaimed 2006 French feature film “Tell No One.” Fast-forward 14 years, and the New Jersey-based author has a 14-book deal with Netflix that’s already resulted in British-set series “The Five,” “Safe” and now “The Stranger” in partnership with Nicola Shindler’s Red Production Company. As writer and producer, he’s coming up with both original ideas and adapting his prolific output of novels, as well as getting involved in everything from casting to hairdos.

“The Stranger,” the story of a suburban dad who gets drawn into a dark conspiracy when his wife goes missing, is currently one of Netflix’s buzziest shows. Stars include Richard Armitage of “Hannibal,” “The Crying Game” star Stephen Rea, “Absolutely Fabulous” actress Jennifer Saunders and “Happy Valley” star Siobhan Finneran.

Coben is enjoying the fan interaction that comes with a popular streaming title while working on a new series adapted from “The Woods” with Netflix Poland and “The Innocent,” starring popular actor Mario Casas, from Netflix Spain. His latest novel, “The Boy From the Woods,” Variety caught up with him a few days after the premiere of “The Stranger,” which appears to be his most-viewed series yet and is available in 190 countries.

Why do the stories you write lend themselves so well to the episodic format?

I think when you have the freedom a streaming service gives you, you don’t have to make 22 episodes. It’s sort of like a novel. Each episode is like a chapter, you have cliffhangers, and you don’t want to put it down. Some people may take a week or two to finish it, some people will take a day. It actually has more in common with the novel than any format we’ve had before.

Are people burning through the eight episodes too fast, or is there no such thing?

That’s really satisfying. If you tell me you watched episodes one and two and you can wait a week to watch three and four, that’s a little disappointing. I hope that the story gives you that kind of hunger. It’s amazing how many people have watched the whole thing already. I woke up the day after the show came out and there were tons of  posts and questions already, all over the world — that’s the other thing that’s kind of remarkable, especially with Netflix.

How are viewers experiencing the show? Is this new for you to get so much feedback?

I kind of love the hunger — after people watch it, they’re on Reddit, they’re on Facebook. People argue about it, they discuss it, and I think it just gets more people interested in it. So far no one’s really found a hole in the plot!

What’s it like having your American-set novels adapted around the world?

“The Woods” from Netflix Poland is really different from “The Stranger,” much more atmospheric and moody and centered on two characters, it’s really beautifully done.

How do the stories change from the books in different countries?

I don’t like adaptations that are slavishly devoted to the text. “The Stranger” is through a British prism — it adds a new dimension, even though on the surface they’re extraordinarily American.

What did you need to change?

One of the challenges in “The Stranger” was that police don’t carry guns in England. A couple of times I would have wanted Joanna to pull out a gun. But she can’t, because she doesn’t have one. In “The Woods,” it’s set in a Polish summer camp in the ’90s — that’s very different than an American summer camp, so it’s very cool to explore.

Why are crime stories so popular right now?

We live in a golden age of crime fiction. It’s never been done better by a wider variety of people and genders and nationalities. A show like “The Stranger” gives them even more time to be with these characters.

What was it like working with your 25-year old daughter Charlotte on “The Stranger”?

She wrote episode 5, and was really helpful with the teen story. I think it’s a fairly hilarious scene when Mike is screaming that he wasn’t the one who sent the pictures — that was all written by my daughter. She gave us a younger viewpoint, and she’s very funny. Her talent is in humor.

I was actually laughing out loud —  I showed it to my other kids and they said “Oh my god, that’s so Charlotte.”

How did Jennifer Saunders happen to join the cast after her long career in comedy?

They sent a list of 100 actresses in that age range — I saw her name and I thought she wouldn’t do it, but she said “I love it and I want to do it.” So I wrote a letter to her and said I know you’ve never done a drama, but I really want you. I’ve been a fan of hers for so long.

How involved do you get in production?

I don’t go on set because it’s hard, I live in the U.S.A, but every single day I watch the rushes. Every day I communicate with my team over there, I watched over 300 audition tapes…I even see outfits and hairstyles. The actors all have my phone or email if they have any questions.

Is there any thought of doing another season? 

My guess is I won’t want to do that, unless I can come up with an idea that’s equally good or better. Part of the deal I make with the viewer is you get all the answers — it’s a full novel. But I never say never.

Theoretically the Stranger could reappear?

She could. If we came up with an idea that would be as good, then yes.

What are you watching these days?

It’s such a cliche, but “Parasite” was my favorite movie last year. I knew nothing going in. I think that’s the best way to see it — going in and knowing nothing. And “Fleabag” was by far my favorite show of the year.

I’m a big fan of foreign films and foreign TV. I’m hoping viewers will give the foreign language ones a chance after “The Stranger,” because after a while you really do forget you’re watching subtitles.