Book vs. Series: Breaking Down "Defending Jacob"
Apple TV+ has recently released a television adaptation of the 2012 novel Defending Jacob by William Landay. The miniseries stars Chris Evans and Michelle Dockery as Andy and Laurie Barber, a couple whose 14-year-old son is accused of murdering a middle school classmate. While the show has received mixed reviews, the different suspense-building techniques used in the series versus the novel reveal how tension and reader investment can vary even if many of the events remain the same.
Casting and Characterizations
The first thing we should note and commend about the series is its commitment to diversity—a key concept when writing works that involve a major metropolitan area where populations are multicultural. The overall cast features several people of color as one would see in and around a Boston suburb. Not to mention, two of the novel’s pivotal secondary roles—Jonathan Klein, Jacob’s attorney, and Lt. Det. Paul Duffy, local law enforcement assigned to the case—are described as white men in the book but are played by women on the show. But while the series surpasses the novel in the progressive nature of its casting, the show falters in its attempts to build characterizations that resonate with a solemnity as deep as the book.
For example, as you may have guessed, Chris Evans is woefully miscast in the lead role of Andy Barber, a man determined to do whatever it takes to preserve his son’s innocence during a murder trial. Now, that’s not a commentary on the star’s acting skills, as it is a pleasure to see him tackle something incongruent to the moral high ground he’s treaded as Captain America. In fact, Evans does a masterful job here creating a desperate character who remains likeable. Yet, the book describes Andy Barber, his problems, and his approach to this crime from the viewpoint of a 51-year-old man and a person who has been a prosecuting attorney for over 22 years. Granted, the series has made the proper changes to reduce the ages of the entire cast to eliminate any thoughts of this minor difference—and of course, a young cast makes sense considering this show is on a new streaming platform designed for Gen Z.
However, this age change creates a serious lack of gravitas that leaves the early part of the story feeling hallow. Part of me wonders what an older actor like Andrew Lincoln or Jeffrey Dean Morgan could have done with this role, since the book specifically seeks to ask how does a man, who has passed the prime of his life, continue to thrive if he can’t do so through his children? This question not only implies a father figure mature enough to know the consequences of crossing legal lines, but also one old enough to feel that he must protect his son’s life and family’s legacy at all costs because time is fleeting.
This age distinction is especially noteworthy when we consider that the novel’s author, William Landay, has often described the book as more of a family drama than as a crime or mystery (where it is so often shelved). To be fair, the television show does its best to capitalize on those familial elements by placing Andy at the peak of his career rather than the cusp of decline. And yet, for me, the change in age fails to ring with the same level of foreboding, especially since the series doesn’t provide any new elements that warrant the change. Thus, the show’s main story question hinges on a similar but less nuanced story conceit: How far will a father go to defend his family?
The eight-part miniseries remains faithful to the novel with certain passages—like the dialogue exchange between Andy and his boss as he’s put on administrative leave—being pulled from the book almost verbatim. Even the grand jury question and answer that we see at the top of the first episode is represented similarly in the book as a framework for the present while the events leading to Jacob’s trial are told in flashback.
One minor change the audience may note about the television series deals with “A Walk in the Woods,” a flash fiction piece described as written by Jacob in both versions of the tale. In the book, the short story is something Andy discovers prior to trial during his ambush of Derek Yoo, which gives him time to rationalize away the seriousness of the situation. The series, however, uses “A Walk in the Woods” as a surprise piece of inflammatory evidence read aloud in court and, hence, perceived by all involved as Jacob’s pseudo-confession. Hence, the show’s reveal of the flash piece is played as an emotional loss of faith in Jacob for everyone involved, while the book’s introduction of the story at trial is played mainly as a breaking point for Laurie and acts as the catalyst for the ending’s big plot twist. Regardless, the powerhouse moment of having that material read aloud in court is definitely the best moment of the miniseries.
Point of View
Both the book and the show vacillate between an unidentified grand jury proceeding in the present and the past events leading up to the murder trial of a middle school student named Ben Rifkin. The novel tells the story of this tragedy solely from Andy Barber’s perspective, often using hindsight statements—like “Laurie was neither stupid nor belligerent, and in the end she paid an awful price—but I am getting ahead of the story”—to take full advantage of the first-person past tense formatting prevalent in many crime novels. The series, on the other hand, tells the story from multiple perspectives to add tension to the mystery surrounding the crime and to shape the audience’s understanding of the justice system as it unfolds in Newton, Massachusetts.
Although it is understandable that the show’s producers would want to expand beyond Andy’s viewpoint in order to give the other characters more depth and to provide additional suspense for the viewer, the change is somewhat jarring because it takes away the audience’s ability to choose what evidence to believe and what evidence to discard. That is to say, the book’s solo viewpoint highlights Andy’s inherent bias as the accused’s father and boldly reminds us the first-person viewpoint is the mode of the unreliable narrator. To this end, Andy often challenges us to take his recounting of events with a grain of salt: “I do not pretend to be objective.” Thus, Andy’s sole viewpoint, as damaged as it may be, gives the reader the power to pick and choose the “facts” from those presented and allows us to draw our own conclusions. We are privy to our own manipulation. So as we grapple with Andy’s version of events, we devise our own ebb and flow of “did Jacob do it” or “didn’t he,” which enlivens the book with more tension and instills stronger reader investment since we’re in control of what we choose to believe.
Whereas, the television series seeks to specifically direct those twists by having multiple points of view where characters blame each other or cliffhangers are created via limited camera angles, misinformation, and misdirection. Granted, this is all to be expected in a visual medium. However, the number of choices offered by these differing viewpoints ratchets up the difficulty of the story’s underlying puzzle by robbing us of our singular position inside the (albeit unreliable) first-person narrator’s head in favor of several POV characters who the narrative deems suspect. And while I didn’t personally enjoy this deviation from the book, the level of uncertainty that comes with a multi-viewpoint story still proves effective since it ultimately directs us to focus less on “Did Jacob do it?” and more on “Did Jacob’s parents do the right thing?” And in many ways, that’s a harder and much more interesting questions to answer.
Prior to the show’s release, the executive producers of Defending Jacob made a number of announcements that the series would end differently from the novel. Therefore, if you are reading this, please note that there are major spoilers ahead—but before you go, it is worth knowing that the changes succeed at simultaneously exonerating and casting additional doubt on Jacob while also placing a microscope on the efforts his family uses to protect and understand him.
With that in mind, the differences in the endings come in the form of information that both motivates and muddles Laurie’s final reaction to Jacob’s behavior. In the book, Laurie never learns that Andy’s jailbird dad uses the mysterious Father O’Leary to force a confession and suicide from a local pedophile to clear Jacob’s name. Instead, her doubts about Jacob are renewed when her son returns to their hotel with what appears to be blood spatters on his swim trunks in the wake of a teenage girl’s disappearance. This forces a new rift in the family as they remain in the Caribbean while Jacob is investigated and eventually cleared when the case stalls due to lack of evidence—though the girl’s body washes ashore seven weeks later. Upon the family’s return to the States, Laurie grows distant and eventually takes Jacob on a fateful car ride, which we learn from Andy’s testimony results in their son’s death, and is the subject of the grand jury proceeding that’s been the present-day frame setting of the entire story.
In the series, the family vacations in Mexico and the two major divergences begin once the young lady disappears. When local authorities detain Jacob for questioning, Andy’s doubts his son’s innocence and reveals to Laurie the details behind Father O’Leary’s role in his son’s initial exoneration. Laurie takes the information as a sign that not only did Jacob kill his classmate, Ben Rifkin, but that he must have killed again at the resort and that she’s failed him as a parent, making her implicit in the murder of several innocent lives. The twist here is that the girl returns to the resort the next day having fallen prey to the deceitful lusting of some older boys. Jacob is vindicated, but Laurie remains unconvinced as she’s haunted by memories of Jacob’s “A Walk in the Woods” story being read aloud during her son’s trial. Andy tries to convince her that if Jacob is innocent in Mexico, he’s probably innocent at home regardless of Father O’Leary’s illicit trial fix. Unfortunately, Laurie’s mind is set, especially once she returns to Newton and witnesses the pain the Rifkin family still endures while Jacob walks free. She soon decides to take the matter into her own hands by facilitating her son’s death during a high-speed car crash. During the act, Laurie attempts to coerce a confession from Jacob. He initially denies responsibility but eventually relents in the hope his mother will slow the vehicle. Seeing this dynamic is riveting because it’s designed to play with our emotions since we all know that confessions made under duress are often disingenuous.
The second element that makes the series ending unique is that Jacob survives the crash—although it is unclear whether he’ll be able to overcome the severity of his injuries. We don’t hear from Jacob, but Laurie is cleared of negligence for the crash and both parents are left wondering what will happen if Jacob survives. Did he do it? Will he confess? Will he murder again? Will he remember Laurie’s accusation? Or worse, will he retaliate with a murder attempt of his own? While this conclusion is perhaps unsatisfying to some, the open-ended aspect to the program not only leaves the door open for Apple TV+ to create original content should they decide to option a second season, but also leaves us pondering the fate of these characters long after we’ve stepped away from the story.
And that’s what good writing should do—whether it is for your novel, short story, stage, or screen—leave the audience wanting more. Defending Jacob as a series does this by posing a new question, alluding at a new mystery to come, and hinting at a resolved threat resurfacing in a new way—all of which are tools we can use to sharpen the endings of our own manuscripts. Or as Mickey Spillane once said, “The first chapter sells the book; the last chapter sells the next book,” so don’t be afraid to take what you can from these adaptations. Studying them just might turn a humdrum story into a home run.
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