The Stranger: The terrifying true story that inspired the controversial Netflix movie

The Stranger movie on Netflix is based on true events that took place in Australia in 2003

The Stranger
(Image credit: Netflix)

The Stranger is the latest true-crime movie to land on streaming giant Netflix. While it's inspired by a true story, it is a fictionalized re-telling of a tragic real-life murder and all names have been changed.

Starring Joel Edgerton and Sean Harris, the movie follows an intense undercover police operation that hopes to bring the perpetrator behind a child’s disappearance and possible murder to justice.

The movie was released earlier this month in cinemas in Australia, but now The Stranger has landed on Netflix in the UK and US. But what is the true story that inspired the film?

What is the true story behind The Stranger on Netflix?

The Stranger is loosely based on the real-life murder of 13-year-old schoolboy Daniel Morcombe, who was abducted from Queensland’s Sunshine Coast in Australia and killed in December 2003.

Young Daniel was abducted by Brett Peter Cowan when he was on the way to a shopping center. After an eight-year undercover operation, named the Mr. Big Procedure, Brett was finally caught in August 2011 and found guilty of the murder following a trial in 2014. He was sentenced to life in prison.

The police operation saw Cowan lured in by the fake crime gang run by the undercover operation with the promise of a big payout. We see this play out in the movie, but the film focuses more on the investigation, rather than the crime itself, meaning we don't see any scenes of the abduction and murder. 

The Netflix film adaptation has been the cause of some controversy, as Daniel Morcombe's parents called the release of the movie "morally corrupt and cruel."

The Stranger

(Image credit: Netflix)

Daniel's father, Bruce Morcombe, revealed that they had been contacted by the filmmakers about making a movie centered on Daniel's killer. He said, "We absolutely said 'no we don't want any part of that'. Daniel's legacy is all about educating kids."

His wife Denise added that the movie is "not supported by the Morcombe family".

In response, the producers of The Stranger called it a "fictionalized account" and said that "out of our deepest respect for the family", the movie avoided any details of the murder and the victim's name.

"Instead it tells the story of the unknown police professionals who committed years of their lives and their mental and physical health to resolve this case and others like it," the statement continued.

"When the film was first in development, the producers approached the family to make them aware of the film. They declined to be involved. It is a decision we continue to respect."

The Stranger

(Image credit: Netflix)

Speaking to The Guardian (opens in new tab), director Thomas M Wright said that after reading the book The Sting: The Undercover Operation That Caught Daniel Morcombe's Killer, which delves into the real-life case, he didn't think he'd take the job on. He said, "There was no way I was going to do this. I was so afraid of it"

He aded, "But the more I sat with it, and the more I read it, it began to reveal itself as a film not about violence at all. Clearly, the reason for the film is an unnameable act of violence… that embodies the worst of what human animals are capable of. But that is not the subject of the film."

The Stranger is available to watch now on Netflix.

Robyn is a celebrity and entertainment journalist and editor with over eight years experience in the industry. As well as contributing regular to woman&home, she also often writes for Woman, Woman's Own, Woman's Weekly and The Sun.