‘The Serpent’ is an 8 part mini-series starring French actor Tahar Rahim as the notorious fraudster and serial killer Charles Sobhraj. Following his exploits in Bangkok and other Asian countries frequented by western backpackers in the 1970s, the show switches back and forth, showing us what leads to the execution of the violent murders committed by Sobhraj and his associates. With a story based on one of the most notorious murderers and fraudsters alive, we wanted to know just how much of the series is based on true events and how much of it has been fictionalized. Here’s what we found out.
Is The Serpent Based on a True Story?
Yes, ‘The Serpent’ is based on a true story. It accurately follows the events surrounding the entwined lives of Charles Sobhraj, his associates, and Herman Knippenberg, the Dutch diplomat who discovered Sobhraj’s crime spree. The show focuses on Sobhraj’s life between 1974 and 1976, during which he allegedly killed at least 12 western travelers while being based out of Bangkok, Thailand.
Whereas some of the names in the show were changed to protect the identities of those that did not want to be revealed, the makers of ‘The Serpent’ have provided as many accurate details about “the Bikini Killer” as possible while following his story. According to co-writer of the show, Richard Warlow, Sobhraj’s story was so fragmented and contained so many conflicting reports (many of them supplied by Sobhraj himself) that he was relieved when he learned of Herman Knippenberg, a relatively straightforward man, who could tie the whole story together in the show, as in real life.
The makers of the show also relied as much as possible on first-hand accounts about Sobhraj as they wanted to portray the story in the same way that people experienced the serial killer in reality. This can be seen in the way that the show switches backward and forward in time to show how specific people and victims came into and left Sobhraj’s life, including his companion and accomplice Marie-Andrée Leclerc.
Sobhraj’s past and family are not detailed in the 8 part mini-series as the show focuses on his time in Bangkok, the discovery of the extent of his crimes, and his subsequent global notoriety. Even before the time portrayed, Sobhraj had an affinity for crime and committed thefts and frauds since adolescence. He was sent to juvenile homes multiple times and continued the trend into adulthood. During his wedding, as portrayed on the show, he has recently been released from prison. This is accurate as Sobhraj had been arrested on the night he got engaged for car theft and was in prison for 8 months.
Following their wedding in 1969, Sobhraj, along with his new wife, Chantal Compagnon, embarked on a crime spree across eastern Europe and the Middle East, forging documents and robbing tourists until they arrived in Mumbai. Sobhraj had also escaped from prison in India, which is briefly mentioned on the show in connection to his failed heist at the Ashoka Hotel, where he held a woman captive for 3 days in her room while he drilled into a jewelry store on the floor below.
His first wife eventually left him and took their child along so as to escape the criminal lifestyle. Consequently, Sobhraj’s experience explains his obsession with having a companion, which he found in Marie-Andrée, and also his proficiency in surviving and escaping prisons, something he has had prior experience with. So audacious is the real-life story of “The Serpent” that some aspects of his character had to apparently be toned down to make the show more believable.
According to lead actor Tahar Rahim, Sobhraj, in reality, was even more flamboyant than portrayed on the show, and the director eventually decided to tone down his clothing. An interviewer who had spoken to Sobhraj also mentioned how, unlike his portrayal in ‘The Serpent,’ the real Sobhraj was witty and charming, qualities that explain how he was able to gain the trust of people and evade authorities for so long.
Sobhraj, as portrayed on the show, is more menacing but doesn’t show signs of wit and flattery. The story of Sobhraj’s longtime accomplice Ajay also departs briefly from reality in the show. In actuality, Ajay was last seen in Malaysia. The trio (Sobhraj, Leclerc, and Ajay), after being briefly detained by the Thai police the first time, went to Malaysia, where Ajay was sent to steal gems which he was later seen delivering to Sobhraj.
This was the last confirmed sighting of Ajay Choudhary, and it is believed that Sobhraj murdered him and disposed of the body before leaving Malaysia. Later, claims were made of Ajay being sighted in West Germany, but they have not been substantiated. Moreover, no remains of his body have been found. His current location remains unknown. From Malaysia, Sobhraj and Leclerc then went on to Geneva (instead of Paris, as portrayed on ‘The Serpent’) under the guise of being gem dealers.
The makers of ‘The Serpent’ set out to tell the story of Charles Sobhraj from the points of view of the people whose lives he irreparably influenced. As we see on the show, Sobhraj has an intense dislike towards “hippies” and sometimes justifies his actions by portraying the young travelers as deserving of the fate that they get.
The makers wanted to change the narrative popularized by Sobhraj that described his victims as aimless hippies and attempted to portray who the victims were before their paths crossed Sobhraj’s and how their lives were subsequently manipulated by him. In making the show accurate to real life and using first-hand accounts as much as possible, the makers of ‘The Serpent’ give the audience a glimpse into the traumatic experiences of the young, optimistic travelers that the show is now dedicated to.
Read More: Where Was The Serpent Filmed?