HBO’s surprising hit TV show (with a second season on its way?) Big Little Lies is, for the most part, a very loyal adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name, which was published in 2014. There are, however, some quite substantial differences between the source material and the miniseries, which provoked characters to be altered, motivations to be challenged, outcomes to play out differently, and contexts to be transformed.
The main through line is left intact, but the book delves further into the lives of Madeline, Celeste, and Jane, exploring Bonnie’s past more thoroughly, and exposing Renata in a different than the HBO series does.
While there are dozens of smaller examples, here are the 15 Biggest Changes From The Book To The HBO Show. Turns out that the big lies weren’t all there was to the story. It was the little ones we had to watch out for.
15 The book is set in Australia
Unlike the HBO miniseries Big Little Lies, which is set in Monterey, California, Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name is set in the fictional Pirriwee Peninsula in Australia. The fictional place was inspired by the northern beaches of Sydney, where the author lived for a while.
One of the oddest things about the show is that most of the characters live pretty wealthy lives, inhabiting giant mansions and wearing expensive-looking clothes, but their children go to a public school, which perfectly resembles private institution. Because Jane doesn’t come from money but – for story purposes – her son, Ziggy, had to be in the same school as everybody else, the show was able to translate the Australia setting to the United States, but couldn’t really change the fact that the school they attended was a public one.
In the book, the Pirriwee Peninsula and the Pirriwee Public School aren’t portrayed as being surrounded by so much wealth as in the TV show.
14 Only three POVs
While the miniseries lets the audience peek into the lives of Madeline, Celeste, Jane, Renata, and Bonnie/Nathan, the book exclusively focuses on three points of view: Madeline, Celeste, and Jane.
Readers never really get to see Renata’s arguments with her husband, her agony about having a bullied child, or her conflicting interests as a hard-working mother. While she is definitely portrayed as having a great and busy career, it is never made clear that Renata is a rich woman. The HBO show did a great job at redeeming Renata by showing her side of the story, forcing the audience to understand how a protective mother would feel if her daughter was being assaulted in school.
The book also doesn’t really explore Nathan’s or Bonnie’s points of view. For the most part, we are stuck with Madeline’s perceptions of those characters. However, unlike Renata’s character, it is safe to say that the TV adaptation doesn’t do much (with the exception of the finale) to show a completely different side to Nathan or Bonnie.
13 Madeline's personal life
Madeline’s quirks and temperament are translated perfectly by Reese Witherspoon in the HBO miniseries. The character, however, has a couple of major differences in the book.
First of all, the book’s Madeline isn’t particularly rich. Her job in theater production definitely doesn’t seem like a time-consuming endeavor, but it’s also not just a rich woman’s pretend occupation. Her husband Ed is a newspaper journalist, not a big-shot guy in the music industry. They live a normal, comfortable, modest life. Celeste is the only person in the book who is clearly, undoubtedly rich.
Madeline is also not sort of still in love with Nathan, her ex-husband, as the TV show portrays. It is never mentioned in the book that she cheats on Ed with a coworker from her theater job. From what it is written, she actually quite unwaveringly loves Ed. Madeline’s conflict with Nathan is simply that he left her as a single mother with their daughter Abigail, who now seems to be infatuated with her father, which drives Madeline mad.
12 Avenue Q
One of the ongoing events that the HBO miniseries leads up to is the school production of the Avenue Q musical, which is being produced by Madeline’s theater people, and protested by several parents (and the city of Monterey) who think it is not an appropriate play for five-year-olds.
While there is a little school presentation towards the end of the book, there is no such play, or the conflict around it, in the source material. That means Madeline never cheats on her husband with the play’s director, that Celeste never has her “lawyer moment” while meeting with the city’s mayor to defend the choice of Avenue Q, and that Renata never has any actual direct conflict with Madeline aside from Jane’s situation.
However, Madeline does start a Book Club (unfairly nicknamed as Erotic Book Club) which the book actually leads up to, but the HBO show doesn’t choose to focus on at all.
11 No feud between Nathan and Ed
One of the most surprising additions to the miniseries was the feud between Nathan and Ed. In all fairness, the book sticks to Madeline’s, Celeste’s, and Jane’s POVs, which means that Ed and Nathan might’ve been feuding outside of the book’s scope. However, the feud makes absolutely no sense in the context of the book.
Madeline isn’t hung up on Nathan; she is just angry at her daughter for now appreciating a father who walked out on the two of them. In the book, most of her agony is displayed inside her own head, or voiced directly to Nathan and Abigail. Ed isn’t involved in the conflict as much as in the TV show, nor does he have any reason to be jealous of or angry with Nathan.
Because Madeline and Nathan’s conflict is dealt with in such a direct manner in the book, it is also hard to imagine that peace-making conversations between Ed and Bonnie happened the way the TV show portrayed. There was no need.
10 Celeste’s therapist
From the very first time Celeste goes to a therapist, she goes at it alone. In the book, the therapist isn’t particularly a marriage counselor, and Perry never attends the first session like in the TV show.
The miniseries shows several violent situations between Celeste and Perry before she goes to the therapist by herself. HBO did a great job at raising the stakes for her from the start. When Celeste returns to the therapist on her own and lies about her situation not being “that bad,” viewers know that she is lying to herself, and feel the character’s underlying pain in Nicole Kidman’s incredible performance.
In the book, with her first visit to the therapist Celeste is already on her own, and readers only learn then how bad her situation really is. Before, much of it is only implied. The book’s therapist scene reveals a load of exposition about Perry as a father, husband, and violent man, whereas the miniseries actually shows viewers everything as it was happening.
9 Jane’s “Saxon Banks”
Jane’s sexual assault revelation to Madeline happens in a different setting and context in the book, but pretty much serves the same purpose as in the TV show.
As Madeline becomes aware of “Saxon Banks,” the man who Jane believes to have assaulted her, she definitely googles him, but she is much more discreet about it. In the miniseries, she flat-out shows the search results to Jane. In the book, she keeps it to herself, and Jane never gets to visit the “Saxon Banks” Madeline found on the Internet.
In the book, Madeline mentions Jane’s story to Celeste, who makes a huge revelation: Perry has a cousin named Saxon Banks. He works in real estate, which is what Jane remembered as her abuser’s occupation.
It all gets very awkward as Madeline and Celeste pretend that Jane might be confused, or that there must be hundreds of men called Saxon Banks who work in real estate, while clearly both of them are already convinced that Perry’s cousin sexually assaulted Jane.
8 Jane doesn’t hit Renata
The show focuses on Renata as the source of all of Jane and Ziggy’s school conflicts, but that isn’t true in the book, where the weight of Jane’s school antagonism is shared between Renata and Harper.
In both versions, Jane’s son Ziggy is the alleged bully who has been hurting Renata’s daughter, Amabella. Also in both the book and the miniseries, Renata becomes obsessed with blaming Ziggy, insisting on getting an apology from Jane and demanding actions from the school. It is also true that Amabella’s birthday party invitations go out to all students besides Ziggy, and that Madeline sabotages the party by taking several children to Disney On Ice.
However, in the book, it is not Renata who starts the petition to remove Ziggy from the school. It is Harper, who believes herself to be a great friend to Renata, and is a much bigger character in the source material. There is also no incident where Jane accidentally hits Renata. Instead, Jane accidentally kicks Harper in the playground.
7 Amabella’s bully
The time comes, both in the book and in the miniseries, when Ziggy reveals to Jane that he is not Amabella’s bully. The bully is actually Max, twin to Josh and son of Celeste.
In the TV show, Jane gets around to telling Celeste, who later talks to her children and confirms it. In the book, however, Jane thinks about the implications of telling Celeste, but she never actually does it.
It is Josh who happens to tell Celeste that his twin, Max, is Amabella’s bully. It makes a lot of sense for the book, as Celeste now sees how Perry’s violent behavior affects both of her children – Max as a bully himself, and Josh as a secret-keeper in order to protect someone he loves.
Celeste eventually tells Renata, who seems genuinely remorseful for all the pain she inflicted on Jane and Ziggy, and goes as far as throwing a Star Wars themed party for Amabella in order to please Ziggy (it’s his favorite movie).
6 The guys are involved in Perry's death
In the miniseries’ death scene, Perry faces the five main women of Big Little Lies: Madeline, Celeste, Jane, Bonnie, and Renata. However, in the book, Ed and Nathan are also there, which changes a lot of things.
It was easy for the show to justify the four women taking Bonnie’s side as she instinctively pushes Perry down the stairs and he dies. However, in the book, Ed is there... And he sees exactly what happened. Being the nice guy that he is, Ed doesn’t feel comfortable lying about what he just saw.
There’s also a different feel to Nathan’s reaction in the book, as he is also present as a witness to what his wife just did. Even though he knows of the struggles Bonnie faced as a child, he is incredulous about what just happened, that his wife really just did that. He inspired Madeline to choose to protect Bonnie, as she finally seems to forgive him for leaving her as a single mother to Abigail.
5 Why Jane moved
Also in the book’s death scene, Jane makes a huge revelation: deep down, she moved to Pirriwee in the hopes she would cross paths with her “Saxon Banks,” who happens to be Perry himself and not his cousin.
Readers learn that Jane had complicated desires for her abuser to meet Ziggy, the child he had fathered, and recognize him as a beautiful consequence to his horrifying actions. While Jane gets to confront Perry, he never meets Ziggy, therefore never acknowledging him as his kid.
Later in the book, Celeste sets up a trust fund for Ziggy with the equal amount of money her children Josh and Max would someday receive. Celeste says Perry was a horrible man, but a very fair man, who would’ve wanted his newfound child to have access to a fortune he was entitled to. Jane feels very awkward when Celeste tells her about it, but the weight of it seems to be lessened since it is technically coming from Celeste, and not Perry himself.
4 Perry’s death
There are many differences between the context in which Perry’s death scene takes place. In the show, the scene happens outside, by a set of stairs, in an area pretty removed from the Trivia Night party itself.
In the book, Trivia Night is held in an indoor space, which is convenient since it rains the entire night. As the death scene approaches, all the involved characters go to the balcony, which is a little quieter but still very much an extension of the actual party. The balcony’s floor is described as being very wet from the rain, a fact that doesn’t really help Perry as he is pushed by Bonnie. Eventually, he falls from the balcony to the street, not from a set of stairs.
The book seems to help Bonnie’s case more than the miniseries, as the balcony’s floor was already slippery and a fall that high is definitely deadlier than falling from some stairs (after all, in the TV show, there was a chance that Perry might’ve just broken a leg).
3 Bonnie’s past
Nathan is responsible for providing the miniseries’ viewers with some proper explanation about where Bonnie’s anger came from. The scene where he tells Madeline about Bonnie’s violent father happens both in the book and in the TV show.
However, the book also shows a second and more detailed scene where Bonnie herself goes to Madeline to explain where she came from. Bonnie goes into detail about her father hitting her mother, and how she used to hide under her bed with her sister – both of them terrified every single time. As Bonnie heard Celeste tell Renata about Max’s bully behavior, and Perry’s domestic violence became clear, Bonnie’s childhood feelings rose to the surface, and made her act out and kill Perry as a revenge for her own situation, avenging her childhood with a violent father.
That scene in the book is also when Bonnie reassures Madeline that they no longer need to lie to the police about what happened during Trivia Night.
2 Bonnie confesses
While Madeline, Renata, Celeste, and Nathan have no problem lying to the police in order to protect Bonnie, they worry that eventually Jane will crack, and that Ed will not be able to lie even once. So Bonnie decides to confess that she killed Perry.
The miniseries makes it seem like all the women were kind of directly involved in Perry's death, that Bonnie just happened to be the one who pushed him, in a very How To Get Away With Murder way. In the book, however, there is no doubt that it is totally Bonnie’s doing, so it makes sense that she eventually owns up to her actions.
After Bonnie’s confession, based on everybody else’s testimonial about how drunk all parents were at Trivia Night, how slippery the balcony’s floor felt, what type of man Perry was, and how he hit Celeste that night, the police charged Bonnie with no jail time. She was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two hundred hours of community service.
1 After Perry’s death
In the book, we see a lot more of what happened after Perry’s death than what was shown in the miniseries.
Jane finally gets her first kiss with Tom. She also attends Perry’s funeral with Ziggy, and it is understood that she considers telling him sometime in the distant future that the first funeral he attended was his biological father’s.
Renata moves to London with Amabella after learning that her husband cheated on her with the family’s French au pair.
Madeline’s family is strengthened as Abigail decides to moved back to her house after spending quite some time living with Nathan and Bonnie. Madeline and Nathan’s ex-spouse relationship also becomes friendlier.
Finally, Celeste is shown at a speaking engagement for domestic abuse. Readers see her gathering strength and courage to open up honestly about her situation. It is implied that she will be doing a lot of this in the future, helping others to deal with domestic abuse.
Do you think any of these details were left out to be explored in a potential season 2 of Big Little Lies? Let us know in the comments below!