Big Little Lies is a bestselling 2014 novel by Australian author Liane Moriarty. It’s also a 2017 HBO series starring Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, which has sparked some interesting conversations about the value of women’s stories.
Commercial fiction isn’t a genre I usually read, but I was intrigued by the buzz around the TV show, so I bought the book, inhaled it and adored it, and then watched the TV series, about which I had/am having very mixed feelings.
The interesting thing about Liane Moriarty is not that she is a “normal Australian woman”, as so many profiles insist on telling us, but that, where most Australian authors scheme and dream and strategise to break into the US market, she just … went ahead and did it.
And she did it without setting any of her books in the US, which people tell me is essential for cracking that market because Americans won’t read about foreigners. This rather fascinates me, so I’ve followed her career without actually reading any of her books.
So I wasn’t prepared for how much I would enjoy Big Little Lies. It helps that it’s a murder mystery — in the sense that the identity of the victim is the big question — and I do enjoy crime fiction, but it was also hilarious. One GoodReads review called it “Probably the funniest book about murder and domestic abuse I’ll ever read.”
The book carefully balances the gentle satire — kindergarten parent politics, the clique of volunteering mums who all have identical blonde haircuts, the parents who make a really big deal out of their kids being gifted — with a much darker story about domestic violence in an affluent household. It’s like a light, frothy meringue concealing a layer of bitter chocolate.
It’s also very much steeped in class issues. Each of the three heroines occupies a different class tier:
- Celeste is married to a very wealthy man; she can donate $25,000 to charity in a day and he doesn’t blink. But she often feels like a fraud, because she came from a very ordinary household, and people act like she was born to wealth;
- Madeline is middle class — she and her husband have a nice house, but she still has that moment of panic whenever an electricity bill comes;
- Jane is a single mum who supports herself working from home as a bookkeeper. She has moved around a lot, owns few possessions, she’s not struggling, but her stability is relatively marginal.
The women are connected because they all have children in kindergarten at Pirriwee Public School, where you get a private school education for a state school price. A little girl is choked at orientation, and she accuses Jane’s son, Ziggy. This triggers a wave of gossip, exclusion, and even a petition as the kindergarten parents choose sides.
At the same time, Jane tries to reconcile her love for Ziggy with the events of his conception (spoilers, she was raped); Madeline struggles with her teenage daughter’s growing independence; and Celeste is forced to confront the abuse in her marriage.
And someone dies.
It’s a small story, well-told. Pirriwee is a familiar town: on the coast, boasting one of the most beautiful beaches in Australia, its population an uneasy balance of tradies, drop-outs, seachangers and gentrifiers. It’s also very white, which Madeline remarks upon. We’ve all been there.
At this stage in her career, Moriarty must surely be writing with an American audience in mind, and it’s working: very few reviewers on GoodReads even seem to notice the book is set in another country. There’s a line of dialogue early on, a remark from a side character that she, personally, prefers “Mom” to “Mum” (“It sounds slimmer”), but it’s in the omissions that you really see the target audience — no impenetrable slang, no references to politics, no Indigenous art in the school, nor a Welcome to or Acknowledgment of Country.
And, most strikingly (to me), Jane can support herself and her son just from part-time bookkeeping, without accepting money from her parents. Renting a flat in a beachside town, no less.
I was going to go find a comparable town in New South Wales and look at rent, but I got distracted by a GIANT FIRE outside my flat, and then I had to call the fire brigade and wait, and also join my neighbours in gawking. Good news, nothing was seriously damaged, but we’re going to get a really nasty letter from the body corporate about not piling rubbish around the letterboxes. Which is fair.
Okay, yes, I’ve checked, and renting even a one or two bedroom flat in a beachside NSW town is really expensive. So I assume that Jane is either doing a hell of a lot of bookkeeping, or she’s also in her final year of receiving the single mother’s payment, or, most likely, both.
But that’s really nitpicking; I’m just curious to see what gets elided to make an Australian book succeed in the US market.
It’s also fascinating to see what gets added and what’s taken away in the US TV adaptation, so let’s talk about that.
The TV series is seven episodes long, and adds a handful of subplots: a community theatre production of Avenue Q and the petition against it; Madeline’s affair with her co-worker; a trip by Jane to confront the man who might be her rapist. They work well in isolation, but aside from the controversy about the musical drawing Celeste back towards the professional sphere, they don’t really add much to the story, and in fact, add contradictory and nonsensical elements when you look at them too closely — especially Jane’s subplot, where she comes across as unstable, but in a completely different way to the instability she demonstrates before and after.
There are also a hell of a lot of sex scenes, mostly tinged with violence, between Nicole Kidman’s Celeste and her husband Perry, played by Alexander Skarsgård. They’re meant to be uncomfortable, of course, but they wind up becoming numbing and frankly gratuitous, which I suspect is down to Kidman’s frequent nudity and the way the (male) director frames her body.
Because, yes, this is a “women’s drama”, but it’s written by a man, and much of what he creates himself undermines the core of the story, and it’s directed by a man. I don’t have the background to discuss directorial choices with any meaningful insight, but a lot of the way the women — especially Kidman, but also Zoe Kravitz — were filmed made me uncomfortable. Beautifully shot scenes of violence in a beautiful house have the unintended effect of glamorisation, domestic violence as Pinterest board. I wasn’t shocked when I checked Tumblr and found Celeste/Perry shippers wishing they could have a life just like that.
Most frustrating, for me, was the complete flattening of the class differences in the TV series. Everyone but Jane lives in enormous houses overlooking the beach; phrases like “property porn” have been thrown around to describe the show.
And while Jane is described as “a dusty old Prius parked outside of a Barney’s,” she actually drives the same kind of giant 4WD and uses the same new-model MacBook as everyone else.
What do these changes mean? For me, it means that the TV series lost something — it ceased to be a story about everyday women (one of whom happens to be wealthy), but became glossier and more hollow. Without that grounding in economic reality, the satire is less pointy and the serious plotline less impactful, in spite of the graphic violence.
Would an Australian production have retained the elements lost in the US? Almost certainly — not necessarily through intention, but because Australian television, in general, doesn’t have access to the same budget or actors.
On the other hand, a local production wouldn’t have entered the zeitgeist the way the HBO series has. At most, it would have been successful here, done moderately well in New Zealand and the UK, and inspired a glossy remake for the US audience, just like The Slap.
Other changes from the book are largely meaningless, but I personally found them frustrating — like how a precocious little girl’s catchphrase is changed from “Oh, calamity” — picked up from a children’s book — to “Motherfucker!” and she is given a weirdly encyclopaedic knowledge of Baby Boomer music.
None of this is to say that Big Little Lies, the TV series, is bad — it has some very good moments, the performances are extraordinary, especially Nicole Kidman, despite her wandering accent. It’s wonderful to see a series concerned with the problems of women in their forties or more, and to treat their lives seriously, and it has certainly opened up discussions about violence in seemingly aspirational families.
But compared to the book, I found it bland and over-long, like a full-size chocolate eclair that I really shouldn’t have tried to eat by myself.