HBO’s Lovecraft Country: the Book vs. the Show

lovecraft country differences book versus hbo tv show matt ruff changes

HBO’s Lovecraft Country is a 10-episode series that’s running from August 16, 2020 to October 18. It’s based off of Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel of the same name, which tells a series of inter-related Lovecraftian short stories set in 1950’s Jim Crow America.

The basic idea of the book is to subvert typical Lovecraftian-type stories and science fiction stories in general, since it’s a genre overwhelmingly dominated by white writers and stories with white protagonists. By casting these stories with black characters, it alters how events play out, often quite dramatically, and the types of stories that are told. (Imagine, for example, run-ins with the police while trying to deal with supernatural creatures.)

Both the book and the show open with Atticus (or “Tic”, played by Jonathan Majors), a young black man, taking a road trip to find his missing father. The trip takes him into an area that’s considered “Lovecraft Country” due to rumors of Lovecraftian creatures that have been spotted there. What follows is that dangers, both fantastical and those of a much more human nature as well, await the characters of Lovecraft Country.

I’ll be making note of the differences between the book, Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, and the television show, HBO’s Lovecraft Country here. This list will be updated as the show airs, so stay tuned for more!

P.S. Also for more on the show, see HBO’s Lovecraft Country Episode Recaps and Guide

(Spoilers for Lovecraft Country below.)

Christina Braithwhite as played by Abbey Lee in HBO's Lovecraft Country

Christina Braithwhite as played by Abbey Lee

1. Caleb Braithwhite is now Christina Braithwhite.

In Matt Ruff’s novel, the main villain of Lovecraft Country is a cult leader named Caleb Braithwhite, who reappears in most of the stories in the book. In HBO’s adaptation of the book, there’s no mention of a Caleb Braithwhite. Instead, Christina Braithwhite (played by Abbey Lee) is “the daughter of a leader of a cult-like secret organization, who has mysterious abilities and a fixation on achieving unmitigated power.”

Based on that description, it sounds like Christina is very similar to the character of Caleb, except female. My guess for why they made this change is that they likely wanted another female main character. The book is slightly lopsided towards more male characters and the male characters having larger roles, so having a female villain as the super-villain was probably an easy way of evening out the gender radio.

One notable difference (beyond gender) between Christina and Caleb is that Christina seems to find the Order of the Ancient Dawn a bit sexist, which serves as a partial explanation of why she betrays her father in Episode 2. In the book, the explanation for Caleb’s betrayal is simply that he is power hungry and has a different vision for the order than Samuel. Caleb’s vision involves uniting all the lodges so they can share knowledge and finally progress forward.

(As a sidenote, in the show she betrays Samuel by giving Atticus the ring which messes up the ritual. In the book, she slips Atticus a note which contains an enchantment that messes up the ritual. The effect is the same either way.)

Diana Freeman in HBO's Lovecraft Country

Diana Freeman in HBO’s Lovecraft Country

2. Horace Berry is now Diana Freeman.

In the book version, Horace is the son of George and Hippolyta Berry. In the show, they’re now George and Hippolyta Freeman, and they now have a daughter named Diana (played by Jada Harris).

She’s described as pretty much the exact same character as Horace is in the book: “Diana is Atticus’ younger cousin and George and Hippolyta’s daughter. She enjoys reading sci-fi and fantasy books and expressing herself by drawing and writing comics.”

I don’t know why this change was made, but one of the stories in the book involves Horace and a doll, so perhaps they thought it would make more sense for a young girl to have a doll instead of a boy? Who knows. Or maybe they opened up casting for both genders (it’s not really a gender-specific role anyway) and just liked the actress they found. I’ll guess we’ll see.

All the Freemans (plus Leti and Ruby)

All the Freemans (plus Leti and Ruby)

3. Atticus (Turner), Montrose (Turner), George (Berry) and Hippolyta (Berry) are now all surnamed Freeman.

It’s a minor plot point in the book that Montrose (played by Michael Kenneth Williams) and Uncle George (played by Courtney B. Vance) are half-brothers. They have different fathers. Part of their sibling dynamic is that the Berrys are well off (their ancestor was freed by a well-meaning owner who gave him land and money as well). The Turner line had to fight for their freedom and struggled more. As a result, Montrose believes he is tougher than George.

The HBO show seems to have done away with all that and now they are one big happy family (well, they were already a family, but you know what I mean). Seems reasonable enough, since it is a pretty minor detail that probably requires more explanation than it contributes to the narrative.

Atticus and Letitia

Atticus and Letitia

4. The Atticus & Letitia relationship only happens in the show.

There is a romantic-slash-sexual relationship between Atticus and Letitia in the HBO incarnation of Lovecraft Country. In Episode 3, they finally kiss and have sex, which is Letitia’s first time. Later, things get serious between them, and in Episode 8, we find out they will eventually have a son (who goes on to write the book Lovecraft Country).

This is definitely a show-only thing. None of this happens in the book, instead they are platonic childhood friends.

5. The novel’s storylines are mixed together.

In the novel, each of the eight chapters tells one discrete short story. In the book, these narratives are somewhat more intertwined together, presumably to bring more cohesion to the 10-episode show. So, even though the book is episodic by nature already, the television show lets the stories flow into each other more.

William, as played by Jordan Patrick Smith

William, as played by Jordan Patrick Smith

6. The character of William has an expanded role in the HBO show (and also turns out to be a transformed version of Christina).

In the show, William (played by Jordan Patrick Smith) is described as “Christina’s henchmen, lover, bodyguard, spy, and anything else she needs him to be when she needs him to be it”. William is a fairly minor character in the book, but in the show, William has a much more prominent role.

In Episode 5, William seduces Ruby (played by Wunmi Mosaku) and transforms her into a white woman. He then offers her potions so she can change at will. (In the book, the character of Caleb/Christina does all of this.)

Then, there’s a twist where William turns out to be a transformed version of Christina. Presumably, she has a similar potion to the one Ruby is using. With Ruby, her potion transforms her into a white woman. With Christina, her potion transforms her into William.

Nursing student Ji-Ah, as played by Jamie Chung

7. The character of Ji-Ah only appears in the HBO show.

According to HBO, Ji-Ah (played by Jamie Chung) is a “seemingly naive nursing student who is thrust into active service when war breaks out, and a rash of soldier disappearances suggests she is more than what she seems.” This isn’t a character that’s in the book, and it doesn’t sound like anything that’s recognizable from the book, either.

In the first episode of the TV show, Atticus makes a call to South Korea that never happens in the book, and he seems to be calling for Ji-Ah. Later, in Episode 2, we see Ji-Ah in a vision that Atticus has where Ji-Ah is dressed as a soldier. None of this happens in the book (the whole bit with the three visions does not happen in the book).

The ending of Episode 5, Atticus is trying to translate something when he makes a discovery that causes him to call Ji-Ah. He demands to know “how she knew” (which we find out in the next episode is about him dying).

Finally, in Episode 6, Meet me in Daegu, we get their backstory. Ji-Ah is a kumiho, which is a monster who eats mens’ souls and then can see all their memories. (See the episode summary for more detail.) She is working as a nurse in Korea when Atticus is there as a soldier. He (and/or his squad) kills her best friend for being a communist sympathizer. When Ji-Ah encounters him again, she plans to seduce and devour him, but instead she falls for him.

However, she loses control at one point, sprouts tentacles and almost kills Atticus. When she pulls away from him, she realizes that she has seen not just his memories, but his future too, including his death. She begs him not to go home (to America), but Atticus (understandably) freaks out and leaves.

Anyway, none of this or anything remotely similar to this happens in the book. We never meet anyone from Atticus’s soldiering days, there’s no Ji-Ah, there’s no romantic interests. This is all new stuff that was created for the show.

George, Lettie and Tic after a Vampire Encounters

George, Lettie and Tic after a Monstrous Encounter

8. The HBO show offers an amped up version of most of the action scenes in the book. There are new creatures, more elaborate supernatural stuff, more magic and likely more other stuff in the HBO show.

In general, it seems that the HBO show tries to amp up a lot of the scenes with more supernatural entities and creatures. Of course, in the book, the characters also encounter a wide range of science fiction and fantasy-type monsters, creatures and entities, which is part of the fun of the stories. But a lot of the encounters have been taken up a notch in the HBO show. For example:

In Episode 1 (Sundown), the HBO show adds an additional creature to the arsenal (which doesn’t appear in the book), vampires! (Or at least vampiric-creatures.) In the book, the part with the vampires plays out fairly similarly with George, Letitia and Tic being held at gunpoint and being accused of some local robberies when the sheriffs get attacked by a creature, likely a shoggoth. In the book, that concludes the encounter, but in the show, there’s also a hoard of vampiric creatures that require an elaborate way of fending them off for the characters to survive.

In Episode 3 (Holy Ghost), the main plotline is similar to one in the book, but the show’s version has been amped up a bit slightly. In the show, there are eight bodies of black people that were found in the basement of Letitia’s house. (In the book, the house was haunted as well, but only by the previous owner.) Letitia ends up getting assistance from those spirits and then purging from the house.

In Episode 4, too, there’s the reanimated corpse/siren that is Yahima. Like the previous episode the main storyline is similar to that of the book (the go to a museum to find the vault and get the pages), but all the stuff with Yahima is a show-only inclusion.

In Episode 5, there’s an extra transformation, some extra sex and a very graphic attack (Ruby ramming the stiletto into her boss’s ass), none of which is in the book.

Episode 6 mainly focuses on Winthrop’s observatory, and the contraption has gotten new and different powers from the book. It takes Hippolyta into a portal into not just another planet, but a different world completely where it is possible to become whoever you name yourself to be.

From Episode 6 and onward there are pretty big departures from the book (as covered below, though it still draws from a lot of plotlines in the book).

I’m guessing we can expect even more amped up elements of the book as the show proceeds.

Atticus's Father, Montrose (as played by Michael Kenneth Williams)

Atticus’s Father, Montrose (as played by Michael Kenneth Williams)

9. Atticus’s paternity is not in question in the book.

In Episode 2, George and Montrose have a discussion where George raises the possibility that Atticus is not Montrose’s son. Montrose does not want to discuss it. In Episode 9, Montrose finally admits to Atticus that George may be his real father. He explains that he, George and Dora (Atticus’s mother) grew up together and survived the Tulsa Riots of 1921 together.

In the book, none of this happens and there’s no suggestion that Atticus is not Montrose’s son.

Montrose at a Drag Club

Montrose at a Drag Club

10. Montrose and Sammy are not in a relationship in the book.

This was hinted at in Episode 4, but in Episode 5 we get the definitive answer that Montrose and Sammy are (secretly) together. Montrose finally kisses Sammy after a night of dancing at a drag club where he feels more free and happy.

Sadly, none of this happens in the book. Instead, Montrose is straight as far as we know.

Uncle George as played by Courtney Vance

Uncle George as played by Courtney Vance

11. George does not die in the book.

In Episode 3, we find out that Uncle George is dead, having succumbed to his injuries after being shot by Christina Braithwhite. There’s been a funeral. (It remains to be seen whether Uncle George really is permanently dead or not in the show, but Hippolyta mentions having seen his body, so right now I would assume yes.)

In the book, Montrose is the only one that is shot (by Caleb Braithwhite), but he recovers before they leave the manor.

Hiram's Orrery

Hiram’s Orrery

12. Hiram’s Orrery (mechanical model of the solar system) contains the key to Portal into a Different World in the HBO Show.

This part is notably different from the book, but resembles parts of the plot from the chapter of the book entitled “Hippolyta Disturbs the Universe”.

Instead of being a portal to a different planet (the book version), in the show it takes Hippolyta into a different world (she cites the theory of many worlds) and it’s one where you are able to become whoever you choose to be. She decides to try out being a showgirl in France, Hippolyta (the greek mythological figure), herself when George was still alive and the space-traveling character from her daughter’s comic books. The show version basically turns this into a journey of self-discovery for Hippolyta.

Also, in the book, the room Hippolya finds both the orrery and a key to a secret observatory (that leads to a portal to a different planet) at the Winthrop house, but the two are separate things. In the TV show, Hippolya finds the orrery which Christina (and others) believe to be a key to a time machine.

Hiram's Vault

13. The visit to Hiram’s vault is similar, but with some notable differences in the book. Yahima does not appear in the book, and Montrose does not kill anyone.

In the book, Caleb/Christina Braithwhite’s character is the one that forces them to go to Hiram’s vault to retrieve the pages. In the television show, in Episode 4, Atticus is the one who decides he wants to retrieve them in order to have access to spells to defend their family.

In the book, there is also a booby trapped room, but they essentially are just able to find the pages and leave. In the HBO show, it plays out pretty differently, with the discovery of an inner vault with desiccated corpses and the reanimation of the imprisoned Yahima (who we learn has been turned into a siren that is unable to talk outside of the vault). When Atticus comes up with a plan for Yahima to help them despite her enchantment, Montrose slits her throat.

In Episode 5, it’s implied that Montrose kills Yahima (in the TV show) in order to protect Atticus from all the magic and such. When Atticus finds out, he beats his father up. It remains to be seen how that situation will ultimately play out. None of this happens in the book, so I have no insight I can give.

14. Hanna does not take the Book of Names in the book version, and no one ever gets their hands on the full Book of Names in the book.

In the HBO show, Lettie and Atticus have nightmares where they see Hanna (Titus Braithwhite’s slave and Atticus’s ancestor who survived the conflagration at the Braithwhite manor) running from the burning house. Lettie notices that she has a book in her hands. They believe it is the Book of Names.

There’s no hint of that in the book, or the implications that arise from it. The HBO show hints that maybe the book is still somewhere in Atticus’s family and that maybe it’s possible to recover the entire book (as opposed to just a few pages of it that went missing). This isn’t part of the story in the book.

In Episode 9 of the show, they finally recover the Book of Names in its entirety, but the Book of Names is never fully recovered in the book.

From Episode 8 of Lovecraft Country

15. In the book, Lettie isn’t pregnant, Atticus never enters the portal and Atticus doesn’t have a son (so clearly he doesn’t write Lovecraft Country).

Episode 8 begins a pretty significant departure from the book. It borrows from Chapter 7: Horace and the Devil Doll (which is about Lancaster’s curse and a creature that tries to kill Horace/Diana’s character), but the other plotlines in that episode are creations of the HBO show.

Atticus and Lettie being pregnant, Atticus going into the portal and the whole thing with the Lovecraft Country book being written by their future son — none of this occurs in Matt Ruff’s book. (Emmett Till, a black boy who was murdered in Chicago, also is not mentioned in the book. This is a real-life murder that was fictionalized in the HBO show as Diana’s best friend’s death.)

(This episode also includes a an entertaining tidbit for people who have read the book. When Atticus describes the Lovecraft Country book that his son one day writes, the differences between that book and what’s going on the the television show mirror the differences between Matt Ruff’s book vs the show.)

16. In the show, the Tulsa Riots features more prominently, as told through Montrose, Dora (Atticus’s mother) and George’s story.

In one of the standout episodes of the series, Episode 9 tells the story of the Tulsa Riots. In the show, Montrose, Dora and George were the only survivors in their families of the Tulsa Riots. We experience this with them when Montrose, Atticus and Lettie go back in time through the portal in order to find the book of names.

The Tulsa Riots are mentioned but less prominently in the book (nor is there a time machine). The closest thing to this episode comes from Chapter 6 (“The Narrow House“). Montrose and Atticus go to a house to try to recover some notebooks belonging to Hiram Winthrop, and they meet an interracial family who exist in a magical time warp. The doomed family relives an attack by a white mob on their house on repeat. During that interlude, Montrose tells of his experiences in living through the Tulsa Riots. In this version of events, Montrose’s father was shot and died during the riots.

16. The ending of the book and the HBO show are completely different, but functionally the same.

In the end of both the book and the show, the gang pretends to cooperate with Christina/Caleb in a spell, but Christina/Caleb ends up being “bound” from using magic. But the mechanisms by which the show and the book arrive at this end is completely different.

In the HBO show, it involves Atticus and Lettie procuring the Book of Names in Episode 9. Then, Atticus has to gather components to create a physical connection between himself, Titus Braithwhite and Christina Braithewhite. He uses this to enact a binding spell which he’s able to do when Christina is trying to use her powers to make herself immortal. Ji-Ah then uses her own kimho powers to create the final link (which was undone by Christina’s deception) between Atticus and Christina.

In the book, the last chapter involves the entire gang pretending to cooperate with Caleb (the equivalent of Christina’s character) in a spell to get rid of Lancaster. However, their real plan is to get rid of both Caleb and Lancaster. In the process, they trick Caleb into altering his Mark of Cain into a different mark that prohibits him from entering certain geographic areas and from using magic.

17. Diana has a (much) bigger role in the ending of Season One of the HBO show than in the book, hinting at what’s the come in Season Two.

One important plot element in the HBO show (which doesn’t happen in the book) is that the final shot is of Diana choking Christina to death with her mechanical arm (her arm was damaged from Lancanster’s spell and Hippolyta constructed the mechanical one for her). A monster also accompanies her.

Neither the monster which seems to have some bond with Diana or Christina’s death or Diana murdering anyone happens in the book.

This scene brings up a lot of questions, such as why the monster is bound to her or what she’s planning on doing with her fancy new arm or why she chooses to kill Christina. I’m guessing these will all be answered in Season Two of Lovecraft Country.

Stay tuned for more! I’ll be updating this list as the show proceeds!

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