As a thriller writer whose books have sold over 65 million copies, Harlan Coben can afford to be choosy.
His first series written especially for TV, Harlan Coben’s The Five, starts tonight on Sky One and is typical of the New Jersey pageturner: from the first scene where young lad Jesse disappears to the shock revelation that his DNA has been found at a murder scene 20 years later, you’re glued to your seat.
Coben’s books should be a gift for Hollywood: constant twists and turns, until a shock ending that you should have seen coming (but never do).
“Julia Roberts wanted to discuss producing my film. Yeah, I can clear my calendar to take her call”
But, as Coben tells Loaded: “Until recently, I’d take the easy option: Hollywood would come to me and say ‘Here’s some money’ and I’d say ‘Thank you. Now, here’s my book. Do what you will. You don’t talk to me and I don’t talk to you.’
“The script would then either gather dust, or the film would start getting made and be made so badly that I’d try to sabotage it.”
Of Coben’s 28 novels, only Tell No One from 2001 has been made into a film – in France, where it won a ton of awards.
That’s about to change, with the 54-year-old’s new novel Fool Me Once already being produced by Julia Roberts, who will also play the lead as disgraced former army captain Maya Burkett, whose apparently murdered husband Joe suddenly returns from the dead.
“The book came out on a Tuesday and I got a call on the Wednesday from my Hollywood agent saying ‘Julia Roberts is reading it and loves it’,” Coben recalls. “I hear so much nonsense like that from Hollywood, I listened literally with half an ear: ‘OK, great, bye!’
“Hugh Jackman loved Six Years… and Hollywood blew it”
“But the very next day, it was ‘Julia wants to call you. Are you free 11am on Monday.’ ‘Let me think about that. Er, yeah, I can free my calendar to talk to Julia Roberts!’”
Coben is full of praise for Roberts’ understanding of the book, saying she picked up on aspects of the book even he hadn’t fully appreciated.
And yet, Hugh Jackman also loved Coben’s novel Six Years and was set to star when Paramount bought the rights. “Hugh read the book, loved it… and Hollywood blew it. This is typical Hollywood. Everything is lined up, something goes wrong. The movie is now not happening. It fell through the cracks, and that happens 99% of the time in Hollywood.
“It’s still happening to the English language remake of Tell No One. I can’t tell you how many times that’s slipped through the cracks. I’ve lost track of every actor and director attached to it.”
In case you’re now thinking Coben has major beef with Hollywood, don’t. As he talks to Loaded at a function room at The Covent Garden Hotel, the author couldn’t appear happier with his lot. Friendly, quick to laugh, sarcastic (“Like you Brits, which is why my books do well here”), he has the air of a typical suburban dad somehow gifted enough to write books that are inevitably compulsive read-in-one-sitting tomes. There’s probably a superhero cape he changes into to write.
And Coben is certainly happy with The Five. With the suddenly-reappearing Jesse as the fifth person in the title, the other four childhood friends who have remained pals are played by stalwart British TV names like Lee Ingleby (The A Word), Sarah Solemani (Bad Education), OT Fagbenle (Thorne) and Tom Cullen (Downton Abbey).
Coben, a 6ft 4ins former basketball player (like Myron Bolitar, his returning detective from 10 of his novels), explains he suddenly switched to writing TV because the idea for The Five “felt too big for a book – there are four lead characters.”
He enthuses about the golden age of television allowing him to now make a 10-episode series – “This couldn’t have been made until a few years ago” – and how Sky One’s promise to let The Five be made without interference persuaded him to veer away from concentrating on his novels.
“The show is called Harlan Coben’s The Five. If it’s not awesome, I’m not going to let it go out”
“The show is called Harlan Coben’s The Five,” he points out. “It’s got my name on it, so if it’s not awesome then I’m not going to let it go out. I’ll fight them tooth and nail.” Thankfully, the first two episodes Loaded has seen are compelling, though even then the self-confessed perfectionist isn’t happy. “It’s weird for me that people are going to have to review it from the first two episodes. It’s like reviewing one of my books from the first 20%.
“Until you see all 10 episodes, how can you know if it’s good? The Five gets better and deeper, and the last two episodes will blow your socks off. I’ve seen the final two 10 times and I’ve cried every time.”
Married to paediatrician Anne Armstrong-Coben, the New Jersey author explains he’s only just begun to write at home now their four children have mostly left home. “I write at whatever spot works for me,” he reveals. “That charmed writing place is like horse riding – every so often the horse dies and I get a new horse. I write any place I can get a little time.
“Towards the end of writing The Stranger, I wasn’t writing well. I got an Uber, and I wrote really well in the back of the car. For the next three weeks, I took an Uber whenever I possibly could and wrote a ton.”
Despite never having written for TV before, Coben insists he didn’t feel extra pressure in writing The Five. Any concerns about the American writing a show set in England were soon dealt with. “I always feel pressure,” he shrugs. “Starting a book is torture every time, and I always want to make each book better than the last. If you don’t want to try to better yourself, you’re probably phoning it in.
“The Five has a proper ending. It’s not fair when shows leave you hanging”
“The Five being set in the UK wasn’t such a big deal. It’s got an American attitude – there’s only one scene with any rain! I wanted very bright colours, because it’s ultimately a life-affirming show. The story gets dark, but the colours stay bright.
“One of the first scenes is the birthday party for Mark, Jesse’s brother. The producers asked me how the characters should act to each other. I said ‘They’ve been friends for years – they hug, of course.’ I was told ‘We Brits don’t do that’ and I had to say ‘Well, they hug now!’ Sometimes the actors were comfortable hugging, sometimes not. It was fun, watching the guys get awkward.”
Coben’s novel No Second Chance was recently adapted into a French TV series, with Just One Look set to follow. Without giving the end of The Five away, Coben insists the show will have a proper ending.
“We twist and turn you all over the place, but we really give you an answer. I don’t think it’s fair when shows leave you hanging so you have to watch another season. So, no, you’re going to find out why Jesse disappears
“The four characters may return for a sequel, but it would have to be another story altogether. And I’m talking to Sky about doing another fresh story not involving them.”
Meanwhile, anyone disappointed that the Six Years film starring Hugh Jackman is dead, there’s a twist worthy of Coben’s novels.
Having not appeared in a TV series since 1996’s distinctly non-classic Snowy River: The McGregor Saga, Jackman may appear in a TV version of Six Years that Coben is currenly plotting.
“Hugh still has an interest in doing it,” says Coben. “I may want to do Six Years as a quality TV series. I don’t know if Hugh would want to do that, but we’re still in touch.”
And in case any of Coben’s 65 million readers are worried his TV and film work will detract from the quality of his novels, he has some advice to pass on.
“After the French film of Tell No One hit and Hollywood began calling, my publisher said ‘A lot of novelists get caught up in that world. Then they forget to write the novels.’ She was a very wise woman and I have a healthy fear of that world.”
Harlan Coben’s The Five starts tonight on Sky One at 9pm. Fool Me Once is published now by Century.
Loaded’s deputy editor John Earls has covered entertainment and sport across a range of national newspapers, plus several football and music magazines, since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at @EarlsJohn