Adapting Stephen King's The Outsider: The 2020 HBO Series Tries Out A Different Version Of Sweet And Strange Detective Holly Gibney

The level of heat that Stephen King’s name has in Hollywood during any given year can be determined by how quickly the rights to his stories get snatched up by studios and adapted. Of this, the HBO series The Outsider is perfect proof. Published in May 2018, the novel of the same name was the first book King had published after the renaissance year that was 2017 – particularly driven by the success of Andy Muschietti’s IT Chapter One – and it took a whopping 20 days for the rights to be acquired and for a TV show to move into development.

Quick to get back into the King game even after producing the massive flop that was Nikolaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower, Media Rights Capital started working on a TV series based on The Outsider in June 2018, hiring acclaimed screenwriter Richard Price (The Wire, The Night Of) as the showrunner. Within six months, Ben Mendelsohn was hired to play the series lead, and almost exactly a year later Stephen King himself was hyping the show as “one of the best adaptations of [his] work.”

After premiering the series in January 2020, HBO didn’t keep audiences in suspense for very long in regards to The Outsider’s future, announcing in November of that year that they were passing on making a second season. In retrospect, however, it doesn’t really matter. The 10-episode run is a self-contained, well-made, and extremely faithful adaptation of its source material that is perfectly fine as it exists – and I get into the details why in this week’s Adapting Stephen King.

Ben Mendelsohn and Yul Vazquez in The Outsider

(Image credit: HBO)

What The Outsider Is About

In 2016, Stephen King brought the Bill Hodges trilogy to a definitive end. The retired police detective turned private investigator not only closed the book on the Mr. Mercedes case, with Brady Hartsfield finally put down for good, but the capstone novel ended with the protagonist’s death following a short battle with pancreatic cancer. Hodges had a defined arc across Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End Of Watch, and King provided his Constant Readers with a satisfying conclusion.

But while the author was done telling Bill Hodges story, the same could not be said about Holly Gibney. King has said that she was simply meant to be a “walk-on character” when introduced in Mr. Mercedes, but she “stole the book and stole [his] heart.” This love for his fictional creation has led to her being used in more stories since the completion of the Hodges trilogy. Most recently she has been featured as the lead in the eponymous novella in the 2020 collection If It Bleeds, and she will be the lead in King’s upcoming 2023 novel Holly. Before those two works, however, there was 2018’s The Outsider.

Like with Mr. Mercedes, Holly Gibney does not start off the book as a principal character, but she becomes a pivotal player in the back half of the story – providing crucial assistance in the solving of a murder that involves unexplainable phenomena.

Set in the fictional Flint City, Oklahoma, The Outsider’s main character is Ralph Anderson: a by-the-books police detective who is put in charge of finding the criminal responsible for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old boy named Frank Peterson. When physical evidence and witness testimony is collected, it seems like an open and shut case, as all signs point to the perpetrator being Terry Maitland – an upstanding citizen, English teacher and Little League coach. The call is made for him to be publicly arrested, and the suspect is put in cuffs right in the middle of a playoff game.

Despite the fact that there are fingerprints, positive identifications, and saliva and semen samples, Terry is vehement in proclaiming his innocence… and while all signs point to his guilt, Ralph begins to waver in his certitude. With help from lawyer Howie Gold and his investigator Alec Pelley, Terry is able to establish an iron-clad alibi – one that is reinforced by witnesses, video footage, and even physical evidence that the detective himself collects.

So how could an identifiable person appear in two places in the exact same time? Not being one to believe in the fantastical or supernatural, Ralph is certain that there must be a rational and logical explanation for how the crime was committed. But with the help of Holly Gibney, who personally witnessed Brady Hartsfield demonstrate psychic abilities, Ralph begins to come to terms with the idea that there are more things in the world than dreamt of in his philosophy, and he begins to consider that what really killed Frank Peterson was a shapeshifting monster called El Cuco that feeds on grief.

Ben Mendelsohn and Mare Winningham in The Outsider

(Image credit: HBO)

How HBO’s The Outsider Differs From Stephen King’s Novel

To start by addressing the elephant in the room, Constant Readers who watch The Outsider will not recognize the character played by Cynthia Erivo from the character in Stephen King’s books. In the development of the series, Richard Price had to make a call in regards to how he wanted to adapt Holly’s significant literary history – not to mention Justine Lupe’s portrayal on Audiences’ Mr. Mercedes adaptation – and the decision he made was to essentially invent his own version of her.

Speaking about the show shortly after its premiere during a January 2020 Television Critics Association panel (via The Wrap), Price revealed that he actually tried to give the character a new name, but it was Stephen King’s insistence that she remain Holly Gibney. Said Price,

I’ve never seen Mr. Mercedes. I’ve never read Mr. Mercedes. I have to create this character, and I didn’t want it to be beholden to something that has nothing to do with The Outsider – even though it’s a continuation of the character. With King’s blessing, I just made the character mine – not the Holly even in the novel The Outsider… Just forget everything you knew about Holly. That was that Holly, this is my Holly… I asked King, could I at least change her name just to make more of a separation? And the only thing he ever said in terms of a directive to me was, ‘Just keep the name Holly Gibney.'

He acquiesced to this request.

Holly has a new personality and different mental disorders on the HBO series in comparison to her on-page counterpart, but her role in the plot is mostly the same – which is a reflection of the adaptation’s faithfulness to the source material at large. The setting is moved (from Oklahoma to Georgia) and minor changes are made, but just about every major story development from Stephen King’s book is in the show. The most significant changes come in the form of additions that build on what King wrote.

A perfect example of this is Holly Gibney’s side of the investigation. For one thing, the series invents Andy Katcavage (Derek Cecil) as a romantic interest and someone for her to bounce ideas off of, but the adaptation also sees the character go further in tracing the history of the grief eater. Not only does Holly look into Terry (Jason Bateman) being scratched by El Cuco while the monster is disguised as an orderly named Heath Hofstadter (Martin Bats Bradford), but she also looks into what form the shapeshifter had taken earlier when the real Heath was scratched. This leads her to meeting the incarcerated Maria Caneles (Diany Rodriguez), and it’s during this encounter that Holly ends up meeting a woman who tells her about El Cuco.

Marc Menchaca's Jack Hoskins is another beneficiary of the additions. Just as in the book, the character is a cop who becomes ostensibly enslaved by El Cuco, but there are a couple of extra sequences included in the show. For starters, Jack doesn’t just get a visit from his dead mother telling him to do the shapeshifter’s bidding, but she full-on kicks his ass all over his apartment. This is followed by an original development that sees the character try to abduct and kill Holly, but her cleverness allows her to foil his plan.

His overall arc from the book is present, up to and including him opening fire on the heroes just prior to their final showdown with the main villain, but it could be said that the adaptation features a more sympathetic version of him – punctuated by the fact that he ends up committing suicide instead of being killed by Ralph, which is what happens in the novel.

Also brand new is the sequence where El Cuco tries to abduct a child at a cave festival, and the way that the aforementioned final showdown actually plays out. In the show, Claude Bolton (Paddy Considine) and Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) deliver the bulk of the damage to the monster with a shotgun and giant rock, respectively, but in the book it’s Holly Gibney who actually kills the creature. She bashes its head in with a sock full of ball bearings – a tool referred to by Bill Hodges as a “Happy Slapper” – and Holly and Ralph have to evade a nest of worms that come pouring out of the fatal wound.

There are other changes as well – like Claude going to visit his brother (Max Beesley) instead of his mother, and Ralph and his wife Jeannie (Mare Winningham) having a dead son – but mostly it’s an extremely faithful adaptation of Stephen King’s novel.

Ben Mendelsohn and Mare Winningham in The Outsider

(Image credit: HBO)

Is It Worthy Of The King?

With all due respect to Cynthia Erivo (and there is a lot of respect due), I would have preferred to see this adaptation as an extension of the Mr. Mercedes series – specifically with Justine Lupe’s version of Holly Gibney. Simply put, the more faithful version of the character is the superior version of the character. Acknowledging that, HBO’s The Outsider is as good a take on the book that Constant Readers could ask for.

In addition to being a proper treatment of the novel, all of the aforementioned changes that are made end up being big plusses for the novel – especially the emotional depth that is added by having Ralph and Jeannie still in mourning after the loss of their child. Ben Mendelsohn is tremendous, finding a great approach to his skeptic character, and he is surrounded by brilliant talent doing excellent work, including Cynthia Erivo, Mare Winningham, Bill Camp, Paddy Considine, Yul Vazquez, Julianne Nicholson, Jeremy Bobb, Marc Menchaca, and Jason Bateman.

The show ends with a cliffhanger delivered via mid-credits sequence – as it’s suggested that El Cuco scratched Holly and, if it’s still alive, it may turn into her – but I’m satisfied with that being an open-ended question that lets fans imagine what happens next. It exists well looked at as a limited series rather than an on-going show that got cancelled, and it will almost certainly be looked upon as one of the best Stephen King adaptations of the 2020s by the end of the decade.

Ben Mendelsohn and Cynthia Erivo in The Outsider

(Image credit: HBO)

How To Watch HBO’s The Outsider

While it’s true that not all HBO shows are available to watch on HBO Max anymore, that is not presently the case for The Outsider, as all 10 episodes can currently be found on the streaming service if you have a subscription. Not being an exclusive, you can also digitally purchase episodes via Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, and Vudu. If you’re a physical media collector building the Ultimate Stephen King collection, you’re definitely going to want to get your hands on the Blu-ray.

Looking ahead, next week’s Adapting Stephen King (the last of 2022) will be featured in the CinemaBlend Streaming section, as I will be taking a close look at the Creepshow Animated Special from Shudder – half of which is based on the short story “Survivor Type” from the 1985 collection Skeleton Crew. You’ll find the feature on the site next Wednesday, and in the meantime you can discover all of my previous columns by clicking through the banners below.

Adapting Stephen King Banner

(Image credit: MGM/Warner Bros/Castle Rock/Paramount/CBS/HBO/Apple)

Adapting Stephen King banner Salem's Lot

(Image credit: CBS)

The Night Flier adapting stephen king banner

(Image credit: HBO)

11.22.63 Adapting Stephen King banner

(Image credit: Hulu)

Th Mist Adapting Stephen King banner

(Image credit: Spike)

Mr. Mercedes Adapting Stephen King banner

(Image credit: Audience)
Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.