Big Little Lies

Despite what my recent posts may have you believe, my life during lockdown has been about more than ripping and tearing my way through all the evil Hell can conjure. In fact, I have a rule where I only play games in the evenings, after supper, because otherwise I’d be about as productive a pigeon in the throat pouch of a zero-fucks pelican. Don’t get me wrong, I could be doing better. But compared to previous years, I’ve been reading up a storm.

I’d been meaning to read Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies for several years now, but for one reason or another I kept pushing it back. Part of the reason, I think, was my focus last year on “themed blocks” when it came to my reading. I had blocks for feminist, horror, and Houstonian literature, and couldn’t seem to fit Big Little Lies in anywhere.

Three years ago I got my first taste of Liane Moriarty’s work with The Husband’s Secret and absolutely loved it. I’d planned to follow it up with Big Little Lies shortly afterward, but as I said, my attention drifted elsewhere. When everyone around me started talking about how good the TV show was, I knew I had all the more reason to finish the book.

Personally I like to read the novel first and the film or TV adaptation second. A book is a greater time-commitment, so I’d have less motivation to bother with it if I already knew all the plot points. And a book always requires more motivation in today’s world of instant-gratification. Whichever one is consumed second is always going to be at a disadvantage, since you know what’s coming and you’re invariably comparing it to what came first for you. You can’t experience both with a fresh perspective short of giving yourself a lobotomy, but that brings with it its own set of problems.

We’ll get to all this later though. I tend to read a lot of different authors, never sticking with the same one, so my choices always have a certain amount of risk when it comes to whether I’ll enjoy them. Given that I already knew I’d like Big Little Lies, since Moriarty’s fiction is so reliably entertaining, I decided that my trip to the Caribbean would be the perfect chance to finally read it. So I read about half of the book while I was on vacation, and the other half when I got back. It was indeed predictably excellent, but my reading was a little stop-start on account of the fact that I was having so much fun drinking margaritas with my friends for a week. We all packed books for the cruise but none of us got any reading done.

I’m not sure I have any criticisms for Big Little Lies to be honest. There are a few moments where it can come across as a bit “frothy” in that very suburban, ladies-who-lunch kind of way, but in many ways that’s intrinsic to the themes the novel is working with. As middle-class and bourgeois as they are, the characters are nonetheless real. They are as authentic and nuanced as you will find across all genres of fiction. This is one of those books where you feel strongly about the characters. I felt deeply attached to Jane in particular, and I really hated that fucking Harper bitch.

Moriarty does a great job of fleshing out every character in this book, imbuing even the peripheral figures with interesting quirks and distinctive traits. This book has been described as chick-lit, which brings with it connotations of shallowness that I can’t really accept. To my mind, the fluffy tone is in service of the world these characters inhabit. We’re in first person here, and so the tone of the book is the tone of these suburban people. This book is all about appearances, and for all its wit, it pulls absolutely no punches when it comes to tackling some of its heavier themes. It’s nice to read a book where the characters feel like real people, and aren’t literary devices disguised as such. Don’t get me wrong, I love Hemingway, but I couldn’t give less of a fuck about that one bloke in Old Man and the Sea. Big Little Lies captures the rhythms and subtleties of everyday life with a razor-sharp perceptiveness that’s hard to master.

But the book’s greatest achievement is by far its structure. This is one of the most cleverly crafted novels I have ever read. I haven’t been this impressed by the architecture of a book since William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Big Little Lies is a long narrative that’s broken down into short chapters, and as such it doesn’t feel like a long read at all. The beginning of each chapter is framed by a police interview in the future that ensures you are never disconnected from the overarching mystery. It teases you with events to come and throws more than a few red herrings at you to make you desperate to find out what happens next. You know that one of these characters is going to end up being murdered but you have no idea who it’s going to be or who’s going to do it.

At this point we’re entering SPOILER TERRITORY, so if you’ve come this far in the post and still haven’t picked up a copy of Big Little Lies, then what are you waiting for, you idiot? Go out and buy it. Or better yet, order it online, since we’re in lockdown. There will also be spoilers for the TV show, which differs quite a bit from the source material. So if you have read the book but not the show, I advise you to watch it before continuing.

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There’s not a dull moment in Big Little Lies. Even in the character-building scenes, there always seems to be something important happening. Nothing seems superfluous. My personal favorite scene is where Tom the gay barista who actually isn’t gay decides to throw down with this rich lawyer that tries to bully Jane, and says “Get out OR I’LL THROW YOU OUT”. At that point I was pumped, like I was ready to fight someone myself. I love it when a book can make you feel that way. Fuck off, boomer. It’s always satisfying to see privileged people who think they’re untouchable get put down in some way.

Once I finished the book, I started the TV show more or less immediately. I told myself going in that I had to remember that the TV show was its own beast. I had to judge it as such and not get hung up on the creative differences. But as I said earlier, it doesn’t matter what you tell yourself. You can’t will yourself to see it with fresh eyes. You can’t judge it the way it wants to be judged- and you’re lying if you think you can.

The change of setting didn’t bother me, as the story works just as well in California as it does Australia. The omission of certain characters (like Madeleine’s son) didn’t bother me, nor did the inclusion of new characters (like that theatre director). These are all minor, somewhat trivial details. I thought the casting for Jane was perfect. There’s something about Shailene Woodley’s features and mannerisms that seems real, and that’s important for Jane as she’s the most salt-of-the-earth character. She’s good-looking, but in a natural, unglamorous kind of way, the way ordinary people are. I was a little confused by the casting for Celeste and Madeleine however. I assumed that Reese Witherspoon was going to be Celeste. In the book Celeste is meant to be beautiful in this arresting, larger-than-life, almost angelic sense. She’s routinely described as making men and women alike turn their heads, as though her very existence is distracting. And this is crucial to her character, because the whole point of Celeste is that she looks perfect on the outside, and yet her private life is so unhappy. Moriarty intricately designed every character with a sense of purpose. Celeste is meant to be the envy of everyone, as well as being more similar in age to Jane.

In the book I pictured her as being like Margot Robbie or a young Grace Kelly. So I was curious why they decided to depart from this image in the TV show by casting an actress that’s double the age of the character. That’s not to say that Nicole Kidman doesn’t do a good job- in fact I think she delivers quite a powerful performance. In general I don’t have any complaints about the execution of the series. It’s well-shot, well-acted, and well-written. It’s a good show- but I didn’t like it anywhere near as much as I liked the book.

In general it’s a lot more glamorous and sexy than the book, which is to be expected I suppose, but it is nonetheless in stark contrast to the way the book captures so well the mundanity of everyday life. The characters in the show didn’t feel relatable to me, and their behavior at times came across as outlandish and preposterous. In the book Madeleine is sassy, but in the show she’s a complete psycho. I’m not saying it wasn’t entertaining to see Reese Witherspoon doing outrageous things, but it did come across as contrived, especially having read the book. The show is a lot more melodramatic. The subtlety and pacing of the book are ditched in favor of shocking moments that I suspect come out of a paranoia that we’ll stop watching unless the stakes are always high. At one point Jane even goes on a long car journey to confront a guy she isn’t even sure is her attacker with a gun. The Jane from the books would never do that. I know we’re in America this time around, where solving problems with firearms is considered normal for some reason, but it still takes me out of my immersion. Jane’s psychologically-damaged, but she’s not stupid. If anything, she’s meant to be smart and resourceful, focused almost exclusively on Ziggy, who wouldn’t end up in a good spot if she starts going full Wyatt Earp.

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The characters are less believable in the show because they’re all somewhat reckless and unhinged, which I can’t help but feel undermines the theme of people living with their problems day-to-day with pained smiles on their faces. In the book the characters try to keep things from falling apart until the last possible moment. They suppress their issues, and the calm of the perfect little seaside community is eroded gradually via little cracks that were already there. In the book time doesn’t heal trauma, but it does nonetheless go forward, and when the story begins we see our characters trying to make the best of things. I think this is more true to real life, as opposed to having a meltdown or something like that. In the show, the characters loudly vocalize their torment; swearing in front of their kids, screaming at the top of their lungs, and breaking objects so as to put their emotions in headlights so we can’t mistake them.

The abandonment of subtlety in favor of melodrama also made the protagonists less relatable and harder to root for. In the book, Madeleine is fiery, and sometimes she goes too far, but she’s ultimately a good person. In the show, Madeleine creates problems needlessly, and seems as much to blame for the feud as Renata. There’s a subplot where she cheats on Ed, and the reason given seems to be “because we’re in a TV show and we need a twist”. It seems like a plot point that was thrown in without much thought, and it kind of annoyed me how it seemed to be played for laughs.

Admittedly this is a particular Hollywood trend that I take issue with; the way infidelity is portrayed casually, light-heartedly, or even glamorously. In my opinion it’s lazy writing, and it seems to excuse what I consider inexcusable behavior. I hate it when a film or TV show suggests that “sometimes people fuck up” or “love is complicated”. Those sentiments might apply to yelling at your partner or taking them for granted, but there’s no nuance to actively going out and cheating on a partner that treats you well (particularly if there are kids involved). I don’t think adultery can ever be forgivable unless there’s some kind of abuse taking place or something. At the end of season 2, Madeleine and Ed decide to solve the problem by renewing their vows which made my eyes roll.

My point is that there seemed to be an absence of meaningful cause and effect; we’re meant to root for Ed and Madeleine and feel happy when everything’s tied up in this neat little bow. By contrast, we’re meant to feel satisfied when Bonnie breaks up with Nathan because…fuck that guy, am I right? What I liked about Nathan in the books is that he did an awful thing in the past, but seems to be a genuinely good person in the present. It makes Madeleine’s feelings more complicated and relatable. Everyone else sees the Nathan of the present and she can only see the Nathan of the past. The fact that he’s a nice guy now only infuriates her further. I liked that dynamic.

I don’t understand why the show gives Madeleine a pass and not Nathan. I don’t know whether this was intentional or not, but it felt to me that we had a hero-villain thing going on as opposed to real people overcoming their differences.

As for the character of Perry, I was also disappointed. The show took all the nuance out of him and decided to turn him into this unstable, beastlike figure. In the book he’s suave and charming. When he gets violent with Celeste, it’s usually because he feels humiliated or embarrassed in some way. It most often comes back to a childish sense of pride. He doesn’t want to be made a fool, and he’s an expert at keeping his composure when in public so as to maintain appearances. In the TV show, his violence is portrayed instead as a kind of animalistic craving that’s tied up in sex. In the book, sex is a part of it, but it’s usually their way of reconciling. It’s a shame because for me, Perry’s pride was the most interesting thing about him. He also beats Celeste a lot more savagely in the show, going so far as kicking her in the ribs while she’s on the floor. In the book, he lashes out at her when he loses his temper, and is noted for never punching her in the face. This is important because it explains how Celeste rationalizes his behavior, telling herself that she hasn’t got it that bad as other women. Overcoming that mindset is what makes her character arc so powerful.

I don’t think the portrayal of domestic abuse is poorly or insensitively handled; I’m just saying that I found the subtler approach of the novel more effective. At the end of season 1, Perry goes completely berserk and starts brutally assaulting everyone without provocation. It’s in stark contrast to the way he desperately tries to maintain his composure in the novel. I didn’t like the way that just by looking at each other over the course of a few seconds, they all understand that Perry is Ziggy’s father. I’ve seen this trope in filmmaking before, where characters understand way too much just by looking into each other’s eyes. I feel like it illustrates that sometimes minimalism comes at the expense of putting the work in and crafting compelling dialogue. Given how significant the scene was, I just wanted someone to say something.

That said, none of these things ruined my enjoyment of the series. I should point out that I’m not asserting in this post that it’s not good. Nor is this a comprehensive review of the series. I’m just sharing my thoughts on it as it relates to the book. Sometimes the adaptation is better than the source material, and this time it isn’t in my opinion. But it’s still good. And if you watched the show without reading the book, your view of the series is going to be completely different. On the whole I enjoyed my experiences with both.

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