In the French series Just One Look, a happy family is thrown into chaos from the discovery of a mysterious photograph. Everything changes instantly for Eva Beaufils (Virginie Ledoyen) – as she tries to hold her family together while evading a cruel killer and searches for her missing husband. But this is just where the story begins.
Based on his bestseller, Harlan Coben continues to find new ways to shock, confuse and surprise his audience in his most recent television adaptation, quite the challenge that Coben so obviously relishes.
“It never gets easier, I can tell you that,” he laughs. “It usually takes a thought that runs through my head or a circumstance or something that happens to me in real life and I turn it on its head. In the case of Just One Look, I actually went and picked up the family photos, and as I was going through them, for a second, I thought there was a picture in there that I didn’t take. Turns out the picture was upside down (laughs). But I started to ask myself ‘what would I do if there was a picture in here I didn’t take? What if that picture changed my whole life?’ and that was the start - that was the seed that grew into Just One Look.”
He credits his success with not playing up to the tropes of the genre, but twisting them just when his audience maybe thinks they know where it’s heading.
“I’ve always looked at the template and then I break it,” he says. “Every time this story seems to be going in a certain direction, I really think it defies that and goes off in another. That’s how I always try to write, when the template goes this way, I gotta go another way. I think the reason I’ve always had luck is that I find the template and then I defy it.”
The new golden age of television has provided many different outlets for visual storytellers other than the two hour feature length format. It’s not a coincidence that more of Coben’s books are making their way to television as 6 – 10 episode mini-series.
“That’s my bread and butter for me right now,” he says. “It’s like taking a novel and slapping it straight on the screen. I don’t really have to worry about how the story is self-contained because the novel should have that. TV didn’t really do that ten or fifteen years ago – or even five years ago. So its really exciting to be able to do it this way.”
He says that more and more often he is eschewing stereotypical Hollywood films for his own entertainment and finds much more interesting stories being told outside of his home country. His interest in French film and TV has seen more than one of his stories adapted for this audience, and he is incredibly proud of how the foreign cast and crew have brought this story to life.
Harlan Coben's The Five is currently streaming at SBS On Demand:
“I’ve optioned things off many times to someone in Hollywood, and they haven’t been made for whatever reason, and I’ve been very happy they weren’t made when I started to see the direction they were going in.”
“To have an actress like Virginie who has always been known in France for playing these avant garde and glamorous roles – to have her settle down into playing a wife and a mother under the most stressful conditions possible – I really think she did a great job and I was really proud of what she did. Virginie is a mother, and you can really see her maternal side.”
“Don’t Let Go came out in September and that’s my thirtieth novel - thirtieth!” he emphasizes. “That’s a lot of time alone in a room. So for me to be able to go out and work with people I like and respect is important. I’m lucky that I don’t have to do it, its not how I make my living, so to work with director Ludovic (Colbeau-Justin), Virginie, Thierry (Neuvic) and all the other actors in this and the cast and crew, was a really fun and interesting experience. I’ve really enjoyed it. Still at the end of the day, when I start getting too social with it, I gotta lock myself back in the room. I’m lucky I get to do both right now.”
Coben regularly mentions this process of being locked away in order to write. He says he beats himself up if he doesn’t get enough written for the day or meet his own goals he sets for his writing. He credits this self-effacing attitude with his extreme prolificacy as an author.
“I may find a way of calming myself down,” he says, “But I like beating myself up. It’s all part of the process, and I think if that self-doubt goes away then you start feeling too confident about what you’re doing and that becomes a problem. So I’m hoping to maintain my level of insecurity and doubt.”
It must be difficult to maintain this level of self-doubt when there’s something like seventy million copies of your thirty novels floating around out there in the world.
“I had a conversation not long ago with Stephen King and he said he still experiences it too. He’s still worried about what people think of his new book or whatever, so I don’t think that goes away, I don’t think it should go away. It’s a weird mix, on the one hand you’re insecure about everything you do, and on the other hand you have the hubris to think that you can talk to somebody for 400 pages, and they’re gonna pay you to do that. It’s a real oxymoron.”
With more productions based on his books still in the works, does Coben have to keep in mind whether or not a book will work in a visual format when he sits down to start writing a novel?
“No,” he says firmly without consideration. “It’s a death if you do it. Also part of it, when you’re adapting it you’re just trying to tell the story in a more visual way. Writing is not visual in that way, for example a music montage can tell a part of a story in a particular way and you just don’t have that in a book. To try and write a TV series as a novel it would just stink. At the same time, most writers think cinematically in a way, but if somebody tries to write a book thinking this will make a great TV series or a film, I guarantee the book will be no good.”
Eagle-eyed viewers will notice that Coben himself shows up in the series at some point, but rather than this being the start of yet another career shift for him, he says the cameos have probably come to end.
“I have decided I have had enough of the cameos. Frankly it’s distracting, I don’t want to take people out of the story, like ‘Oh Look! There’s Harlan!’ (laughs). So I am retiring the cameo appearances. - for today. My ego may make me change my mind tomorrow. Right now I’m not meant to be starring in these things.”
Harlan Coben's new series Just One Look is streaming on SBS On Demand from Boxing Day, 26 December.