WARNING: The article below may contain spoilers.
While one can't complain about the existence of TV shows centered around womanhood and focusing on the challenges that females face in our times, there are few authors, either novelists or screenwriters, who actually succeed in capturing the subtle nuances of today's complex family relationship dynamics and the role of the mother within today's shifting reality and emergence of new familial structures. Liane Moriarty and Celeste Ng are two of the most auspicious female writers of their generation and their novels, Big Little Lies and Little Fires Everywhere respectively, share many similarities in the sense that they both concentrate on the lives of upper-class families and tread on the scorching themes of domestic abuse as well as the parental oppression and bigotry which inevitably leads to disrupted communication with their children. Both books -and the television series- further explore the concept of motherhood and the various, even sometimes conflicting, interpretations attributed to it by contemporary women, sexism, meticulously concealed racism and a number of others. Both shows were cherished by the audiences, though it must be said that Big Little Lies also earned the heartfelt praise of the critics too, while Little Fires Everywhere received mixed reviews for reasons that I will attempt to explain later in this article. Moriarty's novel adaptation was first aired in 2017 and its first season was completed in the course of 7 episodes, while the second season was released in 2019, also consisting of equal number of installments. Celeste Ng's book adaptation, on the other hand, hit the television screes in 2020 and the story ran its course in 8 parts.
Big Little Lies is Liane Moriarty's most prominent work to date and it was published in 2014, her sixth -chronologically- work. The novel found its way to the New York Times Bestsellers List in August of the same year and won the Davitt Award, a literary prize presented annually by the Sisters in Crime Australia association, in 2015. Despite the author's international success, her work was not correspondingly revered in her home country at the time for reasons that may have to do with her choice of main motifs that perhaps don't resonate with the mainstream Australian readership and the country's snub literary elite. Moriarty has stated in an interview that she gave to The Guardian that she is oblivious of why this is happening: “I don’t know why it is,” she says. “I’ve certainly talked at a lot of writers’ festivals [in Australia] over the past couple of years, but before that I hadn’t been picked up – apart from that small group of loyal readers. I know my publisher found it frustrating. And I’m pretty sure if I hadn’t done as well in the US I [might not] have done as well here, that’s what brought me the attention. But I don’t know the answer". Either way, she remains one of the most respected authors of women's fiction today at an international level and the TV adaptation of her most popular novel contributed to that effect. David E. Kelley, the seasoned American producer and screenwriter, was the man who took on the tough assignment to translate Moriarty's text into television's language while Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, two of the main protagonists, were also the executive producers of the show. It should be added that Kelley and Kidman collaborated once again, a few years later in the adaptation of another of Moriarty's novels, Nine Perfect Strangers which premiered on Hulu in 2021.
Regardless of the current trend in TV adaptations, established by authors such as E.L. James and J.K. Rowling who demand to have the final say regarding the script, Moriarty favored a more relaxed stance towards the matter. The creators of the show were free to change certain aspects of the novel, however the essence and spirit of the text remained intact and that was all Moriarty wanted: "I feel very lucky (...) If I ever have a bad experience, maybe I'll have something different to say, but so far [adaptations] have been such great fun" while she added "Because it's HBO it all looks beautiful (...) It's got a darker, sexier, more glamorous feel than my books, and I think the tone of it is probably, overall, a bit darker" (SMH.CO.AU). The fear of losing creative control was not an issue for the Australian scribbler who acknowledged the fact that television dictates a completely different format to tell a story, thus certain adjustments and compromises have to be made in order for the narrative to be watchable and entertaining. Kidman and Witherspoon were more than happy to participate in the project. The latter has said: "It's great to be the architect of your own destiny (...) Creating roles for women- it's something I've been very passionate about in the past five years" (TIME.COM). Both actresses, as members of the production team, exerted plenty of influence regarding the screenplay and the proper outlining of the main characters. The most striking discrepancy between the novel and the show is the setting. While the former takes place in northern Sydney, the series unfold in the elegant and classy Monterrey in northern California where everything seems idyllic, however there is much murkiness lurking beneath the peaceful façade: "I'm always fascinated by things that look very ordinary on the outside and the darkness that lies beneath- I enjoy that contrast" (Stuff.co.nz) says Moriarty. The gleaming sun and the opulence in respect to the surrounding landscape and the characters' dwellings are harshly counterposed to the despicable acts depicted on screen such as the brutal beating of a woman or serious incidents of bullying taking place in the local schools.
Big Little Lies features an illustrious cast as, apart from Kidman and Witherspoon, in the main roles we also encounter Laura Dern and Alexander Skarsgård, both of whom won Primetime Emmy Awards for their performances, as well as Zoë Kravitz, Adam Scott, and Shailene Woodley. Overall, the show was nominated for 21 Primetime Emmy Awards and eventually won 8, including Outstanding Limited Series in 2017. The second season added the great Meryl Streep in the role of Nicole Kidman's mother-in-law, the snide Mary Louise, and her presence on screen is always something to be relished. Moriarty has said about Streep: "It gave me goosebumps. Meryl surpassed my expectations (...) It was extraordinary to see her bring Mary Louise to life- the tiny gestures and mannerisms and speech patterns. Someone who didn't previously exist became a real and living person on the screen" (SMH.CO.AU). The Australian author had a good word to say for all members of the cast, though she reserved a special praise for her fellow countrywoman Nicole Kidman: "I think [the cast] are all wonderful, but Nicole especially is extraordinary as Celeste... I don't want to just pick out Nicole but the thing with that character is everything was unsaid. As soon as you see her in the first scene- the way I described her in the book, she's a really jittery sort of character- so without really saying anything, [Kidman] reveals all of that" (GUARDIAN). The second season of Big Little Lies was based on a short novella written by Moriarty who made clear from the beginning that the text was not meant to be published but its sole purpose was to function as the bedrock of the plot and characterization featured in this cycle. Regarding her little novella, the author said: "I wrote it to follow on from the series, so I wrote it with an American accent (...) The book is set in Australia. I changed some of the backstories of the characters from the book to suit the series." (VULTURE).
Kidman plays Celeste, the most tormented character in the series, a young mother of twin boys who is married with Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) , a successful high-end businessman travelling all over the world for his work. The couple's relationship is a rather particular one as Perry is frequently violent towards his wife who, nevertheless, most often reciprocates the slaps and beatings inflicted by her husband. The tense altercations -almost- always result in sex, the kind that blows your mind over, thus Celeste becomes obsessed with the idea that her marriage is set on flimsy foundations, if not entirely morbid. Madeline (R. Witherspoon) is Celeste's closest friend and a mother of two kids, Abigail and Chloe, from separate marriages. She is currently living with her husband Ed (A. Scott), a seemingly timid and docile character who is always inclined to think that dialogue is the answer to the couple's -various- issues. Madeline's ex, Nathan (J. Tupper), is now married to Bonnie (Z. Kravitz) and his relationship with his former spouse is rocky to say at least. Things will take a turn for the worse when their daughter, Abigail, resolves to leave her house and live with her father and Bonnie for a while. Last but not least, Jane (A. Woodley), is a newcomer in Monterrey and struggles to establish herself in the new environment, all the while she tries hard to be a good mother to her little son, Ziggy (I. Armitage). From the outset, she will meet and befriend Madeline, who seems to instantly take a liking in her, and then Celeste. The three of them constitute the trinity of the show's protagonists that leads the story and instigates the major plot developments. The story unfolds on split timelines with the first episode beginning with a flash forward where we learn that someone has died, perhaps murdered during a school fundraiser party. Moriarty and the creators of the series geminate the mystery element as the audience is unaware both regarding the identity of the culprit as well as that of the victim.
However, being more than a run-of-the-mill, heavily plotted whodunit show, Big Little Lies throws the majority of its narrative weight to the characters' arcs that are distinct from one another: Celeste faces the most dire of predicaments as she eventually has to make a choice and decide if she truly wants to leave Perry or she is just the perfect victim who will always conjure up excuses for the abhorrent behavior of her spouse. Madeline has to navigate herself around the shifting reality that comes as an immediate result of being split between two separate families. Plus, during the first season, she also succumbs to the darkest of her desires and cheats on Ed, a subplot that continues its way to the second season and is resolved in its final episode. Jane is the dark horse of the triad, as, apart from being an outsider to the community, bears a scar from an unhealed trauma which is rooted in her psyche and frequently makes her to behave in an erratic manner. She has been raped by an unknown man some years ago, an event that led to the birth of her only son. Renata (L. Dern) is, in a sense, the antagonist in the first season as she is fiercely protective of her kid daughter Amabella (I. George), while always struggling to be at the forefront of the community's VIP scene. Bonnie, who plays a much bigger role after the first season's finale, is the last of the so-called "Monterrey Five" and she becomes the subject of intense police scrutiny for her involvement in the death of the unknown man.
The show, as well as the novel beforehand, attempts to shine a light to the darker side of living in the American suburbia and the more or less veiled as well as culturally repressed women's instincts which is primarily manifested when it comes to their children's protection from the hostile external world. Renata's daughter, Amabella, is a typical example of a kid living in a bubble created by her parents, and especially her mother, who projects her own pent-up desires over her offspring without as much a thought whether her attitude is a contributor to Amabella's withdrawal from the world and -suspected- autism. When the little girl falls victim of intense bullying in her class, Renata begins a war with Jane, as the little girl points Ziggy as the culprit and, as a consequence, with Jane's friends and most importantly Madeline. The two of them will clash in a series of events only to realize in the end that the whole shebang was for nothing as Ziggy was innocent after all. What was proven though was how ready the mothers were to dig their claws in each another when the delusion of peace and idyll was disrupted and the most primal of impulses took over. In the second season, the role of the villain is handed over to the character of Mary Louise (M. Streep) who arrives at her son's house and invades Celeste's personal space and life, suspected that she had something to do with Perry's demise. The two of them will begin a war that is -gratifyingly- resolved in the final episode of this season and their interactions, oozing thinly veiled animosity, deserve not one but several awards. In my opinion, the first cycle was more engaging, perhaps because the story was derived directly from the novel, however that doesn't mean that season 2 is devoid of merits. On the contrary, I would urge all those who watched and enjoyed the first part to watch the show as a whole as there is a whiff of catharsis, in the broad sense, in the final denouement.
As a final note, I would like to add that the theme of domestic abuse that is chiefly explored through the fraught relationship between Celeste and Perry has its origins in real life as Moriarty herself stated in the backstage of the Emmy Awards Ceremony. Actually, the character of Perry is based on a man whom she had met several years earlier: "It [the idea] came from a really horrible ex-boyfriend who I took great pleasure in killing off. First in the book, and then it was very nice to see it happen in the series"(ELLE.COM).
Little Fires Everywhere is the title of Celeste Ng's second novel in chronological order and her first work that was adapted into television. Later, her debut, Everything I Never Told You, had also been opted for TV series and it was Annapurna, according to media reports, that won the rights of the novel in a multi-studio bidding war. The project is currently in development and soon we will have news regarding a possible airing date. Plus, the American author's latest work, Our Missing Hearts, has earned the compliments by both the critics and the readership and it was hailed as her most mature novel so far. Ng introduces a dystopic scenario in which, in the not so far future, laws have been passed to preserve the “American culture”, resulting in outright discrimination against the minorities and most specifically the Asian Americans. The book was written immediately after Ng finished with the manuscript of Little Fires Everywhere and, in her own words: I thought it was going to be a fairly realistic and conventional novel about a mother-son relationship. And while this idea was still coalescing, Trump was elected. We saw the rise of the far right, we saw a lot of the elements that had been bubbling under the surface come right up to the top. These feelings of anger and resentment and hatred and bigotry. That only increased throughout the years that followed, and that started to leach its way into the story." (HOLLYWOODREPORTER.COM).
The story revolves around two women: Elena Richardson (R. Witherspoon) and Mia Warren(K. Washington). It is set in the affluent and comme il faut Cleveland suburb, Shaker Heights, a place whose residents take pride in telling that they live in one of the few places in America where the integration experiment has actually succeeded. Elena is a journalist in the local newspaper while her husband, Bill (J. Jackson), is an elite lawyer working for a prominent firm. The couple has 4 children: the bright and pretty Lexie (J. Pettyjohn), the introverted and sensitive Moody (Gavin Lewis), the frivolous and flirtatious Trip (J. Elsass), and, finally, the rebel without a cause, Izzy (M. Stott) whose role in the story's development is more than critical as the plot moves forward. The story begins with Mia (K. Washington) moving to Shaker Heights along with her daughter, Pearl (L. Underwood), and rents an apartment from Elena in a fairly good price. The Pandora's box opens and what ensues is an inversion of the equilibrium in both Elena and Mia's families. The first episode begins, as it did in Big Little Lies, with a flash-forward (4 months later) in which we watch the Richardson's household burned to the ground, thus bringing forth the nagging question: who and why?
The contrast between the two main female protagonists is evident, even striking, as, on the one hand we have Elena who is a total control freak, stable and organized to the last detail while Mia seems to embrace a Bohemian way of life, making ends meet through her work as an artist, having her studio within the confines of her house. However, as the author explicitly states: "They're so often described as like polar opposites. We kind of forget that that means you are two poles of the same magnet, which means that you're pushing the other half of you away. This is not going to go anywhere. That's part of what makes their dynamics so complicated" (HOLLYWOODREPORTER.COM). "Complicated" sounds like an understatement as Elena and Mia will become entangled in a battle that will extend to the courtroom, a result of a major subplot in the series: little baby Mei Ling's fate. Mei Ling was abandoned by her own mother in front a fire station only to be found by Linda, Elena's closest childhood friend and one who strived to become pregnant for all of her -adult- life. Linda finds Mei Ling and sees the tiny girl as a sign from God and she is determined to hold on to it whatever it takes. However, Mei Ling's biological mother, Bebe Chow (L. Huang), who works along with Mia in a seedy Chinese restaurant, has regretted her fateful decision and wallows in sorrow every time she thinks of her daughter. When she confesses to Mia what she'd done, the reckless artist will decide to help her get back her child. Bebe Chow's predicament seems to resonate with Mia in a deeper level, however we only find out how in the sixth episode ("The Uncanny") which consists exclusively of flashbacks travelling us sixteen years back in time.
Celeste Ng's adopted an easy attitude towards the editing of her story by the screenwriters and allowed changes to be made, in the same spirit as Liane Moriarty and hailed the shooting process as well as the final result: "It's been an amazing experience. I've been grateful to Reese, Kerry, showrunner Liz Tigelaar and everyone involved, for letting me be a voice at the table- I always wanted to give any adaptation the space to become its own thing, but I appreciate the amount of involvement and input they allowed me to have" (HOLLYWOODREPORTER.COM). The show's creator, Liz Tigelaar worked closely with Ng in order to grasp the fine distinctions between the characters. Here is what she had to say: "We would ask her a million questions,” Tigelaar says. “And we didn’t feel handcuffed in any way. Everything that we did in honoring the book came from a place of just loving the book. Our creative process was never like, ‘Oh, well, we can’t do this because that would change something."(LATIMES.COM). The author was also a firm supporter of the argument that her novel couldn't -or shouldn't- be adapted into the silver screen but solely into television: "That said, I’m thrilled that it’s being adapted as a series specifically — I think that’s the right form to bring it to the screen. What I’m learning is that for a feature film, you have to condense; in a series, you have six to 10 hours of screen time, which gives you more space for nuance and character development. In this case, because there’s such a complicated storyline and there are so many characters, having a series felt like the right form" (HOLLYWOODREPORTER.COM) . Of course, there are some disparities between the story of the novel and that of the show, the most conspicuous being the fact that Mia is a woman of color, something not clearly stated in the original source. For a full list of the differences between book and series click here.
The show garnered mixed reviews and there were many critics who found the melodrama of the story on screen as a diminishing factor, undermining the social realism context as well as the characters' depth. In his IndieWire review, Ben Travers wrote: “As a nighttime soap, the episodes can be juicy, biting entertainment, but as the drama stacks up, it loses power. Watching Washington dig deep again and again dulls the effect of her quivering lip and trembling voice; seeing Witherspoon wrap her villainous cloak ever-tighter feels suffocating, and somewhere amid the first seven episodes, the fire goes out under a blanket of melodrama". Constance Grady in Vox wrote: "But Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere, created and executive produced by Liz Tigelaar, fails to capture Ng’s careful balance. That may be due to Ng’s careful distance; she’s said in interviews that she wanted the show to be its own thing, so she was sparing in her guidance. In any event, this show (which will run for eight episodes total; I’ve seen seven) lapses into flatness whenever it possibly can, and it is always very ready to tell you exactly who is right and who is wrong in any given situation. In the end, it all ends up feeling exhausting.". As I saw it, there was nothing seriously amiss regarding the story and the characters, BUT Kerry Washington's stilted performance completely eradicated the character's uniqueness and intrigue while ruining the potential for a truly explosive duet with Witherspoon who is solid in her acting as always.
Regardless of your gender, both shows are worthy of your attention and, apart from the various moral and social angles, provide many moments of authentic entertainment. Ok, I also liked Big Little Lies a bit more, but perhaps that was because of the great actors involved in the production. Little Fires Everywhere possesses a special charm that, I believe, has mainly to do with Celeste Ng's powerful text.
NOTE: Below, you can find the posters and details of both shows.