The critically acclaimed HBO series The Night Of has swept many off their feet with its gritty realism and heart-pounding tension, but this shouldn’t come as a surprise: The show is based on the excellent BBC series Criminal Justice, a deeply original thriller that aired in the UK over two seasons in 2008–2009. As The Night Of winds suspensefully toward its conclusion, viewers may be tempted to look to Criminal Justice for clues. So here’s how the HBO version has diverged from the BBC series so far.
The lead character in Criminal Justice isn’t Pakistani; instead, he’s a young white man named Ben Coulter, played by Ben Whishaw (best known as Q from the Bond films.) The key difference here is that Ben is a white man accused of killing a black woman, as opposed to a Muslim American accused of killing a white woman. And that change affects the way both shows are structured: The culture clash and racial tensions between Naz’s family and the criminal justice system is clearly a key strain in The Night Of, but in the BBC series, Ben’s trajectory is shaped more by socioeconomic bias than racism. And in Criminal Justice, Ben’s mother is barely seen aside from brief glimpses, while both Naz’s parents are key characters in the American version. Ben and Naz both come from working-class families, but Ben is a lower-class white man with limited education who is basically trapped in an overly complicated system that sets him up to fail.
Both versions feature a very similar plot: The main character “borrows” his father’s cab to go to a party, forgets to turn off the light to denote that they’re off duty, picks up a beautiful young woman on the street, and winds up back at her place. Drugs are consumed, and they play a game with knives—and then both Ben and Naz wake up to a dead body and no memory of what’s happened. But something crucially different in The Night Of is that it appears to be a crime of passion based on the sheer number of stab wounds and the amount of blood, whereas in Criminal Justice there was one single wound in the heart.
After the facts of the case are established, both shows devote considerable plot to the time the protagonist spends in prison—but while Naz is hardened by prison, Ben completely loses his mind and can’t handle what’s happening to him there. He’s desperate to get out and will say anything to get free.
The most similar aspect of both series is the John Stone role—which was originally intended for James Gandolfini before his death. Though the British version features dramatically fewer close-ups of Stone’s foot eczema, I’d say without question that this is the character that pays the most tribute to the British crime drama genre, from his quirks (eczema) to the way he interacts with clients. His name is Ralph Stone, not John, though. And his eczema plays a much bigger role in the HBO version. Ralph Stone wears closed-toed shoes, not sandals.
The Criminal Justice System
Some of the key differences between the two series stem from discrepancies in the policing and legal systems in the U.S. and the U.K. Richard Price, who was brought in to adapt the show and is best known as the author of Clockers, adeptly turns the quirks of the British crime genre into New York–style grit. Some tweaks are pretty simple: Barristers and solicitors become lawyers and pro-bono lawyers, British closed-circuit TV becomes U.S. surveillance cameras. But others are more complicated: In Criminal Justice, Frances Kapoor is Naz’s barrister, or “in court” lawyer, a role specific to the British criminal justice system. In Naz’s case, Chandra is brought in when Naz’s high-powered attorney decides that a white pro-bono lawyer doesn’t have the language skills necessary to communicate with Naz’s parents and also, cynically, that the optics of bringing a South Asian woman to their house will improve the hard sell.
It’s clearly a big open question as to how the climax of The Night Of will play out. But in Criminal Justice (spoiler alert), Ben is found guilty of the crimes he’s accused of after he’s caught in a lie about having dropped out of college. (He’d told his parents he hadn’t.) But that’s not where the story ends. Ben goes to prison, does a ton of drugs, and is completely wrecked. Stone, in his position as solicitor, convinces him to appeal his conviction by claiming sexual harassment by and inappropriate contact from his young and beautiful barrister, the equivalent of the Chandra character played by Amara Karan. This move immediately tanks her career. And Ben is ultimately set free (double spoiler alert) due to the discovery of footage of a man pursuing the girl Ben’s been convicted of killing, shortly before the murder and shortly after another murder.
It’s ultimately that guilt—the guilt that Ben feels after getting his life back by sinking someone else’s—that stays with you after watching Criminal Justice. The drama played out over five nights in the U.K. on its initial run, and it’s easy to see why the creators chose to schedule it that way: It’s nearly impossible to wait an entire week before getting the next installment.
Though it’s too early to say whether the HBO version will follow the plot of the BBC show beat by beat, if you’re finding yourself craving more episodes and aren’t afraid of potential spoilers, it’s definitely worth checking out the original version in full—and both series of Criminal Justice are now available to stream in full on Hulu.