A woman spending a day at the lake with her husband and toddler son suddenly erupts into a fit of rage and murders a man she claims to not know. That's the unsettling premise of Jessica Biel's new eight-part miniseries premiering on Aug. 2, The Sinner. Biel plays Cora in The Sinner, the seemingly "normal" young mother with no history of criminality or mental illness who commits this puzzling crime. But what makes it so completely befuddling is that Cora seems to have no motive and just accepts the consequences for murdering this man. Since truth is often stranger than fiction — and since the limited series is rooted in real life — viewers may expect that The Sinner's Cora is based on a real person. However, this character and the story she's involved in appear to be fictional. And once you watch the series, you'll be thankful that's the case.
As with the female-led psychological thrillers of Gone Girl and The Girl On The Train before it, The Sinner is based on a book. The American miniseries comes from a German novel by crime and suspense writer Petra Hammesfahr, who Penguin Random House noted has written over 20 books in her native Germany. The Sinner is Hammesfahr's biggest book in the U.S., and Biel explained in a feature for USA Network that she and her producing partner read The Sinner and loved it. So the actress got to work on bringing the mysterious Cora to life.
With Biel's American adaptation comes some changes, with names being altered — for example, Cora Bender is now Cora Tannetti — and the setting moving to upstate New York. Yet, those changes don't influence whether or not Hammesfahr developed The Sinner from a true story. But the novel is listed as fiction, with no mention of it being inspired by a true story. So it appears that Biel's character is purely a creation from Hammesfahr's mind.
Interviews with Hammesfahr in English are hard to come by and while I don't speak German, Google Translate came in handy for the author's German interviews. (My apologies for the following rough translations.) Although I couldn't find her speaking directly about The Sinner, Hammesfahr has stated that her books come from her own imagination. In a 2002 interview for the website Buecher4um, she was asked where she gets her ideas from. "I do not take my ideas [from] anywhere, they come by themselves," Hammesfahr said. "That is how it has been since I can think. I'm not expecting anything to change."
In a 2012 interview for the blog Herzgedanke, Hammesfahr was asked if she ever uses any true crimes to inspire her books. Just proving how things hadn't changed in the 10 years since her previous quote, the author responded, "They all sprung from my head. I have never tried any real stories. Some have been offered to me, but I would feel shameful to earn my money with the suffering and pain of others. Murders are not funny."
Perhaps as a way of acknowledging that Cora is not inspired by a real person, USA published the article, "5 Shocking Crimes Committed By Women and Their Personal Motivations," in conjunction with the premiere of The Sinner. In the article's description of notable female felons — like Aileen Wuornos and Domino Harvey, who both had their stories turned into movies — it never once indicates that these other women were an inspiration for Cora. Instead, these women are more representative of the fascination that often surrounds women who commit major crimes.
As Hammesfahr said, real-life murder isn't funny or amusing and with Cora not being based on a real person, you can embark on The Sinner guilt-free — not having to worry about the people who would have been impacted by this murder if it were true. That makes The Sinner one of those rare cases where fiction is stranger than truth, and just because it's fiction doesn't make it any less riveting.