Editor’s Note: The following contains The Old Man spoilers.FX’s The Old Man is the television adaptation of Thomas Perry‘s novel of the same name. The show’s creator, Jonathan E. Steinberghas plenty of experience creating adaptations, with works like Black Sails and Human Target. Both the book and television versions of The Old Man follow the story of Dan Chase, or an aging man with the alias Dan Chase, depicted in the show through a stunning performance by Jeff Bridges. He is a veteran who has burnt some bridges and finds himself on the lam rather than in retirement. How his murky past finally catches up to him has yet to play out in the show, still only halfway through its first season. That said, there are already notable differences from the novel. People who have read the book and are watching the show might get confused because of how closely the two parallel each other with different details. This article should serve as a reference to quickly understand why it feels like you are remembering two conflicting details from the same story by highlighting all the differences. The Old Man took on as it moved from page to screen.
To start, let us get some of the more surface-level changes out of the way. In Thomas Perry’s novel, Dan Chase’s original name was Michael Kohler. In the television show, we frequently hear people who knew him when, like FBI Agent Harold Harper (John Lithgow), refer to him as Johnny. Since the show has yet to pan out, perhaps it will come to light that Johnny is yet another alias. The novel and show both have Chase adopting aliases throughout his time on the run. Also, the warlord Hamzad, played by Navid Negahban, whom Chase knew during his time in the Soviet-Afghan war, was called Hamzah in the novel. This name change might be due to the more significant change in the setting of the war, which was Libya in the novel.
Things get more interesting in the details that were changed, and most of the changes the show has made so far have been for the better, something that is sadly untrue of many adaptations. Since the novel is a work of pulp fiction, it makes sense that an adaptation fleshed it out rather than cut it short, as tends to happen with film versions of great books. In the novel, Chase is on the run because he absconded from Libya with $ 20 million that he thought was about to get misused by Hamzah. Though he tries to return it, the US government would rather arrest and question him. In the series, he goes into hiding because he has pissed off the Afghan warlord Hamzad by, apparently, stealing his wife from him. The intelligence apparatus is after Chase because someone has close ties to Hamzad and is pulling favors for him. In either case, the foreign warlord character has deep ties to the United States military and intelligence community that allows him to set the events of the novel in motion. The choice to change stolen money to a love interest, portrayed by Hiam Abbass, makes the show much more compelling. Not only is the dynamic between Chase and his pursuers changed, but we also get more depth of character from Chase through how he copes with the death of said love interest.
There are also changes to seemingly minor characters in the story. Julian Carson (Gbenga Akkinagbe) plays an assassin-for-hire that Harper enlists to hunt down Chase. In the novel, he is a young, hopeful intelligence agent in training. The character comes across as a better foil to Chase. Rather than a rookie cop who mainly gets outwitted by the elderly veteran, we see an adversary that might actually give Chase his comeuppance.
Another character is changed significantly to the advantage of the series. In the novel, Chase keeps up phone conversations with his daughter Emily. She is a recurring character who he meets in person at various points. She also exists in the show, but with a twist. For the first few episodes, we see the character of FBI Agent Angela Adams, portrayed by Alia Shawkat. She is an up-and-coming member of the force and the protégé of Agent Harper, which also puts her high on the list of people involved in hunting down Chase. We eventually learn that Agent Adams is the daughter Chase is talking to over the phone.
Along with implanting his daughter in the agency tasked with his manhunt, the series also gives more weight to the character of Agent Harper. Through flashbacks, we learn that Harper and Chase were colleagues during the events of the Soviet-Afghan war. We also discover that Harper was somehow tasked with stopping Dan Chase, and he clearly has some reason he does not want Chase caught. Harper has his own interests to protect in this story, one where he wants Chase gone, not exposed. Perhaps, he helped Chase escape. Perhaps he was involved in something far shadier than whatever Chase did. The show is hardly through its first season, so there are many unanswered questions.
Though renewed for a second season, we can only speculate how much of the novel’s plot will wrap up in Season 1. The show might finish with the source material and delve into new territory, not from the novel. It might also prolong the source material with deeper flashbacks and more complex character development. That said, most shows are developed as a limited series when they have a complete story in mind. The open-endedness of the FX production indicates that The Old Man is likely to develop new storylines set in the world of the novel that are not drawn directly from Perry’s work. However it ends up, so far, the changes to the original novel are welcome. The major changes to supporting roles and details of the setting add depth to the story, making the television series far outstrip its source material. Like Copolla’s The Godfather adaptation or Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, there are enough changes to make Steinberg’s The Old Man worth viewing as a standalone work of art.