I love Big Little Lies, both book and show. All praise goes to Reese Witherspoon for adapting this into a mini-series and for bringing it to HBO instead of Netflix or Amazon, where people would have binged it and promptly lost the feeling of being in these women’s shoes as they sweat out the weeks trying to solve the mystery. And all praise to HBO for not insisting that the episode count be an artificially imposed 8 or 10; if the story works in seven, then it works in seven. And all praise to director Jean-Marc Vallee, who has officially made us rethink the idea that the showrunner is the chief when it comes to TV. It’s director Vallee that establishes this show’s perfect tone, playing each scene’s emotional cores while keeping the plot engine roaring.
With all that, I can’t help but ruminate on all the changes from Liane Moriarty’s source novel to the show. I noticed 40 big ones and listed them below, along with a scale-of-one-to-ten ranking for each choice. The point of the scorecard is that I personally believe that this adaptation will stand up to any other, and I want to leave this right here on the internet the next time we start talking brilliant adaptations.
Nowhere here do I reveal the killer or victim. I’m writing this just before the final episode airs. If you want literally zero book spoilers you should come back to this later, either after you’ve seen the finale or after you’ve read the book or both. But for those of you who don’t mind learning/reading about the book’s narrative up until the events of the show’s final episode, I’ve clearly marked SPOILER next to the very few lines that could ruin the finale. Skip over those and you’ll be fine.
If you know the show but not the book, you won’t be surprised to learn that the book has three POVs: Madeline, Celeste, Jane. Thus I’ve broken up my 40 Biggest Changes into 4 sets of Top-10 lists, from least important to most important in four areas: Madeline, Celeste, Jane, and the show more generally.
10) Book: Ed is a brawny journalist
Show: Ed is a tech dude
Presumed Rationale: Show needed at least one main tech dude for Silicon Valley connection. Not really a big deal either way. It’s nice that the show hails 2010s hipsters.
9) Book: No major interactions between Ed and Nathan
Show: Ed and Nathan have a threat-off, they want to out-Elvis each other
Presumed Rationale: Perverse as this is to say, the show almost needs a reverse-Bechdel rule, a scene of just two main men talking. Would have been fine without it, but it gives the show a nice ballast.
8) Book: No group dinner, no Ed/Bonnie scene, no puke; Nathan spills Abigail news over phone
Show: Group dinner
Presumed Rationale: The group dinner is fine but: their clothes in the scene are a little on-the-nose, it probably didn’t need to be previewed for three episodes, and the puke is perhaps just a touch OTT.
7) Book: Bonnie is white, with freckled shoulders
Show: Bonnie is African-American
Presumed Rationale: Sure, the show is about white rich people having problems too, but with no diversity it would have alienated 90% of critics right off the bat. And the hippy-dippy activist role isn’t one that many persons of color are allowed to play, and Zoe Kravitz is brilliant at it, making Bonnie a revelation every time she’s on screen. Plus, it’s a nice twist of the knife in Madeline’s back that every time she complains about Bonnie (which happens about as often in book and show) she risks appearing racist.
6) Book: Madeline’s Erotic Fiction Book Club
Show: No Erotic Fiction Book Club
Presumed Rationale: With Avenue Q plus Trivia Night, probably couldn’t afford one more thing, never mind more ancillary characters with lines, but this is missed, not only to show one more side of Madeline and Celeste, but also because it’s the one time the town moms utter things that we’re all thinking like: “can’t Renata just make Amabella tell her? She’s five!” and “this would never happen in private school!” “yes it would!”
5) Book: No dreams
Show: Madeline dreams of Renata throwing Madeline off a cliff with puppets
Presumed Rationale (SPOILER): Actually, this is kinda-sorta foreshadowing. And any quick dream for a lead is a fun dream.
4) Book: Fred, Chloe’s year-older brother, exists; Abigail is 14
Show: No Fred; Abigail is 16
Presumed Rationale: Fred isn’t needed; winnowing to Abigail and Chloe keeps us comparing them, and comparing Nathan/Ed’s roles with each (and Skye). As for Abby’s age, the age of consent in Australia is 16, and in the USA it’s 18; Bob’s your uncle. Not a big deal, but show makes the virginity auction less shocking.
3) Book: No Avenue Q
Show: Avenue Q
Presumed Rationale: Why Avenue Q? Why not Wicked, or Spamalot? One has to assume the show is suggesting the adults have not advanced far beyond being children (a point also made in the introduction, where the adults parade before the camera as their kids just did). But it also seems too random; and we forget that the kids won’t even be permitted to attend. Perhaps it’s an elaborate excuse to get Celeste’s J.D. out of mothballs?
2) Book: No theater director; no affair; no hospital; no car crash (though Madeline does hit Renata’s BMW)
Show: Theater director, affair, hospital, car crash
Presumed Rationale: Some blood and cheap theatrics. Maybe to show that all three of our leads aren’t routinely abused? Perhaps to give Madeline something to confess to Abigail at the crucial moment? Most likely, to give Witherspoon more to do, which is actually a pretty good reason.
1) Book: No drill-down on Ed/Madeline’s marital problems
Show: Major drill-down on their marital problems
Presumed Rationale: This is actually a terrific addition to the story, and perhaps the theater director (and even Avenue Q) are just corollaries. Love the hard talks about love, pretending. Excellent expansion of book’s themes, outstanding acting by Adam Scott and Witherspoon
10) Book: No “broken urethra” business
Show: Broken urethra business
Presumed Rationale: This is one of the show’s few mistakes. When Perry and Celeste miss the Avenue Q premiere to have forced sex, we assume that next time we see Celeste she’ll be as bruised as a month-old orange. And the show takes its time to finally show that the “broken urethra” was apparently not Celeste’s cover story for Madeline, but genuine. Why veer so far away from the book’s narrative? Probably to show that Kidman’s Celeste was fighting back before the big denouement, but it still feels like the show manipulated us for an atonal payoff.
9) Book: Makes a point about therapist being very clinical, cold
Show: For my money, Robin Weigert is brilliantly empathetic
Presumed Rationale: This is just outstanding casting, because Celeste’s therapist is literally in shadows and barely moving, but Weigert projects equal parts warmth and practicality. I’m still haunted by the way she said, “That must have been terrifying,” which set up some of the best and most necessary acting Kidman has ever done.
8) Book: No couples therapy ever; Celeste goes on her own
Show: Perry and Celeste initially go to couples therapy
Presumed Rationale: This helps the theme (see #1 below) of Celeste doing things behind Perry’s back and worrying what he’ll think. It also helps Celeste look more initially clueless (“I don’t know what I’m doing here without him”), giving her more of an arc.
7) Book: Celeste a former lawyer, no hint at reviving that
Show: Avenue Q controversy leads to Celeste using law degree again
Presumed Rationale: Besides hitting the theme of Celeste doing things behind Perry’s back (again, see #1 below), this probably staves off 1000 internet trolls who might have complained that Kidman doesn’t really want to work, is a Stepford Wife, etc. The book can indulge interior monologues where Celeste dithers between “I deserve to be hit” and “I deserve more”; the show has to dramatize it somehow, and her “You’ve already lost” speech to the mayor isn’t the worst way.
6) Book: Celeste never jogs/runs, but takes walks with Jane
Show: Celeste jogs/runs with Jane sometimes
Presumed Rationale: This is basically bonding with Jane and the Pacific Coast, with an extra Oprah-like feeling of something like “get all that tension out of your life,” and if “attractive woman jogging on scenic beach” is another cliché, you have to give the show credit for investing that cliché with new complexity of feeling.
5) Book: Celeste is beautiful, yes, but also spacey and jumpy (startles easily)
Show: Not jumpy, not spacey
Presumed Rationale: These book bits would have completed the show’s portrait of Battered Wife Syndrome, though maybe the show is good to subvert that cliché – kind of a difficult call.
4) Book: Celeste’s twins, Max and Josh, are in the same class as Chloe and Ziggy
Show: Max and Josh pointedly at least a grade above Chloe and Ziggy
Presumed Rationale (SPOILER): I get this, because it feels slightly too-pat that our three leads would have four kids in the same class, and it also misdirects the audience away from the reveal…while making that reveal more of an implausible turn than necessary.
3) Book: Perry and Zaxon Banks are first cousins (and their mothers were twins)
Show: No relation, probably (I haven’t yet seen final episode)
Presumed Rationale: This feels like an effort to hide the twist, at risk of making it more implausible. It also reduces Celeste’s complicity in Jane’s pain, which is good and bad, removing a layer from Celeste but also increasing the focus on her own problems.
2) Book: Perry not quite so rapey and violent, at least at first
Show: Perry rapey and violent from Orientation Day onward
Presumed Rationale: This is tricky. You could argue that Moriarty writes a more complex Perry by introducing him as a little less of a marital rapist, but you could also argue that the book’s Celeste had simply imagined Perry that way, or why would (the book’s) Orientation Day have unfolded as it did? On the show, we feel Perry is a bomb ready to explode at any time; maybe that’s appropriate, but it also feels like we lost some of the book’s complexity.
1) Book: Never really about Celeste excluding Perry, not telling him things
Show: A lot about Celeste excluding Perry, not telling him things
Presumed Rationale: This is simply a brilliant improvement, not least because it gives Celeste more of a reaction to Perry’s many business trips (which are needed for the Big Twist at the end). And it makes Perry a little more three-dimensional, his violence a tiny bit more justified, which is needed so he ain’t Darth Vader. If you book readers know what I mean.
10) Book: Jane and Tom bond; she’s caught in rain like a rom-com heroine
Show: No particular bond between Jane and Tom (I haven’t seen final episode)
Presumed Rationale: Here’s where the book detours into the sort of chick-lit clichés that it otherwise transcends. I mean, come on, the gay best friend turns out to be straight and hot for you? Assuming the finale doesn’t change course, this was a wise excision; the rest of the story stands perfectly well on its own.
9) Book: Jane kicks Harper, sort of, when Harper sees her grilling Amabella about Ziggy
Show: No grilling Amabella, Jane doesn’t physically confront Harper (that’s saved for Renata)
Presumed Rationale: No way for Woodley not to look like a bully in a filmed scene with a 5-year-old. And not really needed. Instead, since Harper is (as in book) always on Renata’s side, Jane tells Harper “Who’s got your back?” Oooooo, burn.
8) Book: Renata hands out bright pink invitation envelopes to everyone but Ziggy
Show: More discreet
Presumed Rationale: Oddly, the book is actually more cinematic than the show on this point, the latter choosing not to have a long shot of a playground of 5-year-olds holding bright pink envelopes. It might have played as a little OTT; if Jane is feeling bullied by the bully accusations, no need to start the show by hitting her over the head with it. Still, might have been fun.
7) Book: Jane and Renata never shove, nor reconcile (SPOILER: in the post-script, Renata does send a letter of apology)
Show: Jane gouges Renata’s eye, goes to her house and apologizes, reconciles
Presumed Rationale: Show adds important dimensions to Jane and Renata, allows Woodley and Dern some moments of splendid performance. Small thing, but one of the show’s biggest improvements over the book.
6) Book: Jane never makes us think that she may have just ended a life
Show: 2/7 episodes end with Jane maybe killing someone (Saxon; herself off a cliff)
Presumed Rationale: To make us think Jane is the killer? Really, the show doesn’t need that any more than the book did; her frustrations over Ziggy accusations are justification enough. Although I like her primal scream of anguish, these two misdirects feel like juiced-up punctuation marks that serve the needs of serial TV, not the story as such.
5) Book: Jane sees Saxon during sexual assault
Show: Something about how she has to hear and smell him to identify him
Presumed Rationale: Perhaps to justify the San Luis Obispo trip? To show that Jane is doing something? But it’s over-convoluted to make us think that Jane wouldn’t have actually seen her assailant, and hardly helps The Big Twist.
4) Book: No trip outside Pirriwee, no gun (handguns are illegal in Australia)
Show: Trip to San Luis Obispo (about a 2 hour drive) while packing pistol
Presumed Rationale: This gives Jane and Madeline and Celeste a potential shared project/support mechanism, and lets Jane hit the road and worry about cops and misdirect us with her gunplay and shout of frustration. Though the problem remains that it’s justified by the weak tea of last item.
3) Book: Saxon gives Jane an eating disorder; Madeline sees teenage pix of chubby Jane; Jane takes walks with Celeste but doesn’t jog
Show: None of that; Jane does jog a lot, sometimes with Celeste and Madeline
Presumed Rationale: Did we need Shailene Woodley in a fat suit (in old photos)? Nah, the show avoided a cliché there, and besides: we want to see the women being active and the beach being beautiful. See above Celeste item for rest.
2) Book: Saxon isn’t really a rapist, just forceful. Jane narrates “It certainly wasn’t rape.”
Show: Saxon raped Jane
Presumed Rationale: This is tricky; without getting into the weeds, it’s similar to how the show portrays Perry. Since we don’t really see Saxon, the show can afford to make him a cartoon villain, but the relative complexity of the novel is missed here.
1) Book: Jane’s Dad and Mum are regular characters; Ziggy is (considered) her reincarnated grandpa
Show: None of that
Presumed Rationale: To make Jane more of a lonely, rootless person who needs Madeline and Monterey more. It works, but the book had such a nice perspective on older people, and the show loses a lot of that (see below).
The other ten biggest changes:
10)Book: Orientation day, then Christmas holidays, then school year starts
Show: No Christmas anything
Presumed Rationale: That’s an Australia thing that wouldn’t have made sense in California. Luckily Christmas is in no way central to the plot.
9) Book: Renata’s French nanny sleeps with Renata’s husband and another husband
Show: None of that
Presumed Rationale: Yeah, that’s an unnecessary subplot that may have slightly helped the denouement, but (without having seen it) I’m sure it’ll be fine without that extra layer of violence
8) Book: Blond Bobs
Show: No Blond Bobs, but they did keep Blue Blues (the café)!
Presumed Rationale: We don’t really need more evidence that the moms are Chattering Cathies, we get it. Nothing important lost here.
7) Book: No bridge of any sort
Show: Bixby Creek Bridge is almost a character
Presumed Rationale: It’s not just the intro; watching the show, you’d think Bixby Creek Bridge was the only way to get from one side of Monterey to the other. In real life it’s nowhere near the town, and closer to Big Sur. Anyway we get it; it’s pretty, if a tad overused.
6) Book: No particular music references outside of Elvis and Ziggy Stardust (some novels do this a lot)
Show: Music is almost a character
Presumed Rationale: The music on Big Little Lies has been nothing short of brilliant, especially considering we thought we knew these songs. Vallee will start with a song played diegetically (say, Ziggy watching on an iPad), then seep it into everyone’s life. Also, as with Pulp Fiction, Vallee’s not using a “score” per se. Great uses each time.
5) Book (SPOILER): tells you victim is an adult at 25% mark, also gives a Major Clue that the victim is Celeste at 50% mark
Show: neither of those
Presumed Rationale: The show has Reese and Nicole, and thus it knows it’s got you without having to drop egregious red herrings. On the other hand, perhaps as we head into the finale we’re missing a little bit of the WHODUNNIT?? excitement that has attended other shows like this.
4) Book: We get to know older people, especially around Jane: her parents, her grandpa, her landlady
Show: We don’t
Presumed Rationale: The show had to trim somewhere. These people are dearly missed, but on the other hand, the book’s Renata and Celeste are probably in their mid-30s, while the actresses playing them are more than a decade past that, seizing on meaty roles in ways that most 35-year-olds couldn’t
3) Book: No “I want more!” moment, no primal screams of frustration
Show: These happen
Presumed Rationale: What, you think over-40 Hollywood stars get scripts like these all the time? Heck no. So there’s almost a meta thrill as Reese and Nicole Let It All Out. And obviously it works anyway. YES.
2) Book: Witness testimony turns out to be to journalists
Show: Probably, witnesses are talking to police (I haven’t seen final episode)
Presumed Rationale: Moriarty signaled how much she wanted this to be a movie by having her witnesses testify without quotation marks like…
Gabrielle: I never saw any of this.
…and sure enough, it’s a device that works and the show keeps. But eventually readers realize they’ve been talking to a journalist, which is neither here nor there.
1) Book: set in Pirriwee, a fictional peninsula near Sydney, Australia
Show: set in Monterey, California, made almost fictional by show
Presumed Rationale: I get the brilliance. We needed white entitlement, moms who think they’re better than anyone, an idyllic community where the public schools are fabulous…and actual Malibu, where much of the show was filmed, wouldn’t have worked with the story’s rainy denouement. As a NorCaler, though, I can’t stop thinking about how much more blue-collar the real Monterey is, and how it’s Way Too Far from Silicon Valley to ever be one of its enclaves. Why not have set the show in Half Moon Bay? Or Santa Cruz? I love the show’s use of Monterey but worry that it has given people a false impression of Monterey that will presumably last for decades.
Most shows/mini-series aren’t worth this deep a dive. Thank you, TV gods, for one that is. I for one am automatically signed up for whatever these lead creatives do next.