“Big Little Lies”: The HBO Series

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Spoiler Alert

I avoided giving away basic plot points in my book review, but in comparing the book with the TV series I must include some of the major events. Therefore, if you haven’t read the book or seen the series, you might want to stop right here to avoid spoiling the story. (You can always come back later.)

When I see a film or television show based on a book, I look specifically for differences. Print and film are different media, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. I always hope that the differences will arise from the attempt to use what the visual medium does well in order to remain true to the spirit of the written book. In the HBO adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel Big Little Lies I found a couple of minor differences and three major differences that changed the novel’s emphasis somewhat.

Minor Differences

Moriarty set the novel in a seaside community in Australia, her home country. It’s not surprising that HBO changed the setting to Monterey, California, for its predominantly American audience. My only quibble with this change is that Jane, who earns a living as a freelance bookkeeper, could probably not afford to live in such a posh place. But this is an almost unnoticeable difference. The HBO adaptation kept the emphasis on a place where people chose to live because of the community ambiance and, especially, the quality school for their children.

The other minor change is that the focal group of children has been advanced from kindergarteners in the novel to first graders in Monterey. Again, this is not a big deal. However, kindergarten makes more sense because the group of children and parents in the novel are all starting out together. Having the children start first grade loses some of the hopefulness and excitement of undertaking a new adventure together. This change also makes both Jane and Ziggy outsiders entering a group of others who already know each other, since they presumably would have spent kindergarten together.

Major Differences

Those minor differences between the book and the television series are ultimately insignificant. But I found three major differences that somewhat change the story’s emphasis.

One

In the novel Madeline works part time at the community theater. The series adds a production by the community theater, thereby transforming the minor detail of Madeline’s part-time work into a major subplot. Madeline functions as the production’s chief manager and publicity director. This change plus the portrayal by Reese Witherspoon makes Madeline a much more ordinary character than she is in the book. She loses almost all of her flamboyance and lovable outrageousness. In the novel, when Jane first sees Madeline in the car ahead of her, she thinks:

A glittery girl… . They weren’t necessarily the prettiest but they decorated themselves so affectionately, like Christmas trees, with dangling earrings, jangling bangles and delicate, pointless scarves. They touched your arm a lot when they spoke. (p. 14)

HBO totally eliminated this lovable aspect of Madeline’s characterization.

The addition of the community play subplot also affects Celeste. When some members of the community attempt to censor the play, Celeste acts as the theater’s lawyer in presenting arguments to the mayor. This episode gives Celeste a taste of the work she used to do and reminds her how much she misses it. The episode also reminds both viewers and Celeste herself that she would be capable of earning a living on her own.

Two

In the HBO series Jane buys a gun and has serious flashbacks and anxiety attacks about her encounter with Ziggy’s father. Overall, the series makes Jane look more unstable than she comes across in the novel.

Three

Remember that spoiler alert above!

The ending of the series takes place quickly, in a silent, jerky juxtaposition of actions. This presentation makes the ending feel surreal, which it isn’t at all in the book. This ending detracts from the novel’s presentation of what happened at trivia night in three ways:

  1. It removes the effect of Bonnie’s speech about why she reacts as she does.
  2. It lessens the effect of Jane’s realization about the murder victim.
  3. It ignores the way each significant woman says “I did it” in the novel to protect one of their own. The fellowship of the women in the community is one of the novel’s strengths, and this ending completely ignores that aspect.

Despite these differences, I enjoyed the HBO adaptation of this novel overall. Even with the changed ending, the series was true to the spirit of Moriarty’s book.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown


Also published on Medium.