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‘Big Little Lies’ vs. the Book: How the Series’ Changes Strengthened the Mystery and the Bonds of Sisterhood

HBO’s adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel altered the ending just enough to make a statement.

Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgaard, “Big Little Lies”


[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from the season finale of “Big Little Lies.”]

During the finale of HBO’s “Big Little Lies” on Sunday night, the series stayed true to its source material and kept the revelation of its three mysteries the same: abusive spouse Perry (Alexander Skarsgaard) was the victim; Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) was the killer who had given him the fatal shove down a flight of stairs; and Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Perry’s son Max was revealed to be the first grade bully.

While the series made some cosmetic changes, such as shifting the setting from Australia to Monterey, California, the most significant changes affected the story in two ways. The alterations either deepened the mystery on the show by casting more doubt on the situation, or it helped to create a more powerful statement regarding the innate strength of women and the bonds they need to forge to survive.

READ MORE: ‘Big Little Lies’ Finale Review: Now That’s How You End a Murder Mystery

Here’s a look at some of the biggest alterations on the show and what they mean for the mystery or sisterhood angle:

Bonnie’s Motivation and Her Fate

In the novel, the key scene took place on a balcony, and many of the women’s husbands were also present. When Perry denied that his son had ever seen him beating his wife Celeste, Bonnie screamed, “We see! We fucking see!” before very deliberately shoving him off the balcony. It was later revealed that as a child, she would hide under the bed when her father would abuse her mother. Although the other women tried to cover for Bonnie’s actions, she eventually confessed to her crime.

Zoe Kravitz, "Big Little Lies"

Zoe Kravitz, “Big Little Lies”


The first critical difference in the show was that Bonnie was’t given this backstory, nor motive for pushing Perry, Instead, she and the other women — without their husbands present —were all defending Celeste from Perry, who had finally snapped and began beating his wife in front of them. The fateful push was just one of many physical attacks on Perry to get him to stop, and wasn’t fueled by her own history but from a desire to help her fellow woman.

The show also kept Bonnie out of jail, since all of the women collaborated on the same false story that Perry’s death was an accident, that he had slipped and fallen during the altercation. The ending was a culmination of the show’s message about how women shouldn’t waste time fighting each other, but instead stay united because they share common struggles.

"Big Little Lies"

“Big Little Lies”


The Men Played a Bigger Role

Ed (Adam Scott) in particular was given far more to do than in the novel, where he was often seen as laid back and not very involved. As Madeline’s (Reese Witherspoon) loyal but cuckolded spouse, his nice guy demeanor belied seething resentment towards both her hangups with her ex Nathan (James Tupper) as well as Nathan himself.

READ MORE: ‘Big Little Lies’ Soundtrack: Listen to This Soulful Playlist From HBO’s Addictive Mystery Series

In addition, while Madeline was faithful to Ed in the book, the series created a full-blown affair for her with Joseph (Santiago Cabrera), the director of her play who did not want to give her up. Combine all of the men’s testosterone and free-flowing alcohol at the trivia night fundraiser party, and you have very believable red herrings that placed Ed, Nathan or even Joseph as possible killers or victims.

Kathryn Newton, "Big Little Lies"

Kathryn Newton, “Big Little Lies”


Abigail’s Virginity Scheme

In Moriarty’s novel, Madeline’s teenage daughter Abigail (Kathryn Newton) successfully launched her website to auction off her virginity to benefit Amnesty International. Only a winning bid secretly made by Celeste saved Abigail from having to follow through.

In the show, Abigail had not yet launched her website, and Madeline cautioned her that doing so would be a huge mistake. To emphasize how anyone can make a mistake and regret it, Madeline confessed to Abigail about cheating on Ed. The revelation helped Abigail to see her mother as human, but also cemented their bond over the shared confidence.

Shailene Woodley, "Big Little Lies"

Shailene Woodley, “Big Little Lies”


Jane’s Rape

The brutal one-night stand that traumatized Jane (Shailene Woodley) and resulted in her giving birth to a son was described in more detail in the novel, with the man choking her and using explicitly abusive language. While the show made it clear that Jane’s assailant was cruel and rough with her, it didn’t dwell on the sordid details as much, instead rightfully placing the focus on Jane’s reactions.

In addition, the name her assaulter gave her, “Saxon Banks,” turned out to be the name of Perry’s cousin, which created a conflict with Celeste, who wasn’t certain if she should tell Jane. While it was revealed in the book that since childhood, Perry had used his cousin’s name to get himself out of trouble, this entire side plot was scrapped on the show. That eliminated the need to have Celeste hide information from her good friend and kept the sisterhood message intact.

Shailene Woodley and Reese Witherspoon, "Big Little Lies"

Shailene Woodley and Reese Witherspoon, “Big Little Lies”


Trivia Night

The majority of the trivia night event took place off the page in the novel, but fortunately for audiences, the show created it in all of its scintillating, costumed glory. While it was a treat to see the cast dressed as various versions of Audrey Hepburn and Elvis Presley, the entire party was a masterpiece in crafting the perfect setting for a murder mystery. David E. Kelley’s script brought all the players’ anger and anxieties to a head, while director Jean-Marc Vallee’s direction ratcheted up the chaos and tension while carefully doling out each reveal. IndieWire TV critic Ben Travers gave his resounding recommendation to how it all played out in his review.

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