Let me start this review by declaring that I am a huge fan of author Liane Moriarty. She has a way of weaving certain words and details into her stories with a technique that leaves me awestruck every time. I read her book Big Little Lies last summer and was excited when the mini-series with Reese Witherspoon was announced for February 2017!
After reading the book and watching the miniseries, I decided to do a comparison between the book and the mini-series to see which one I liked more. Please be aware that this, unlike my other book reviews, will contain spoilers towards the end. Proceed with caution if you are intending to read this book, which I highly recommend you do!
First off, this was probably my favorite book by Liane Moriarty to date. I will say that the ending left me mad, but only because I didn’t figure out the plot twist on my own. Looking back once it was done, I started to see the subtle clues left by Moriarty all throughout the book. She really is a master storyteller with an incredible talent for keeping you hooked until the absolute end of the book.
A plot summary of the book may help a bit to get things started. (No spoilers just yet) The book is based around three women. The first is Madeline Mackenzie, a strong woman with no filter. She speaks her mind at every opportunity and is a force to be reckoned with. She and her first husband (Nathan) are divorced, though Nathan happens to live in the same town with his much younger free spirited wife (Bonnie) and their child (Skye). Madeline is also remarried to Ed and together they have had two children, one being the same age as Skye.
Madeline carries a lot of rage towards Nathan. In her mind, he abandoned Madeline and the daughter they share, Abigail, because he claimed being a parent was just too hard. Later on when he marries the much younger Bonnie and starts a family with her, Madeline is faced with many of the same emotions she failed to work out previously. It certainly doesn’t help matters when Abigail forms a bond with Bonnie. This bond causes Madeline to fear that her emotional grasp on Abigail may be slipping right out of her own hands. Ed, Madeline’s current husband, does his very best to understand the emotion turmoil his wife finds herself in. He knows that Madeline’s feelings range from cheerful to rage and that they can swing as the wind blows, but this is just how Madeline is and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Celeste, the next central female lead in this story, is far different from the brash and bold Madeline. Celeste is far more reserved and, for lack of a better term, tends to space out at times. In the book, Madeline and Celeste become close friends when a near drowning brings them together. Celeste had taken her twin sons to swimming lessons and was off in her own world when one of the boys happens to wander away during the lesson and nearly drowns. Madeline, dressed as stylish as ever, doesn’t hesitate and jumps in fully clothed to save Celeste’s son. From that point on, a friendship blossoms and they become thick as thieves. No matter Celeste’s comfort level with Madeline, she never reveals a secret she has become very good at hiding.
Jane, the third in our trio of female leads, is new to the small coastal Australian town. She’s a young single mother who is often mistakenly thought of as a nanny and not mother to her son. Her son, Ziggy, is her world and she makes it clear that raising him is her mission alone since Ziggy’s father has never been a part of his life.
The story begins as the three women prepare for their children’s’ kindergarten orientation in December. (Schools start in January in Australia due to their seasons being opposite ours.) On Orientation day, an encounter with a bully leads to a confrontation between parents. There was an attempt to choke a sweet little girl by the name of Amabella (and that is not a typo; the name is French as indicated in the book). Ambella’s mother, Renata, happens to be as fierce as Madeline is and understandably wants to know who was responsible for this attack. When the little girl, Amabella, points to Ziggy, Jane’s son, lines are immediately drawn in the sand. Madeline takes sides with Jane, pulling Celeste in with her, while Renata vows vengeance for her daughter. Tensions further rise when Ziggy, questioned about the incident with Amabella, denies ever hurting her and Jane doesn’t make him apologize for something he didn’t do.
When school starts the following January, both mothers and their children don’t allow the incident to rest. Renata does all she can to makes sure Ziggy is singled out. When invitations for Amabella’s birthday party are handed out, everyone receives one except Ziggy.
Madeline is outraged by Renata’s actions and decides to take matters into her own hands. She soon organizes an outing to Disney on Ice for the entire kindergarten class, which happens to fall on the very same day as Amabella’s birthday party! This leads Renata and Madeline into a stand off that continues throughout the book.
(Now, if you haven’t read the book and want to, I suggest you stop reading at this point!)
The character of Madeline Mackenzie was described in the book as a taller woman with brown hair. That is a far cry from Reese Witherspoon, who played the dynamic character of Madeline. However, after watching the show, I can’t imagine anyone else playing Madeline. Reese was phenomenal and every bit the sassy character that Madeline Mackenzie is portrayed as in the book.
Another difference I noticed with the portrayal of Madeline was that in the book, she and her current husband Ed share two children, a boy and a girl, together. The character of Chloe, Madeline’s daughter with Ed, is in the same class as Ziggy and they end up becoming good friends. The son Madeline shares with Ed was not included in the HBO mini-series. Frankly, he wasn’t that necessary for the story line of the show, so it didn’t surprise me that his character was cut.
Nicole Kidman portrayed Celeste and, at first, this was hard for me to imagine. In the book, Celeste is painted as a younger, more naive woman who falls victim to her abusive husband. The idea of a younger character made more sense when trying to understand how someone would allow herself to become a victim. (More on that later.) The choice to use Kidman in this role did work within the plot of show and it lead to some very steamy scenes in the mini-series.
Jane was the one character who in my mind was represented by the actress I pictured, Shailene Woodley. This was by far the most accurate character representations based on the details from the author. In the book, Jane’s parents were vital characters in her life since she was such a young mother. Jane begins a kindred relationship with Madeline, as Madeline understands what it is like to be a single mother at a young age. (A big difference here is that in the book we learn that Madeline promise Jane’s mother, Mrs. Chapman that she will look out for Jane.)
HBO’s version follows the plot at the beginning of the book fairly closely. The major difference at the onset is that the show takes place in Monterey, California whereas the book takes place in Australia.
There aren’t too many differences in the book/show for the first half of the mini series. After the third of seven episodes, fans of the book should start to become aware of some majors differences. Madeline works at the local community theatre and the production she has been working on side by side with the director is in fear of being shut down due to its content. This detail is not in the book, but it is a fun twist given that Renata is the one pulling the strings behind the scenes to make life for Madeline all the more challenging. Celeste, a non-practicing lawyer, is asked to represent the play at Madeline’s request. This causes a great divide between Celeste and Perry because Perry is controlling and doesn’t want his wife to work. The mini-series also includes an affair between Madeline and the director of the production, though she remains faithful throughout the book to Ed.
Jane reveals to Madeline both in the show and book that a man previously sexually assaulted her when she was younger. The product of that night is Ziggy. Jane immediately becomes fearful when Ziggy is accused of hurting Amabella. Her concern is that violence runs through her son’s veins because of his father’s actions.
In the book, Madeline learns that Jane’s attacker’s name is Saxon Banks. When Madeline shares this information with Celeste, she is outraged because this is the name of Perry’s cousin who happens to also be Perry’s best friend. The name of the attacker in the show was changed to Saxon Baker and there was never any inclination of him being related to Perry.
Abigail, Madeline’s daughter from her first marriage to Nathan, is working on a secret project in both the book and the show. Due to Bonnie’s influence and her bohemian ways, Abigail makes the decision to auction off her virginity to the highest bidder in an attempt to raise money for Amnesty International. That was just as shocking in the book as it was in the show!
Madeline’s reaction was just as extreme and as humorous as you’d expect (the same reaction I’m sure most people would have!). Due to the way Madeline’s character is portrayed, I couldn’t’ help but laugh at her take on this serious issue. Obviously the idea is beyond ludicrous, yet it somehow manages to convey a very serious undertone regarding the character of Abigail. On the show, Abigail shuts the site down on her own but in the book it is only shut down once a man from the United States offers Amnesty International one hundred thousand dollars to have the auction terminated before the intended completion. Abigail ends up raising a substantial amount of money for her cause and still keeps her virginity intact, much to the delight of Madeline. However, the person behind this large donation is closer to Madeline than anyone suspects. (The anonymous donor is another tidbit of information not found in the mini-series.)
Coming back to the lives of Amabella and Skye in which there is continued abuse occurring to both girls as the school year moves along. Both girls are still being bullied and everyone is quick to jump to the conclusion that Ziggy is still behind it all. (Both shown in the show and book.) Ziggy soon becomes the target of a petition to have him expelled, though there are never any eyewitness accounts to support the accusation that he is the one hurting the girls. What is most shocking of all is the fact that Ziggy and Amabella, against all odds, have become good friends and Amabella continues to refuse to identify who is hurting her.
Another commonality between both the book and the mini-series is an annual school fundraiser hosted by the PTA. The event might closely relate a dance or a ball and this year’s theme happens to be Elvis Presley and Audrey Hepburn. Parents are encouraged come dressed as either of these two figures but I have never seen an event quite as spectacular as described in the book and portrayed in the mini-series. Of course the city of Monterey exudes money, thus being the reason the event is over the top.
As everyone begins to arrive at the ball, Perry and Celeste are shown having an epic fight at home in both the book and the show. It is not uncommon for their fights to become physical. Celeste is abused throughout the book and series. She does all she can to fight back, though she often does so only in self-defense. She never fears for her life until later on when it is revealed the actual bully who has been targeting the girls is one of Celeste’s twin sons.
Celeste is quick to make the connection between her son’s behavior and that of her husband’s and knows that she needs to get her children away from their father as soon as possible. It is after she has secured an apartment that Perry happens to answer her cell and learns of Celeste’s plan to leave him. All of this is happening as both the book and the mini-series continue to steamroll their way to the fundraiser being attended by the entire town.
On the night of the fundraiser, Perry confronts Celeste and begs her to give him one more chance. We know the same as Celeste that they have already tried counseling and even their current counselor is in favor of Celeste’s plans to leave Perry.
(The following is from the book)
When they arrive at the fundraiser, (in the book) Perry is upset but keeps his emotions at bay. Celeste finds Renata and Bonnie to apologize for her son’s behavior towards their daughters, vowing to get him help and to break the cycle of abuse. Soon everyone is on the balcony together, including Renata, Celeste, Jane, Madeline, Bonnie along with Perry, Nathan and Ed. Here, Celeste reveals to Madeline that she is the one who donated one hundred thousand dollars to Amnesty International in order to have Abigail’s site shut down. Nathan thanks Celeste and Perry for their generosity, not knowing that Perry is a controlling and abusive jerk who would not be happy to have his money spent like that without his knowledge or permission.
Once Perry fully grasps what Celeste has done, he makes a jab at her about how she likes to keep secrets like the apartment she just acquired. Celeste does all she can to keep this occasion civil and tries to introduce him to the people on the balcony he has never met before. As Perry continues to argue with Celeste, Jane approaches the couple.
It is in the moment, Jane says, “I already know you.” That is all Jane needs to say before Celeste comes to a bombshell of a conclusion regarding her husband. Celeste now realizes that Perry really was Saxon Banks, the man that had assaulted Jane earlier on. This also makes him the actual father of Ziggy! As Celeste puts two and two together, she then begins to realize that Perry had given his cousin’s name to Jane on the night of the assault and had probably done the same to an untold number of other women in the past. Celeste, in that moment, understands his abuse was not merely a private detail they shared together, though these encounters often led very passionate sex. She always assumed his abuse that manifested itself into hot and fervent sex was something they shared together and was just part of their relationship.
Perry knows he’s been busted, but he claims he doesn’t understand why Celeste is so upset. This is when she realizes that Perry is far sicker than she’d ever imagined. Perry says they will talk about all of this at home, but, after she says something to him, he backhands her in front of the others around them. As Ed comes to her defense, Renata picks up her phone to call the cops. Bonnie completely flips out on Perry and accuses him of being the actual reason his son is hurting innocent girls. As she draws closer to him, Bonnie unintentionally pushes Perry off the balcony. The fall is just enough that Perry ultimately dies from the impact.
Renata tries to cover up Bonnie’s role in Perry’s death. Ed wants to tell the cops the truth of what occurred, but Madeline goes along with the idea of protecting her ex husband and his wife. Ed is livid and feels betrayed that Madeline chooses to protect Nathan over what her own husband wants her to do. (The scene that shows the hurt that this causes Ed in the book is pinnacle to the story line the book follows and is quite dramatic.)
This is when it is revealed that Bonnie’s father had abused her earlier in life. This is what caused her to lose it when she realized Perry was the reason that his son was abusing and bullying her daughter. The guilt of what Bonnie’s done doesn’t take long to become too great and she eventually confesses to killing Perry.
Celeste later leaves town with her sons to start over and take another chance at life. Before she leaves, she sets up a trust for Ziggy since he was in actuality Perry’s son. Jane begins a romance and Madeline is forgiven by her husband for siding with Nathan over him.
(This is from the Mini-Series)
With the mini-series, when the showdown started on the balcony, it was just Renata, Celeste, Jane and Madeline. When Perry started to beat Celeste, Bonnie saw what was going on and came to Celeste’s rescue. Instead of falling off the balcony, Bonnie shoves Perry down the stairs. She never confesses to the murder and all the women covered up the death together. The mini-series ends with all the ladies, including Renata and Bonnie, on the beach playing with their children.
As for which version was better, I’d have to go with the book. It’s no secret that a book nearly always contains a great deal of information that was left out of the film adaptation. However, with that being said, the mini-series did a great job bringing the characters to life. Though the book lends its way to the imagination of a few steamy love scenes, the show reveals a very R-rated production. I absolutely loved the opening credits and the theme song was so catchy that I continued to hum it to myself long after the seventh episode had finished. I just wish that the ending of the series were true to form with that of the book. If you have a chance, please share any differences that I may have left out. I hope you check out the book and the mini-series. It is time that won’t be wasted!
By Diana Rose, YA Fantasy Romance Author
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