HBO’s smash hit drama series Big Little Lies takes the original source material, the book by Liane Moriarty under the same title, and amps up the drama. Starring Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Shailene Woodley, this prestige drama gained significant critical attention as it swept through awards season, upping HBO’s already formidable reputation for creating groundbreaking television. The show’s big-name actresses deserve every accolade for the nuance they bring to a complex set of character relationships. Following the interweaving stories of three mothers as they navigate elementary school politics together, building their friendships, and at the same time, obscuring their secrets from one another, this show gives the most realistic depiction of female friendship I’ve seen on TV.
In many ways, the heart of Moriarty’s story comes through in the television adaptation. At its core, the book explores the experiences of mothers and the social constraints that are specific to affluent cultures. The location morphs easily from the pleasant Australian beach town of the book to the wealthy California coastal setting of the show, demonstrating the remarkable consonance between the two geographically similar locations. The ease of this shift underlies a key unifying message of the book: nobody’s life is perfect, and abuse can happen to anyone. However, while the book dives into the psychological effects of abuse on the victim, the show instead focuses on the visual manifestation of violence. It excruciatingly makes abusive scenes, which were only hinted at in the book, visible. As a similarly disturbing counter to HBO’s biggest hit, Games of Thrones, Big Little Lies seems to revel in drawn out depictions of physical and sexual violence.
The creator of the show, David E. Kelley, took pains to spice the book’s major plotlines up a bit. Witherspoon’s character Madeline has an extramarital affair and as a result, ends up in a cliffhanger car crash; both additions to the original story. In contrast, the character Celeste, played expertly by Kidman, gains no new plot lines. Instead, the show dwells on her abuse (which often occurs when she is unclothed) and ratchets up the amount of sex scenes with her vicious husband. However, not all of the show’s additions are so terribly salacious. Kelley does include new story lines on the professional struggles of the female characters, most notably giving Celeste an empowering return to her law career. While these plot additions build into a cohesive and exciting script, when comparing the show’s narrative to that of the book, it becomes obvious that television executives feel compelled to add a certain level of sex, nudity, action, and violence to make the lives of regular women interesting. The bestselling book, whose more streamlined narrative shines in comparison, proves that this is simply unnecessary.
That said, each version of the story plays to the strengths of its medium. The television adaptation excels in the exploitation of uniquely filmic properties from the sweeping cinematography of the coastline to the incorporation of a creative atmospheric soundtrack. Image and sound come together in perfect harmony to supplement the story. For example, the show provides cues to foreshadow Celeste’s fraught domestic life in her introduction, which includes Charles Bradley’s song “Victim of Love” playing on the soundtrack and an image of her twin sons shooting her with toy guns. However, dialogue acts as the primary vehicle of character expression as the women share their feelings with one another, but also hide their struggles. Yet, even the most expertly crafted dialogue hardly replaces the complex psychological work of the novel. Moriarty climbs into the mind of the abuse victim to the point where the reader begins to fear that she may have experienced such abuses in her own life. The show’s depictions of violence are a poor substitute for the emotional journey of the victim portrayed in the novel, which is why the few moments of introspection with Celeste is in her psychologist’s office are among the strongest scenes in the show. Here Kidman externalizes the inner turmoil of the victim and harnesses the power of the source material.
In the end, through contrasting means, both the book at the show succeed in exploring the nuances of female friendship and conveying the importance of forming support networks. The show will be back by popular demand next year with a second season covering entirely new narrative territory. With Meryl Streep joining the cast, it promises to maintain its prestige drama reputation and to attract an even greater breadth of viewers. If HBO’s executives can find the courage to rely on the show’s strong female characters to drive interest, rather than falling on their standard violence and nudity crutches, this may very well become the hallmark show of the Me Too movement.