I had read many of Liane Moriarty books, including Big Little Lies, a few years ago at the recommendation of a friend. I found them all very enjoyable, the kind that are difficult to put down and that you don’t really have to because they are so easy to read – written in a light-hearted manner and not at all dense. You could read them quickly, be entertained, and move on. They didn’t, however, stay with me – I would be hard-pressed to remember the characters and the plot of a book, let alone how it works out, after a few months.
This is why when Big Little Lies came out earlier this year as a TV miniseries with A-list stars like Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon and I started watching it, I simply could not remember the story beyond a sliver of familiarity. This turned out to be a good thing as I could enjoy the series without any “spoilers,” without knowing exactly what was going to happen and how it was going to end. The show was so well made and was so successful – winning eight Emmy Awards – that the book got a new lease of life and became an instant bestseller. I just found a copy of it in the “New Books” section of my library and decide to re-read it. I wanted to see how such an excellent TV series had been made from a book I didn’t recall as being “great” as such – it had been an enjoyable and fun end, but was definitely not literary by any stretch of imagination. Perhaps the televised version was only loosely based on the book, as many well-made “based-on-a-book” movie and TV adaptations tend to be?
I was wrong about that. After re-reading the book, I found that the TV adaptation was almost a scene-by-scene translation of the book. Some changes had been made, but the story was, by and large, very true to the original. It starts with a murder, which takes place in a school during a “parents only” costumed trivia night party. But who exactly the victim is, how the murder happens, and who did it are revealed only at the end of the story.
As in the book, there are snippets of the parents being interviewed by the detectives trying to figure out how the murder happened, and you can sense their frustration when most of the parents they are interviewing are telling them about the school politics, about the two main “camps” of parents in the school. In one camp are Madeline, the ringleader, a non-nonsense person who “tells it like it is”; Jane, a single mom who has just moved into the area, attempting to escape from a traumatic past; and Celeste, an ethereally beautiful woman, but one who is struggling with demons of her own. In the other camp are Renata, a career mother who is a high-powered executive, and some other moms who are aligned with her. All these mothers have kids who are just starting kindergarten in a local school, set in the suburb of Australia where they live.
The trouble starts when Renata’s daughter, Amabella, is bullied by another kid during the kindergarten orientation the kids attend at the school, and when pressured to name the kid who bullied her, she points to Jane’s son, Ziggy. But Ziggy maintains that he did not do anything to Amabella, and is, in general, such a sweet and honest child that Jane believes he is telling the truth. So do Madeline and Celeste, who have, by now, become good friends with Jane. However, Renata is livid that her daughter was bullied, does not believe that Ziggy is innocent, and repeatedly attempts, over the course of the school year, to ostracize him. This is how the two camps are formed, which provides the backbone of the drama that eventually results in the murder at the heart of the book. Additional intrigue comes from the thorny relationship that Madeline has with her ex-husband and his wife, Bonnie, whose daughter is also attending the kindergarten class where the drama is unfolding. Add to this domestic violence, sexual assault, teenage rebellion, and a budding romance, not to mention the murder, and you have all the elements of a cinematic “spice mix” – or “masala” as we call in Hindi, India’s national language.
It goes to show that even a “not-so-literary” book can be adapted into a high-quality movie or TV show. What is important are the individual ingredients in the story and how they come together, and Big Little Lies has all of them.
Big Little Lies
Author: Liane Moriarty
Publisher: Berkley; Reprint edition
Publication Date: August 2015
(Originally published by Penguin in July 2014)
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.