Here’s Every Change ‘The Sympathizer’ Made from Book to TV

TV is positively cluttered with buzzy book adaptations; 2024 alone has given us “Ripley,” “3 Body Problem,” “Under the Bridge,” “Girls on the Bus,” “Apples Never Fall,” “Palm Royale,” and way too many others to really count. Few of these projects arrive to the screen with as much clout — and as high of expectations — as “The Sympathizer,” HBO’s newest limited series. Not only was Viet Thanh Nguyen’s 2015 novel about the queasy half-existence of a North Vietnamese spy burrowed in the South Vietnamese army extremely popular when it hit book stores in 2015, it was also highly acclaimed, receiving the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. That’s a lot for any show to live up to.

That said, the show certainly has the pedigree behind the cameras to match the original work. The HBO “Sympathizer” limited series comes from Korean auteur Park Chan-wook, who co-created the series with Don McKellar and directs the show’s stylish first three episodes. The series, produced by A24, also features an arresting lead turn from Hoa Xuande, previously best known for appearing in Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop,” as the show’s narrator and central figure the Captain: a half-Vietnamese, half-French man whose role as a communist spy forces him to go to America to track the remnants of the South Vietnamese army. Other cast members include Sandra Oh as the Captain’s love interest and Robert Downey Jr., playing a succession of clueless white men that the Captain encounters in his journey.

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A lot of care and a lot of money has clearly gone into “The Sympathizer,” which replicates the ’70s Cold War era of the original novel with lush costume and production design. And on the whole, the show hews very faithfully to the original book from Nguyen, adapting most of the plotlines in the spy story rather faithfully. That said, it’s also not a full one-to-one adaptation by any means either; the novel’s structure necessitates that a lot of the action takes place in the narrator’s mind. In adapting the book, Chan-wook and McKellar make concessions to the serialized format, introducing some figures earlier and rearranging scenes in a way that gives them new context.

And while the ending for the show has yet to arrive, there’s a decent chance it will make heavy departures from its source as the story comes to an end for two reasons. The first is that the final stretch of “The Sympathizer” takes a tilt to the surreal that will likely necessitate some alterations to translate onscreen. The second is that the novel ends on something of an open-ended note, which was eventually followed by the 2021 sequel “The Committed” (a third book to complete a trilogy is currently in the works). As of now, “The Sympathizer” is supposedly a one-and-done limited series, so whether Chan-wook and McKellar will stay true to the text or opt for a more definitive ending is a question that remains to be seen.

Read on for a full breakdown of all the differences between the book and TV versions of “The Sympathizer.”

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