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‘The Sinner’: The 13 Craziest and Depraved Differences Between the Book and USA’s Disturbing Series

Believe it or not, Cora’s relationship with her family is even more messed-up in the novel.

USA Network

[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from the finale of USA Network’s “The Sinner” in addition to the book on which it was based.]

USA Network’s “The Sinner” became one of the surprise hits of the summer for its fascinating look at how hidden and unresolved traumas can manifest in disturbing or downright horrifying ways. The psychologically twisted story delved deeply into the past of a woman who seemed relatively normal and happy, but whose abuse at the hands of multiple people eventually led to her murdering a man without apparent provocation.

German crime author Petra Hammesfahr penned the 1999 novel on which “The Sinner” is based, and for the most part the central mysteries remained the same in both versions. The television adaptation naturally also had the expected number of cosmetic changes: Cora Bender is now Cora Tannetti, a song played on a cassette tape now plays on a phone, and the setting has moved from Germany to a small city in New York.

One of the most significant ways that the show has diverged from the book is though its tone. In an interview with IndieWire, showrunner David Simonds said, “The book is very dark. It has a very German frankness about sexuality and psychology. It’s pretty unflinching. There were aspects to the book that felt kind of relentlessly dark and depressing. When I imagined them actually putting that on screen, I thought, ‘Wow, this is a lot for an audience to handle.’”

That said, the show didn’t really shy away from the concepts in the book. Here’s a look at the 13 craziest differences between the book and limited TV series:

In the Novel, the Sexual Content Is Much More Graphic

As Simonds mentioned, the discussion and depiction of sex is much more frank, but obviously since the series aired on basic cable, most of the content had to be hinted at. For example, the USA-friendly orgy that takes place with Cora, J.D., Frankie and her sister shows the women with lingerie intact and in the case of Cora, she’s still fully dressed. Careful framing, the use of furniture to block nudity, and out-of-focus shots further disguise the action. In the novel though, every body part is detailed, and that includes scenes with Cora’s father (see below).

Nadia Alexander and Jessica Biel, "The Sinner"

Nadia Alexander and Jessica Biel, “The Sinner”

Peter Kramer/USA Network

In the Book, Cora Was Going to Commit Suicide Before Any of This Went Down

Remember, the book is very, very dark, and that starts with the protagonist, who knows that something is wrong with her life even before the murder happens. Cora has been dreading sex with her husband because it’s been dredging up awful, panicky feelings. These baffling emotions have become so prevalent that she’s barely able to function in everyday life. On that fateful day at the lake (as opposed to the beach as on the show), she actually swims out far with the intention of drowning herself. She decides to postpone killing herself until a few hours later in order to spend a little bit more time with her son first. It’s during this in-between time that the song plays and she kills Frankie.

In the Book, Cora Isn’t Mother of the Year

Cora isn’t mean or abusive to her child in the book, but because of her psychological issues, it’s hard for her to really engage with any person genuinely and deeply. This is particularly telling in the novel because her son is never referred to by name, but only referred to as “the boy.” In addition, the novel switches from omniscient third person to first person narration, but the first-person perspective is even more disturbing because Cora’s feelings – such as being supremely happy and relieved that she killed Frankie – are not explained. Without context, Cora’s actions seem psychotic. On the TV show, Cora’s stunned and remorseful reactions are far more humane and relatable.

“Half of the book is told through Cora’s first-person perspective,” Simonds said. “It’s much more intimate about what’s going on in her head and she’s in a fever dream through a lot of the book where she’s kind of on the edge of sanity. That was one thing from the book that we had to find ways to understand Cora and make her someone that we can relate to and not be in this kind of abstractive fever dream kind of hallucinatory state.”

Read More:How ‘The Sinner’ Turned One Song Into a Terrifying Murder Clue and the Show’s Secret Weapon

In the Novel, Cora’s Husband Turns His Back on Her

"The Sinner"

Even though Mason Tannetti (Christopher Abbott) starts out a bit suspect on the TV show, he ends up being a prize husband. Not only does he acknowledge that he hasn’t been supporting Cora and that he’s known something was wrong, but he also starts investigating her case on his own. Later, he tells her that no matter what, he and their son Laine will visit her every week she’s in jail — even if it takes 20 years for her to get out.

In the book, Cora’s husband actually gives up on her almost immediately, egged on by his parents, and refuses to visit her in jail.

In the Novel, Cora’s Mom Is Religious Because She Once Gave Herself an Abortion

Cora’s mother in both mediums is strict and reserves her affection only for her younger daughter, but the worst behavior displayed on the show is making Cora give up chocolate or kneel on salt to atone for her sin of bringing a women’s magazine into the house.

In the novel, Cora’s mother once used to be the very picture of sin that she later condemned. She became pregnant out of wedlock by a visiting soldier, and gave herself an abortion with a knitting needle. Although she later gave birth to Cora, who was healthy, her second daughter was a different story.

“The thing beating in your daughter’s chest isn’t a heart, it’s Swiss cheese,” one doctor said. “It looks as if someone has gone to work on it with a knitting needle.” And thus, a lifestyle of atonement was born.

Cora’s mother henceforth demanded that everyone become an ascetic, denying themselves normal pleasures or satisfaction in material things. Anything that hints at prosperity, frivolousness or joy became verboten in the household. For Cora that means she often goes hungry, can’t have pretty dresses, and when she receives the book “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” as a gift, her mother guilts her into burning it. The level of abuse is apparent to anyone, unlike on the show, where Cora seems relatively normal at least from the outside.

In the Novel, Cora’s Dad Was a Nazi, Is Suspected of Incest and Hires Prostitutes

Cora isn’t the only one living a deprived lifestyle. In the book, her father is denied any relief in the bedroom, and instead of having an affair as he does on the show, he frequents a prostitute.

He also turns to frequent masturbation, which is normal, but at this point he is sharing a bedroom with Cora since his wife claims she needs to focus on their younger daughter’s needs. Cora also witnesses her father’s activity multiple times and thinks of it as him trying to pull the sin out of his body. Although no actual incest occurs between father and daughter in the novel, an aunt suspects it’s happening.

Oh, and yes, although Cora’s dad said he didn’t personally believe in Nazi ideology, he served under Hitler and “did what he was told,” which, honestly, tells you everything you need to know about this guy.

Read More:‘The Sinner’: Incest Revelation Adds an Extra Dimension to the Show’s Examination of Abuse

In the Novel, Cora’s Sister Is Far More Demanding Sexually

THE SINNER -- "Part VII" Episode 107 -- Pictured: (l-r) Jessica Biel as Cora Tannetti, Nadia Alexander as Phoebe -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/USA Network)

Jessica Biel and Nadia Alexander, “The Sinner”

Peter Kramer/USA Network

In one of the most controversial scenes in the show, Cora is begged by her sister Phoebe (Nadia Alexander) to show her what sex is like by kissing and touching her. In the novel, it’s implied that the younger sister named Magdalena demands an ongoing sexual relationship with Cora that involves the use of objects like candles and oral sex, which is one reason why Cora doesn’t like it when her husband tries to give her oral sex.

In the Novel, the Character J.D. Is Named Johnny Guitar

Really, that’s all you really need to know. Scandalous.

In the Novel, Frankie and Cora’s Sister Are Not Romantically Involved

Nadia Alexander and Eric Todd, "The Sinner"

Nadia Alexander and Eric Todd, “The Sinner”

USA Network

Magdalena is ethereally beautiful, much more attractive than Cora herself, in the book, and therefore when Frankie meets her, he’s instantly attracted. There is no deeper connection, slow-dancing, or reading of Emily Dickinson. The show added romance and sentimentality to what was essentially just a hookup.

In the Novel, a Random Girl’s Corpse Is Stolen to Replace Magdalena

After that ill-fated night, Cora’s family isn’t able to recover Magdalena’s body, so they cover that up by illegally obtaining another girl’s body and burying that.

Read More:  ‘The Sinner’ Soundtrack: Listen to the Killer Playlist for USA’s Addictive Murder Mystery

In the Novel, There Was No Ski Mask

"The Sinner"

Frankie’s dad never bothered to hid his face. He just abused Cora while showing his face to her fully, and the abuse lasted for six months, not the mere two months as in the show. He also “found” her on the road and claimed that she was the one who had been pregnant and jumped in front of a car. He also said that he didn’t want to bring her to the police because he had been drinking that night and didn’t want to get dinged for driving.

In the Novel, There Was Never an Ex Named Maddie

The show used Maddie (Danielle Burgess) as a red herring, a way for Cora to conflate painful memories of her sister with someone she cared about less. She also became the character who became pregnant and jumped in front of a car. In the book, Cora’s memories are just hazy and she recalls a “blonde” was present, but it was only her sister all along. There is not Maddie and certainly not anyone who named their baby Winter.

On the Show, the Lead Detective Is Addicted to His Sexual Kink

This is the one instance where the novel is not as shocking at the TV show. The book’s detective is fairly bland and not much is known of his private life, but USA’s series made a bold choice to give Det. Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) a kink that is destroying his personal life. He tries and fails to revive his marriage, but he can’t seem to help going back to his affair with a dominatrix. This addiction is a sign that he hasn’t dealt with some past trauma, which is why he’s so attuned to why Cora might have a similarly troubled past.

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