Inside Lauren Oliver’s Adaptation of ‘Panic’ and Why She Would Kill Somebody Off in Season 2

Popular on Variety

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Panic,” streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.

Many fans of Lauren Oliver’s young adult novel “Panic,” following high school seniors who take part in the dangerous eponymous game every year with hopes of winning thousands of dollars to help set up their adult lives, were disappointed when that novel was not turned into a multi-book series, as is common in the genre. In fact, Oliver tells Variety she did want to write it as a book series, so when that didn’t happen, she turned her attention to a new medium: television.

Adapted into a 10-part drama series, “Panic” will stream on Amazon Prime Video seven years after Oliver first published her novel.

“Out of all my books, I wanted to explore it on TV because I loved the community and the town and the opportunity to explore different storylines, which I didn’t have space for in the book,” she says. “‘Panic’ was the only book that I didn’t understand the ending at all [when I wrote it]; I didn’t understand what the tiger was — until I started working on the show. And so, the nice thing about adapting your own work is obviously I made changes [and] as a writer, you do want to re-engage in it and be able to find new things.”

She penned “reams and reams of backstory and thoughts” on even the tertiary characters while adapting her novel. “I literally have a document with everything that happened in the town from 1989 on,” she says.

Small differences between the page and screen versions include everything from the location (Carp, N.Y., in the novel, but Carp, Texas, in the show) to the amount of the game winnings ($67,000 in the novel, but only $50,000 in the show: “I did a calculation — a look at the towns around where we were and thought about how big the high school could be and added up $1/day,” she reveals). Many larger character and plot points were changed in the adaptation process, as well, including why Heather (Olivia Welch) joined the game in the first place, and who really needed to be punished in the end.

Heather, Oliver notes was “full of quiet and inherited self-loathing” in the book, which wouldn’t translate exactly on screen. “The way that it was in the book, it makes it seem like literally she did it because she was dumped,” Oliver explains. She moved up the moment where Heather’s mother steals her savings to the front of the show to help establish Heather’s motive for entering the game. (She wants to earn enough money to get out of town.)

“Like many things in ‘Panic,’ it’s a way to physically pin it onto an object — the same way that they pin fears they believe onto these challenges, while avoiding facing the deeper meaning behind them,” Oliver says.

Sheriff Cortez (Enrique Murciano), for example, rationalizes bad behavior, including gambling on the games of panic.

Creating an antagonist who is also a law enforcement officer answered some book readers’ questions about how the game could go on year after year without police involvement, but also, “it did come out of topical events,” Oliver says, referring to current cultural conversations around the corruption and need for reform in such departments.

“What Sheriff Cortez also represents to me is the fundamentally terrifying distortions of a person that becomes convinced that they’re acting for good or that they are good,” Oliver continues. “The morality becomes so warped by this belief that they are the good ones, and that is the scariest thing, and it’s really contrasted with a character like Ray, who has really given up the belief that he can fight against this narrative.”

Ray Hall (Ray Nicholson) and his brother Luke (Walker Babington) have also been altered from the book. There, they were the “bad boys” of the town. Here, they are depicted more as victims of circumstance. While Luke steals cars, Oliver points out, “under similar situations I’d probably be boosting cars, too.” He was assumed to have been the one to cause Dayna’s (Madison Ferris) paralysis in the show, too — though from a regular car accident, not the game — but that turned out to be false rumors.

Ray, meanwhile, starts a relationship with Heather and ends up teaming up with Dodge (Mike Faist) to take down Cortez after it becomes clear to Dodge that the elder Hall was not responsible for what happened to Dayna.

“The point of Dodge’s storyline and what’s really critical is there are things that happen that are unfair and that you can’t fairly resolve or get justice for the past [but] it doesn’t mean you can’t have a future,” Oliver says.

In a spider web situation, this meant that although Heather still ended up driving in the joust, Ray did not: Cortez went instead, as he was hell-bent on fixing the results. Additionally, in this version of the story, it is Natalie (Jessica Sula), not Bishop (Camron Jones), who is a judge in the game; Bishop is the bag man.

“The biggest [fear] they have is ultimately why they play. You don’t see Bishop playing, but of course he comes from a very privileged environment,” she says.

Some of these changes were born out of story changes, and some were found in the casting, Oliver admits. “There were people that we wanted and found and fell in love with the brought new dimensions and made it an exciting thing to do to change it,” she says.

A prime example in that is the character of Ray: “While we were casting I said, ‘All of these people, including Heather’s mom, have all of these problematic elements but they’re all rich and dimensional — except for Ray Hall; he’s just a piece of shit,'” Oliver laughs. “But then when we cast it, I realized I couldn’t invest in hating him fully because I could see this other thing [that] was just layered under the performance. And it would have been such a misuse of the talent to not include that.”

Even with all of these tweaks, and more than half a decade between the original incarnation of “Panic” and the adaptation, though, Oliver wanted to make sure the show made the same statements as the novel.

“It’s looking at the scope of the American experience and attempting to grapple with that, to some extent,” she says. “As a teen your life is mostly determined, in some sense, by the adults around you. One of the things that generates so much anger and dismay is that you have all of these people around you who you have failed you in many ways as a child and also don’t take you seriously. It’s this rift. You start like, ‘Wow this game is awesome and these kids are so cool for playing it, for taking control of their own lives’ and increasingly, by the end you’re thinking, ‘Why did I ever want these kids [to do this]? Why did I ever think this was going to help them escape?’ I like stories that make you morally complicit.”

The show hit the point of the true lack of control harder by entangling the money with Cortez and creating “an enemy we can all agree on: rich people in power,” Oliver says.

While “Panic” as a novel never got a sequel, Oliver designed the show to go on past the first season. That ends with Cortez being killed by his wife and the imagery proving the game is still continuing, despite the fact that the joust ended with a car bombing and an escaped tiger in the middle of the race lane.

“The level of danger was out of their control. They were falsely believing they were in control of buying a future or earning a future, and it turned out that they were being played. You would imagine they would feel really violated by that and restore some of the original fun of the game,” Oliver says.

So, should the show get renewed, her current plan is to introduce a new class of seniors playing, while still bringing back some of the characters the audience fell in love with in Season 1 to see “where are they a year later, after this, as adults in the town?” she explains. “People come home. There’s an interaction between the classes as they attempt to take control back.”

And just because Cortez is out of the picture doesn’t mean the game is safe. Although Oliver wants to make it very clear that “the kids were never setting out to kill each other,” every player begins by jumping off a cliff, leaving every one of them vulnerable to potentially landing on rocks instead of safely in the water. And because of that she says, “I hope we kill somebody off in Season 2 — only to show that that is the game.”