The big screen is no stranger to adaptations of popular novels. After all, awards season is often littered with films based on bestselling books. However, novels don’t often find their way to television, at least not in the way that Liane Moriarty’s 2014 thriller Big Little Lies does. Yet, we now live in a brave new world wherein television is often more risk savvy and adventurous than film, regularly venturing into territory it had once rarely dared to attempt.
As viewers continue to embrace anthologies, abbreviated seasons and short-term event series, Big Little Lies is simply an extension of this ongoing trend. Now, HBO subscribers are treated to a new “limited series” that faithfully adapts Moriarty’s complex tale into a seven-episode arc featuring a host of major Hollywood stars filling out the main roles, acclaimed filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) behind the camera and television icon David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal) writing the entire series.
Big Little Lies centers on a group of mothers, whose seemingly perfect lives are shattered when scandal erupts at their children’s school. Ultimately, a mysterious murder takes place (not a spoiler, since this is revealed upfront), and it’s up to viewers to sort out the details behind it all, as Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Jane (Shailene Woodley) grapple with the rising conflict within their community.
From that straightforward premise, the story unravels, highlighting the often-dysfunctional personal lives of each of the series’ three main characters. Intermittently, these more focused sequences are intercut with running commentary from other members of the community, presumably as they’re being questioned by police during the murder investigation. It’s an intriguing structure and one that neatly incorporates some of the narrative flair inherent to Moriarty’s novel.
As a female-led character piece, Big Little Lies is a resounding success. Witherspoon in particular shines, channeling her Election days as a take-no-prisoners character who’s all-too-ready to go to war, and Laura Dern – who ironically plays Witherspoon’s mother in Vallée’s 2014 drama Wild – is perfectly devious as the series’ primary antagonist and Madeline’s rival. While they’re given more submissive roles throughout, Kidman and Woodley live up to their big-screen work here, too, with understated work that rivals some of their most recent film roles.
Likewise, Vallée’s direction echoes his big-screen efforts, capturing the same stylized naturalism that he brought to Oscar-nominated films like Dallas Buyers Club and Wild. Even if he seems like a bit of a strange choice for the borderline satirical tone of Big Little Lies, the director gives the show his all, imbuing each episode with the same visual gravitas that he gave to the character-driven stories of those two aforementioned dramas. However, while his style may befit real-life stories like those he told in his two most successful films, it doesn’t necessarily do the narrative of Big Little Lies any favors.
Therein lies perhaps the biggest problem with the show. While Kelley’s writing capably translates Moriarty’s novel to the screen, its tone is all over the place. Just when you think Big Little Lies is leaning into the satire of its story’s center, it takes a left turn and delivers something truly dark and borderline disturbing. In the right context, this can be an exhilarating viewing experience, since it creates an unpredictability that keeps viewers on their toes. Yet, with this material and how it’s presented by Vallée, it’s difficult for the comedic elements to soar. The result is a jarring series that – while performed by a gifted cast of Oscar-winning and nominated actresses and shepherded by a writer and director with talent to spare – simply doesn’t hold together particularly well.
That being said, fans of Moriarty’s novel or any HBO subscribers looking for something fresh to keep them occupied until Game of Thrones returns later this year can do far, far worse than the high production values and complicated mystery of Big Little Lies. Indeed, the series has a lot to recommend, but in the end, there’s an ineffable lack of cohesiveness that fails to bring all the objectively strong elements together. Still, the project is a bold move on the part of HBO, and with any luck, the network can give similar “limited series” treatment to other book adaptations, as the format is ideal to bring some of the most popular and worthy bestsellers to life. While Big Little Lies isn’t a surefire winner, it’s still an intriguing step in the right direction.
While its committed cast does what it can, the muddled tone and sprawling narrative of Big Little Lies makes the ride worthwhile only for a select few outside of its target audience.