“The Sin­ner” showrun­ner breaks down the adap­ta­tion.

Novel by: Pe­tra Hammes­fahr Adap­ta­tion by: Derek Si­monds


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.”

FROM THE SOURCE Pe­tra Hammes­fahr first pub­lished “The Sin­ner” in 1999 in Ger­man. The psy­cho­log­i­cal mys­tery was later trans­lated and pub­lished in English in 2007, and rere­leased in 2017 along­side the launch of USA’S tele­vi­sion adap­ta­tion.

A Killer Duo Jes­sica Biel and Bill Pull­man starred in USA’S lim­ited se­ries ver­sion of

“The Sin­ner.”

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