‘Nobody Escapes the Past:’ Harlan Coben on His Latest Netflix Adaptation, ‘The Innocent’

In 2006, the French feature film adaptation of Harlan Coben’s “Tell No One” set a precedent that the author’s work could not only be adapted to the screen, winning a slew of awards including four Cesars, but that it could do so outside of the stories’ native U.S.

In 2018, with a host of popular series and film versions of his stories having been produced across the U.K. and Europe, Netflix’s own adaptation of “Safe” prompted the company to lock down the creator to a five-year deal in which 14 of his novels are to be developed into original Netflix series or films. The first was another U.K. adaptation, this time of his novel “The Stranger” with Poland’s “The Woods” coming shortly after. Most recently, Coben teamed with Spanish thriller maestro Oriol Paulo on “The Innocent” (“El inocente”), which will premiere globally on April 30. Up next are “Gone For Good” in France and “Stay Close” in the U.K.

“The Innocent” starts off outside a nightclub with Mateo trying to plays peacekeeper as his friends become embroiled in a bar fight which ends in an accidental homicide. Nearly a decade later, the bright lawyer is hard at work trying to run the family firm after his brother’s untimely death, while also re-building his personal life with his wife Olivia. Mateo receives an alarming call while Olivia is away on business which throws his perception of the world around into complete upheaval and ignites a frenetic chase for the truth.

Mateo is played by this year’s Spanish Academy award-winner for best actor Mario Casas (“Cross the Line”), joined by a star-studded ensemble cast including Juana Acosta (“Perfect Strangers”), Aura Garrido (“Stockholm”) and Alexandra Jiménez (“The Distances”). As with each of his Netflix adaptations, Coben is an executive producer on the series. Sospecha Films and Think Studio co-produce, with Paulo, the brain behind a mouthwatering catalog of hits including “The Invisible Guest,” “Mirage” and “The Body,” directing.

Ahead of its April 30 launch, Coben spoke with Variety about the personal origins of the series’ story, his relationship with Paulo and why his stories work so well abroad.

Plot details are being kept very secret with this series, so how would you best sum up what the show is about without giving away any spoilers?

I actually really like the one Netflix is using, “Nobody escapes the past,” because what you find is that each character gets their moment in this show. Obviously, Mateo is the main character, but Lorena, Olivia and Teo… all of them get their moments and their arcs, and the one thing they all have in common is that nobody, for better or worse, escapes the past. Even the smallest encounters in their past create ripples, and that was actually how the original idea for the book came to me. When I was in college, I was involved in a fight that looked frighteningly like the one we filmed for this series, but fortunately nobody ended up dying. But as we were tussling, I remember thinking, “What if somebody really gets hurt? What if someone I push ends up dead, what kind of ripple effect would that have on my life? And not just my life, but everyone involved?” That’s one think I love about Oriol’s vision and bringing the parents into the aftermath of the fight. The death has repercussions, and it affects people’s lives.

You’ve adapted books as series in several countries now. What made Spain the right place to adapt “The Innocent”?

When I signed the deal with Netflix the idea was that we were going to do these adaptations in a variety of countries, exploiting the wonderful talent in each one. And, actually, in my very first meeting with Netflix they came to me and said, “We’ve got the perfect person for “The Innocent.” I already knew Oriol Paulo’s work, and was a big fan. I loved “The Invisible Guest” especially. So next thing, Oriol came to New York and we met and started to figure out how we wanted to tell the story. It’s a great thing about this relationship with Netflix that they have the strength and power to go into other countries and work with the absolute top people there. I mean… getting someone like Oriol to direct and Mario Casas to star with Juana Acosta, Olivia Castanho, Aura Garrido and Alexandra Jiménez plus all the cast from Latin America? There is also such an amazing draw to knowing that at midnight Pacific Time someone in an office at Netflix is going to hit a button and eight episodes are going to be available in 190 countries.

Both you and Oriol have signature styles in which twists are central to your storytelling. How did that similarity manifest in the making of this series?

I remember watching “The Invisible Guest” before ever even meeting Oriol and thinking “Here’s a guy who is as crazy about twists as I am.” Between us I don’t think there is a twist we’ve ever met that we didn’t like. So, this marriage of the two of us means that five minutes in you’ve already had a dozen twists. This show really doesn’t let up for a second, and somewhere around episode six or seven your nerves are so tangled it becomes an amazing experience. This story really goes in a direction that I don’t think people will expect. The first few episodes are all in my wheelhouse for people who are familiar with my other work, but eventually it really explodes.

One aspect of this series that works well on a digital platform is that while the twists and turns make it binge-worthy material, it’s also loaded with foreshadowing and hints that a viewer might not notice the first time watching but will want to go back and revisit.

That actually happened to me! And I know this story backwards and forward and have seen the show probably 50 times by now. I was just watching the dubbed version with my wife – I don’t watch anything dubbed normally but because this is my show, I wanted to know how other people might see it – and my wife, who knows the story as well as anyone, actually screamed out loud at the end of one episode. I love those moments and this series has a lot of them for viewers to experience. That being said, if you’re not a fan of twists and turns and this shows not for you. I would admit that.

We’ve seen, particularly on streaming platforms, international series draw massive audiences in the U.S. So, what about the reverse? What about Harlan Coben stories makes them successful in other territories?

I think there is a hybridization of the American sensibilities of my writing with the local sensibilities of whatever country I’m in which makes the sum of those two things greater than the whole. I look at it like I’ve written a hit single called “The Innocent.” So, if I wrote, sang and recorded the song, I don’t want any covers or remakes to sound exactly like my version. I want the new version to bring new culture and a new sound, and I think that’s what works best. I also think it’s important to realize we’re living in a Golden Age for international television. So, in working with the best talent wherever I go, I get to make something better than it might have been otherwise. And I’m not knocking American TV, I’m still doing American TV series, but that sort of mix of working abroad is really cool and very exciting. I think the best TV that we’re seeing is coming from places that we didn’t necessarily expect it to come from in the past.

The Innocent
Credit: Quim Vives

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