Charles Sobhraj became internationally infamous in 1976 when he was convicted of murder and sentenced to jail in India. Sobhraj, a Frenchman who presented himself as a gem dealer based in Bangkok, had been accused of committing dozens of murders (in addition to forgeries and theft) along what was known as “the hippie trail”—a sort of midcentury pilgrimage from Europe to South Asia—and earned himself the nickname The Bikini Killer in the process. After being released from prison in 1997, Sobhraj returned to his native France and seemed to revel in his villainy; he gave interviews and reportedly sold the rights to his life story for millions of dollars. A brazen trip to Nepal in 2003, however, put him back in the crosshairs of authorities and he was arrested once again, charged with a double murder and sentenced to life in prison—a term he’s still serving today.
It’s no wonder that the sordid story of Sobhraj and his victims has been catnip for adaptations, inspiring books and films. But nothing has told the story quite like The Serpent, an eight-part limited series starring Tahar Rahim and Jenna Coleman that premiered to acclaim on the BBC earlier this year and is making its American debut April 2 on Netflix.
The series is undeniably stylish and depicts both the grit and the glamour of the 1970s ex-pat scene, but it also makes a great effort to tell the stories of Sobhraj’s victims and reveal the heroism of the people who apprehended him. Some dialogue is fictionalized, and the story is condensed in ways to make it work for television, but how much of what The Serpent portrays is true? Here, we’re finding out.
Research was key.
“It’s such a challenge telling a true story and there was a very long development period for the show,” explains Paul Testar, a co-producer on the series. “We needed that to figure out the right way to tell the story; as much as anything, we thought it was imperative to try to make contact with everyone involved in the story to invite them to take part in the research process or even just to tell them it was happening.”
The team developing the series reached out to the real people involved in the events, or their nearest living relatives, in an attempt to make sure they all had the opportunity to give input and to ensure that the series focused not just on Sobhraj but also the people who were conned or killed by him.
“We did a huge amount of research into each character and we lean on that as much as possible,” Testar says. “Even if we know only a small bit about each character, we used that wherever we could…” It was constantly balancing ethical decisions, “In the case of people who’d been killed, how much did it feel right to show the terrible nature of the crimes?”
The hero’s journey prevailed.
Instead of framing the series about the crimes of Sobhraj and his cohorts (including his girlfriend, Marie-Andrée Leclerc, played by Coleman), the producers decided to focus on the story of the Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg, who tracked and helped capture Sobhraj and is played in the series by Billy Howle.
“We started by realizing that Herman’s story had been told very little; in fact, in one of the major book’s about Sobhraj’s life, Herman’s story only appears toward the very end,” Testar says. “Working with him felt absolutely crucial, and he kindly introduced us to a lot of the other people who were involved so we were able to build a network.”
Collaborating with Knippenberg, Testar says, was crucial to telling the story in a way that felt important. “It’s easy in an adaptation of a true crime story to make a catalogue of bad deeds and it becomes hard then to feel like you’re not glamorizing the actions of someone like Sobhraj,” he says. “Instead, we discovered this heroic story on the other side of it and realized that having someone for the audience to root for, someone who’s doing something good with dogged determination, felt like the way in. It meant that we weren’t just telling the story of someone who committed crimes but instead we were telling the story of someone who did something heroic.”
Casting was paramount.
It was important for The Serpent to portray Sobhraj as a multifaceted character. “We cast a net far and wide to find the right person; there were so many things to get right about him, he’s a chameleon so he’s different things to different people,” Testar says. “He has to be charming—it was important for the dignity of his victims to show how appealing he could be to people—as well as incredibly menacing and threatening.” They found their star in Rahim, whose big break came in the 2009 film A Prophet and who most recently starred in The Mauritanian. “For us,” Testar says, “Tahar was the only actor who could pull that off properly.”
When it came to casting the Canadian-born Leclerc, hitting those right notes was equally important. “Jenna Coleman is one of the most talented actors in the UK, and we needed someone who could show the fragility of that character,” Testar says. “Jenna’s able to do so much with so few words to show the character’s inner turmoil, and despite the fact that she’d never spoken French before, she was able to take on the challenge of learning French from scratch. I believe she started about six weeks before we began filming and she just got better and better.”
Getting the setting right.
Sobhraj’s crimes occurred along the hippie trail and depicting the scene of expatriates and the world build around them in Southeast Asia in the 1970s was essential. But how do you do that while filming in Bangkok in 2019? Very carefully.
“It was really difficult, but such a fun challenge,” Testar says. “Bangkok is such a modern city and trying to find 1970s Bangkok there in 2019 was challenging. But once we had found our locations and had that slightly older feel, it became so much about the cohesion of elements like costumes and production design. This story of the 1970s hippie trail is one that hasn’t been shown much on TV before, so making the characters feel real and like they’re inhabiting these real surroundings—everyone was smoking because it’s the 1970s; Europeans sweating in the baking-hot climate they aren’t used to—was a huge job.”
Following the truth.
The real-life Sobhraj has told his story before. Indeed, he even recently gave an interview to The Mirror stating that his release was imminent and suggesting his life story was ready to be made into a feature film. While it might have been easy to be distracted by Sobhraj, who’s had a strange relationship with his notoriety over the years, the creators of The Serpent resisted.
“The only thing that the recent interview he appeared to give to The Mirror shows is that he hasn’t changed a bit,” Testar says. “We’d heard rumors that he’d really changed and was committed to living out his life in peace, but I think those grandiose claims he’s making prove that nothing has changed at all.”
In fact, by taking the tack that The Serpent does, its creators were able to give a story buried under decades of history and analysis a new and more just life.
“We were pleased to tell the stories of the victims a bit more,” Testar says. “What Sobhraj has done in the past in interviews is denigrated his victims, demeaning them even after their deaths. What I’m proud that we did was to give a voice to those people and show them as real people with hopes and ambitions rather than just footnotes in his story.”