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'The Staircase' recasts focus in Kathleen Peterson murder case

The HBO Max show, based on the documentary series of the same name, stars Colin Firth as Michael Peterson and Toni Collette as his wife Kathleen.

Many people are already familiar with the tragic death of Kathleen Peterson, who in 2001 was dead at the bottom of a staircase in her North Carolina home.

Authorities identified her husband, novelist Michael Peterson, as the prime suspect. The case went to trial. And in 2003, Michael was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. The true crime story was turned into a 2004 popular docuseries, "The Staircase."

Now, years later, HBO Max is hoping to tell the story in a new way with its show, which shares the same name as the docuseries.

“The Staircase," which debuts Thursday, shifts more of its focus from Michael (Colin Firth) to Kathleen (Toni Collette) and the other family members involved in the murder case.

“To bring Kathleen to life beyond victimhood is a responsibility and a joy actually, and an honor, in a way,” Collette said in a recent Zoom interview. “This particular retelling of it just balances out the relationship between Kathleen and Michael and gives a voice to someone who really isn’t present in the documentary.”

Colin Firth and Toni Collette in "The Staircase".
Colin Firth and Toni Collette in "The Staircase".HBO Max

Giving viewers insight into 'intriguing' Peterson family

Michael and Peterson shared a total of five children: one daughter (played by Olivia DeJonge) from Peterson’s first marriage; two sons (played by Dane DeHaan and Patrick Schwarzenegger) from Michael’s first marriage to Patricia Sue Peterson (played by Trini Alvarado); and two adopted daughters (played by Sophie Turner and Odessa Young) from the former couple’s close family friend Elizabeth Ratliff, who died in 1985 after falling down a staircase.

“I hope that viewers actually get a real insight into this intriguing family,” said Turner, who portrays Margaret Ratliff, one of Michael’s adopted daughters. “This eclectic, wild bunch of people that is just this interesting amalgamation of characters.”

The complexity of the family's dynamics is exactly what co-show runner Antonio Campos was drawn to, and what made him want to adapt the docuseries into a TV show.

“Over the years, the story just continued to get more and more interesting and complicated,” Campos said of the Peterson murder case. “It just became clear that what was the key was the dynamics between Michael and these other characters, and trying to understand Michael Peterson’s relationship with his family members and these women in his life.”

After he was sentenced to life in prison, Michael spent eight years behind bars before his conviction was overturned in 2011. A judge ruled that a key witness did not provide a reliable testimony during the trial.

And in 2017, while awaiting a new trial, Michael entered an Alford plea — when a defendant admits there is sufficient evidence for a conviction, but asserts innocence — to the manslaughter of his wife. Because Michael was sentenced to time already served, he did not receive any additional prison time.

Peterson case is 'complicated and messy'

The many twists and turns of the case have provided ample content for media coverage, podcasts and true crime off-shoots, but, Campos said, these depictions have always felt “constrained."

Campos acknowledged that the documentary embraced how "complicated and messy" the murder case was, but said there was a treasure trove of material that wasn't fully explored because it would have made the narrative too self-referential and convoluted.

[The show is] speaking to the importance of keeping doubt alive, of not falling into the trap of manufacturing some sort of certainty or result

-Colin Firth

During the trial, prosecutors tried to link Michael to Kathleen and Elizabeth, due to the similarities in their deaths. At some point in 2009, while Michael was imprisoned, a new theory of Kathleen's death emerged: she was attacked by an owl from outside that caused her to fall down the stairs and lose consciousness after hitting her head.

“There’s just stuff about the making of the documentary that is so important to understanding the bigger narrative here that the documentary couldn’t talk about, because if it did, it would sort of eat itself,” he said.

According to Campos, “The Staircase” marked the beginning of the true crime genre. Therefore, the Peterson family was the perfect conduit “to understand what is really going on with true crime and how complicated actually the truth, and true crime, is.”

Firth, who portrays Michael, echoed Campos.

The show, he said, is “speaking to the importance of keeping doubt alive, of not falling into the trap of manufacturing some sort of certainty or result.”