Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies became a massive bestseller when it was first published in 2014, making its mark as the go-to beach read that summer. Now, it reemerges with its TV debut this past weekend on HBO.
The story opens with a murder investigation among a group of privileged kindergarten parents. Despite this premise, the tone of the book maintained a deceptively fluffy note throughout as the reader is caught up on the events that lead to that fatal moment, taking its cues from the self-deprecating humor of one of the main characters. As the seemingly perfect world of these women unravels, issues ranging from competitive parenting, bullying, gossip, and the struggles of co-parenting with an ex-spouse, to sexual assault, eating disorders, and domestic abuse are revealed. The result is an exploration of the very nature of evil disguised as an occasionally laugh-out-loud chick lit novel.
The structure Moriarty chooses serves this duality well; readers are introduced to the murder investigation via excerpts from the testimony of all the parents present at the crime scene, which turns out to be an accidentally bacchanalian trivia night fundraiser for the school. Moriarty then rewinds to start the story six months prior to the murder, introducing her main characters and how they come to know each other. Because the reader doesn’t know who dies, the small clues Moriarty leaves like breadcrumbs often appear at first glance to be inconsequential, humorous encounters and observations. As time marches on toward the fatal moment, however, the glossy layers each woman surrounds herself with fall away, revealing heartbreaking problems at home.
The women are definitely the driving force behind this story, so it came as no surprise to hear that Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, both of whom run production companies that advance the creation of women-centered films, had optioned it. Although I was nervous at first that they would try and turn the book into a movie (it would be impossible to maintain the integrity of Moriarty’s framework in a two-hour film), I was intrigued to hear that it was being turned into an HBO miniseries. The network has been a huge force behind reinventing what people expect in terms of quality television, but they haven't had a new female-driven hit in quiet awhile. As more casting choices were revealed (Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz, and Laura Dern round out the lead women, with Alexander Skarsgard, James Tupper, and Adam Scott appearing as a few of the husbands), my excitement grew. Witherspoon and Kidman have twenty-one Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations and five wins between them, and the entire series is adapted by veteran TV writer David E. Kelley, and directed by Jean-Marc Vailee, who recently helmed Wild, another Witherspoon vehicle adapted from a much-loved book.
While last night's premiere episode didn’t immediately hook me the way the book did, I think there is definite promise. Like any pilot episode, you don’t get to know the characters enough to really care about them right off the bat, and having just re-read the book, some minor changes were probably a bit more jarring to me than the average viewer. If anything, I think what bothered me the most was that for some reason, although the story sequencing was laid out the same way that it is in the book, the episode didn’t manage to strike the right tonal balance that makes the book special. There is a darkness to the series already that is a shift from the source material.
All that being said, I am looking forward to the next episode. I think no matter what my opinion ends up being about the success of the adaptation, it is a refreshing change to see an HBO show highlighting another aspect of women’s lives. While Sex and the City and Girls focus more on women’s sexuality and single life, Big Little Lies is about women trying to navigate families and careers—and the juggling and judgment about one's choices that comes with that stage of life. For all the cattiness and petty drama that the book pokes fun at, the lives of these characters ring true in important ways that temper the impulse to pass the women off as shallow and one-dimensional.
But perhaps most importantly, both the book and the series encourage very important conversations about abuse and violence, the reality that privilege and wealth don’t offer protection from these, and how we should always be careful about the assumptions we make about people’s private lives. As the tagline goes, the perfect life is a perfect lie, and that remains true whether you end up on Team Book or Team TV Show, or even Team Neither. Women supporting women is at the heart of the creation of this series, and the content is a reminder of what can occur when the opposite happens.
Photo Credit: HBO