The Biggest Differences Between HBO’s Lovecraft Country and Matt Ruff’s Book

By | September 14, 2020

Spoiler warning: The following story contains spoilers for HBO’s Lovecraft Country.


  • HBO’s new series Lovecraft Country is based upon the book of the same name by Matt Ruff, which was released in 2016.
  • Showrunner Misha Green says Ruff’s book was “a beautiful jumping-off point” for the series.
  • Here are all the biggest changes, and points of comparison, between HBO’s Lovecraft Country and the novel by Matt Ruff.

    When author Matt Ruff’s pulpy, historical fiction/sci-fi/horror/fantasy genre-bender of a novel Lovecraft Country was released in 2016, it wasn’t immediately a massive hit. The book was well-received, and while it was successful in genre circles, it didn’t quite land on any New York Times bestseller lists. But the right people saw it, clearly, because in 2017 Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions brought the book to J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions, and together it was decided this was the right mix for a big ol’ TV show.

    And while the major names of Peele and Abrams were the headliners when the series was first announced, it’s Misha Green who’s running the show. Green, a talented writer who’s previous project was the underrated and critically-acclaimed series Undergound, is Lovecraft Country‘s showrunner.

    In a Q+A sent to press by HBO, Green explained how she was working on Underground when her agents suggested that she might want to adapt a book called Lovecraft Country. “I was blown away,” she said. “I thought, ‘I want to explore these characters and their journeys.’ I was also really into the idea of reclaiming the genre space for those who’ve typically been left out of it. I said, ‘I’m ready to make this into an epic television show.’

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    The very idea of Green running Lovecraft Country is an interesting one with a lot of potential. While the Lovecraft Country book was well-received when it was published, it remains the story of a Black family during the Jim Crow era being told by an author, Ruff, who is white. Green, a Black woman, feels like a stronger fit to not only inherit Ruff’s source material, but adjust and expand upon it for the screen. Green added in HBO’s Q+A that she essentially used Ruff’s book and his characters as “a beautiful jumping-off point” for the TV series.

    “My strategy was to take all of its dope, cool stuff and write new dope, cool stuff,” she said, laughing. “There was a never a sense of ‘Let’s bank this for later.’ When you have 10 people in a room, you’re always able to come up with new ideas. The goal was to deepen the characters and the stories.”

    By and large, Lovecraft Country‘s story remains the same, with the same overarching tentpole events (at least so far). But as with any adaptation, there are changes, some more significant than others—and almost always for the better, benefitting either character or story. Sometimes this comes through smaller things like dialogue, character names, and details, and other times its major events that can largely shift the plot in completely different directions.

    We’ll continue to update this story after every new Lovecraft Country episode, but here are some notes and some of the biggest differences from page to screen so far.

    lovecraft country book vs show

    HBO

    William

    Ahhhh. We’ve been waiting to get here. This is one of the biggest differences between the Lovecraft Country book and the Lovecraft Country series’ so far—William, the blonde-haired young Johnny Depp-lookalike who works for the Braithwhites, but isn’t their butler, and has all sorts of duplicitous shit going on? Well, in the HBO version, he’s not quite who he seems—because he and Christina Braithwhite are the motherfucking same person.

    It’s a lovely twist for the show, which has already taken a male character—Caleb Braithwhite—and made him female for the show. By turning Caleb into Chrisina, the how is able to not only weigh the racism of the era, but the sexism as well, even within a powerful family.

    The difference, though, is that the William angle of all of this is entirely a creation and addition by Misha Green for the show. The character of William is a part of the book, but he’s simply a loyal (and very polite) servant to the Braithwhites. The show takes a strong liberty, and makes William significantly more important to the plot—by literally making him and Christina one in the same.

    Ruby Baptiste

    Letitia’s half-sister is shown to be a professional singer and performer in the show, and the two of them sing on stage (and Atticus pops open a fire hydrant) for a really fun moment early on in the first episode. In the book, Ruby is more of an introvert, and finds herself working day-to-day, job-to-job. In one of the book’s vignette-esque chapters, she’s working as a caterer, and eventually gets unjustly fired from that job.

    That job leads directly into the storyline that becomes Episode 5 in the book (in the show, she simply meets William at a bar). Episode 5—the show’s “body horror” episode, as much as each episode seems to channel a different subgenre of horror—is very very much belonging to Ruby, as she learns what “William” has done to her. With the help of a potion, she now changes into a white woman (who she decides to call “Hillary”) whenever she wants (though the transformation to and from is grisly), and sees the different way a white woman is able to navigate the world from a Black one.

    The show takes things a step further than the book though—the plotline where Ruby is living as a white woman in the world finds her working in a department store, and handed a cushy job almost immediately, with no experience. The manager of the store is clearly a racist, and this eventually leads to the episode’s finest moment: Ruby seducing the man, before attacking him with her stiletto, as she transforms back into herself, as Cardi B plays. True art.

    While Ruby’s transformation is a major part of the book, how it plays out is quite different in the show; her interaction with the other women who work at the store, with the manager, all is original. The biggest difference seems to be this: in the book, she really seems to embrace and prefer life in the body of a white woman, while in the show, she ore uses her experience in the body of a white woman as a vessel to further fuel the injustices that she faces every single day as a Black woman.

    The Museum Adventure

    The whole adventure in the museum in Episode 4 plays out much differently in the book than in HBO’s series. In the book, the mission is much more wide-ranging effort, as Atticus, Montrose, and Letitia are also joined by George (who is still alive at this point), and a handful of other members of a Black lodge that both George and Montrose are members of. Once they find their way to the book they’re looking for, it becomes an almost psychological horror type of game, with one of their lodge members (a character not featured in the show) used basically as a human fishing hook, thrown into a sort of anti-gravity limbo where the book is being stored.

    The show keeps the adventure, really, to just Atticus, Letitia, and Montrose. Rather than a psychological horror, the adventure plays out much more like a treasure hunt out of Indiana Jones or Aladdin. And the entire sequence at the back end of the episode, when they find the woman who had been a corpse and ages backwards into a woman again—that’s all Misha Green. Not from the book at all—and that includes the cliffhanger ending.

    Montrose Freeman

    It’s impossible when reading the book to picture anyone other than Michael K. Williams when the character of Montrose is talking or doing anything. But starting with Episode 4, the show really begins to stray his storyline from how it goes in the book. In particular, let’s talk about that cliffhanger ending; it shows that not only does Montrose have some sort of ulterior motive (in killing the woman they found in the museum), but that he…knows how to use the same sort of magic that the Braithwhites do, and that Atticus had begun to learn. This is going down a very different road from the storyline in the novel, and we’re super intrigued to see what happens.

    Letitia Lewis

    Episode 3 primarily focuses on Letitia as she pioneers in a white neighborhood, buying a large home and turning it into a boarding house for herself, her sister Ruby, and other Black people (including Atticus)—this mirrors her vignette-style story early in the book.

    In the show, this comes after the events of Episode 2, which saw her literally shot by Samuel Braithwhite before being revived (in the book, she remains alive all along). Episode 3 finds her looking to revive herself and move onto something new, which leads to the purchase of the new house .

    And while the book describes some of the harassment Letitia faces from neighbors as the first Black person in the neighborhood, the episode takes it to a new level. It’s one thing to read about racially-motivated harassment; it’s another to see a cross burning on a lawn. This also leads to one of the episode’s most cathartic moments, as Letitia grabs a baseball bat and bashes in the windows and windshields of cars parked outside her house before the police arrive and arrest her. This sequence is not in the book—it’s created entirely by Green for the HBO series.

    Hiram Epstein

    The primary villain of Episode 3 is a scientist who’s meant to be part of the magic world Lovecraft Country is slowly developing; at the conclusion of the episode’s story arc, the ghosts of the people he tortured, all Black, team up with Letitia to exorcise and destroy his spirit. In Ruff’s book, basically the opposite happens; rather than uniting with the other spirits, Letitia befriends the spirit haunting the house (there known as ‘Hiram Winthrop’), and they eventually team up to take on bigger enemies.

    Christina Braithwhite

    Viewers only got a brief glimpse of Christina Braithwhite (Abbey Lee) in the first episode of Lovecraft Country (she’s the mysterious woman who steps out of the silver sedan Atticus sees in the road as they’re escaping from the racist diner). But Episode 2 dives into the character in a major way.

    Christina is one of the most significantly changed characters from the book to the HBO series—primarily because the gender has been flipped. In Ruff’s novel, the character is Caleb Braithwhite. The character primarily remains the same from this switch, but it also provides a lot more in terms of unspoken bias—Christina in the show clearly has bias against her due to her gender.

    At the end of Episode 3, Atticus figures out that Leti’s inheritance didn’t come from her mother, but rather that it was arranged by Christina, a chess move in a plan to further dominate what’s basically a battle of sorcerers at this point. Atticus pulls a gun on her, but he can’t pull the trigger, because of an invulnerability spell that she’s taken from her father’s playbook. While Caleb Brathwhite has immunity in the book, the way its invoked in the series is new.

    It’s in this last scene, too, that the difference in turning ‘Caleb’ into ‘Christina’ becomes significant. “You have to be smarter than this,” she tells him as the episode closes. “You know you can’t just go around killing white women.” It becomes clear that Christina, while part of an oppressed group herself (a female within her own historically male, gender-biased family—even though Samuel is now out of the picture) knows that she has the power to essentially sentence a Black man in Atticus to death simply by an accusation.

    And by episode 5, we find out that Christina occasionally moonlights as William, someone who works for the Braithwhite family (and also has something romantic/manipulative going on with Ruby.)

    Uncle George Freeman

    As played by Emmy-winner Courtney B. Vance (American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson), George is one of the most entertaining characters in the show, an expert on traveling thanks to his work publishing The Safe Negro Travel Guide. While he’s one of the best and warmest characters throughout the book, the show actually finds him with an increased role (and if you have Vance to play him, why wouldn’t you?). Additionally, he’s slightly more incapacitated—we see him tending to his busted knees in the show, a character trait that Green added on her own, apart from the source material.

    Episode 2 brings one of the biggest changes in Uncle George’s character—he gets a big speech at the dinner with Samuel Braithwhite and the Sons of Adam (in the book, Atticus has this revelation, keeps it to himself, and delivers the speech).

    Uncle George also gets shot by Samuel in Episode 2, and while Christina says they have magic to save him, that doesn’t happen—he appears to die at the end of the episode. In the novel, Uncle George survives the entire time; in the vignette style of the book, he never has his own focused chapter/section, but he shows up in just about every single one.

    In Episode 3, Atticus, Diana, and Hippolyta deal with the fallout of Uncle George’s death, saying that he had a funeral. However, when playing with a ouija board, Diana gets a message from something claiming to be ‘G-E-O-R-G-E’. We’ll see.

    Atticus and Letitia

    Like the rest of the series, the show’s two lead characters are perfectly cast. Jonathan Majors plays Atticus as exactly the kind of nerd-turned-insanely jacked guy that everyone realizes he is the moment he gets back from Florida, and his earnest-but-not-quite-shy persona is perfect for the character.

    Additionally, Jurnee Smollett is the perfect performer to play Letitia, her sky high confidence coming through with every single line reading. There’s a hint of romance and flirtation between the two of them that never really materializes in the book, but the actors work it in well nonetheless.

    Episode 2 shows some hints of romance between the two—their relationship in the book is almost entirely platonic; Episode 3 fully dives into this, as Atticus and Letita get together during the party. Atticus is clearly jealous of Letitia talking to other men during her housewarming, and decides to do something about it. This is entirely new for the show, but the great chemistry between Smollett and Majors means it completely works. The romance continues into episode 5, and seems to be a building point of the show going forward.

    Character Names

    Perhaps minor in the grand scheme of things, but it’s interesting to note how the characters adapted from the book to the HBO series saw their names adjusted. Atticus Turner in the book is now Atticus Freeman (Majors) in the series. Letitia Dandridge in the book is now Letitia Lewis (Smollett) in the series.

    One change that is significant is changing the character of George Berry to now be George Freeman (Courtney B. Vance); in the book, George and Atticus’ father, Montrose, had different last names, and were, thus, half-brothers. Here, they all share the same last name: Freeman.

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    Monsters. Scary ones.

    The book has monsters, for sure, rooted in Atticus’ awareness of the Shoggoths, a type of monster originating in Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos, particularly his novella At the Mountains of Madness. Shoggoths were raised by an alien race called “Elder Things,” and were originally meant to help them build a society, but eventually had an uprising, and in the present roam the earth wreaking havoc. They’re typically pictured as amorphous blobs with particularly sharp teeth and tentacles. Atticus mentions Shoggoths in the first episode, after we earlier see him reading a book by Lovecraft, The Outsider and Others, in his Uncle George’s office.

    The first episode depicts a sort of vampire-hybrid monster that Atticus, Letitia, and Gerorge encounter when they’re being harassed by the police. We don’t know if these are explicitly meant to be Shoggoths, or something else entirely, but they’re sort of blobby/dog-ish monsters, covered with eyes and tentacles and big, sharp teeth. George’s favorite book is shown as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and they use this information to realize that the monsters they’re dealing with have Vampiric tendencies of their own; a bitten Sheriff transforms into one of these vicious creatures himself, and bites his fellow officer’s head off almost immediately.

    Sheriff Eustace Hunt

    The early parts of the book make it clear that there are two different types of villain and horror in this story: the human villains, racists like Sheriff Eustace Hunt (who’s described as having an entire folder of complaints from the NAACP against him), and the actual monsters. The show brings the monsters in much earlier, and the vampire hybrids end up bailing our heroes out of their jam; in the book, Hunt is handled off screen by whatever ends up being in the woods, but here we see it with our own eyes: he’s bitten by one of these creatures, and eventually transforms into one, before Letitita runs him over with the car.

    Diana Freeman

    In the show, you see that George (Vance) and Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis) have a child, a daughter named Diana (referred to frequently as ‘D’ in the show). Diana is a gender-swapped version of the character named Horace in the comic; Horace’s defining characteristic is that he loves comic books, and draws his own. We see Diana’s comics in the first episode.


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