Watching the news or using social media is tantamount to asking for spoilers – and so is reading the source material behind some of TV’s biggest shows. That’s particularly true with mysteries based on novels, one of which will generally spoil the other.
After watching two episodes of HBO’s mystery series, I read the book it was adapted from and, yes, spoiled myself on the ending. But returning to the show a few weeks later, it turned out that juggling both the book and the series at the same time actually enhanced the viewing experience.
As “Big Little Lies” approaches its finale on Sunday, here’s an examination of why, even in a spoiler-averse culture, mystery series – if done right – can still be enjoyable and compelling television despite knowing the ending.
[Editor’s Note: The following does not contain spoilers from the series nor the book. The mystery remains!]
The Source Material Was Strong in the First Place: Liane Moriarty’s novel was a revelation in the way she created heartfelt, heartbreaking characters who could also simultaneously be ridiculous. The author also wove in three big mysteries that have remained intact for the TV series: the identity of the killer, the identity of the victim and the identity of the schoolyard bully. This was not your usual whodunnit, and adapting the story for the small screen was just another way of reliving that ride.
The Adaptation Is Faithful and Well Done: There’s no mistaking the amount of care and love put into this project, from the writing by David E. Kelley and Jean-Marc Vallee’s gorgeous direction to the performances by a stellar cast. While all of this simply adds up to good TV, it also indicates respect for the source material.
The Cosmetic Differences Enhance, Don’t Distract: As long as crucial elements of the original book aren’t touched, it’s entertaining to see what else the creative team has decided to add to the adaptation. Transplanting the action from Australia to Monterey, California makes the story that much more relatable, and seeing Adam Scott with a very formidible beard in the role of Ed, who was not depicted as such in the book, was a bonus. Adaptation is much like an extended or alternate universe that allows the story to continue in a slightly tweaked form.
Dramatic Tension Abounds: Alfred Hitchcock knew best that sometimes allowing the audience to know the killer’s identity at the top makes for an even more suspenseful viewing experience. The audience is filled with excruciating anticipation of what’s to come and wonder when the other characters will catch on. Reading the book first creates that dramatic tension. Every time the killer is on the screen, book readers notice their every glance and move. Even watching the victim, one might be filled with a sense of pre-mourning melancholy. All emotions are heightened.
Reliving the Mystery Vicariously: Having friends, family and colleagues react to and comment upon the series as it unfolds just amplifies the joy of knowing a bit more than they do. They’ve joined a club that you’ve already been a part of.
The Delicious Red Herrings: Once a book has been adapted for the screen, it’s far easier to show and not tell something about a character. This frees up lots of time spent on exposition that can be used to develop the character even further. “Big Little Lies” has beefed up the stories of some characters in ways that makes them far more likely to seem like the murderer or victim. It’s also played the pronoun game, removing the he/she and him/her when the other parents are discussing the case, which muddies the waters even more. It’s fun to see how the diversionary sausage is made.
Smelling the Roses and Seeing the Bigger Picture: Since my brain isn’t occupied by trying to figure out whodunnit, it can take the time to notice details and watch the ocean just as much as Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline does. This also allows me to notice how the show is put together to reach its predetermined end.
Curiosity and Doubt Still Exist: Since reading relies on our own imagination, it is intriguing to see how another person envisioned the big reveal and how it all goes down in the finale. How does it play out? Will it have the same impact? The biggest question is: Did the show’s creator decide to stay true to the book’s ending? It’s highly unlikely that Kelley diverged from the source material on that crucial point after having been so faithful throughout the season, but that small amount of uncertainty adds to the anticipation in a different way.
“Big Little Lies” airs its season finale on Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.