I usually read the book before watching its adaptation. When the reverse occurs, it’s because the movie or TV series is so absorbing that it leads me to explore how the original story is written and more importantly, how it ends.
Defending Jacob is a 2012 crime novel written by award-winning author William Landay. The story is character-driven and deals with issues such as the essence of parental love, nature vs. nurture, certainty and doubts. Without giving out any spoilers, I can say that the ending of the book is a darker reality while the TV adaptation offers a glimmer of light.
One morning in the quiet town of Newton, MA, a 14 year-old boy, Ben Rifkin, is found stabbed to death in a park on his way to school. Another 14 year-old schoolmate Jacob Barber (Jaeden Martell) is later charged with first degree murder and tried as an adult according to the law of the State.
What turns this from just another murder mystery into a captivating 8-episode TV mini-series is the character depiction and the intriguing perspectives it presents. Parents Andy (Chris Evans) and Laurie Barber (Michelle Dockery) are totally loving and devoted to their only child Jacob, but their inner voices differ.
Andy, an assistant DA who is involved in the investigation initially, is convinced of his son’s innocence. While equally fervent in her love, as the trial reveals some incriminating evidence against Jacob, Laurie (Michelle Dockery) begins to doubt and is willing to seek the truth, even if it’s devastating.
Does love for your child mean unequivocal loyalty and trust? Is doubt a form of betrayal? Do genes determine actions? What about family background and upbringing, nature or nurture? And above all, can you know a person fully? Your spouse? Your child?
The eight episodes are not too long to explore these issues. I finished them in two days. Then right away to the book. After that, rewatched again. What first drew me to the series was Michelle Dockery. Yes, I’m always curious to see the post-Downton transfiguration of the cast… Lily James, Dan Matthews, and others. Dockery’s performance is effective and convincing here. Playing opposite the highly popular Chris Evans, they make an admirable couple, albeit maybe ten years younger than the book’s characters.
Jaeden Martell as Jacob is mystifying, not giving viewers any clues to his inner self, which is effective in a way so we can sense his parents’ frustration. Unlike Kevin (Ezra Miller) who instigates a school shooting in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), Jacob doesn’t appear to be a monster or the devil incarnate. His innocent look elevates the suspense. How much do we actually know our children? How much can we know?
Supporting cast is equally judicious. Cherry Jones as Jacob’s lawyer Joanna Klein is an apt choice and portrayal, as well as Detective Duffy (Betty Gabriel), instead of the male characters in the book. J. K. Simmons is eerily convincing as the grandfather, a figure Andy tries to bury in his memory. Jacob’s classmate Sarah (Jordan Alexa Davis) deserves a mention for her natural poise, an altered and a more fully developed character from the book.
This I disagree with some prominent critics: it is not too long. The 421 page book works well as a novel. The 8 episodes work well as an elaboration and interpretative performance of the novel. Those too impatient to go through them might have missed some fine details. The side stories are necessary to bring out the characters and give actors their chances of more fleshed-out, nuanced performance. Every episode moves the story forward with its smooth editing.
The ending of the mini-series offers a different scenario in contrast to the book. It’s a softer landing, which is acceptable but not as powerful and intense as the book’s harsher reality. The creator/screenwriter could have been tough enough to follow the book, as Landay’s plotting is remarkable. Nevertheless, the twists and turns of the story development remain intact overall. Defending Jacob is a highly watchable and riveting adaptation.
~ ~ ~ Ripples
Defending Jacob is created by Mark Bomback and directed by Morten Tyldum, now playing on Apple TV+