It’s an understatement to say that it’s very hard for a book to get people really talking, but Big Little Lies is definitively one who has achieved that status. It even got the early attention of actress Reese Witherspoon before it was published.
As revealed in a Variety interview with Witherspoon and director Jean-Marc Vallee, the novel “Big Little Lies” was still in galleys when Bruna Papandrea, Witherspoon’s then-producing partner at Pacific Standard, discovered it. Witherspoon whizz thru the pages, read it immediately and recruited her fellow actress Nicole Kidman, with whom she’d long wanted to work, to try to get it done as a movie.
Nicole Kidman recalls the moment she learned about the book in an interview with Pete Hammond.
“Bruna called me and said, 'I’ve just read a book that Reese and I love. Read it. It’s by an Australian author.' I read it overnight and I said, ‘You won’t believe it. I’m going to Australia tomorrow. I’m gonna call Liane [Moriarty] and ask her if she’ll meet with me and let’s see if we can get the book.’ I went and had coffee with her and I said, ‘Liane, if you give us the rights to the book, I promise you we’ll get it made.’”
For Australian author Liane Moriarty the moment felt surreal. She admitted to the LA Times that it seemed to her as an impossibility. She had gone through the process of having a book optioned for a movie or TV series before and had endured the realities of it getting lost in Hollywood development purgatory. So she had learned not to get excited.
Moriarty, though, had never done business with Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman.
“When I met with Nicole, she was like, ‘No, no, no. If we option it, get excited. We don’t option things just for the sake of it. We don’t have time for that.’ And she kept her word!” Moriarty said by phone to reporter Yvonne Villarrealwhen recalling her midmorning coffee meeting with Kidman in Sydney.
“After that, it all came together perfectly. Reese called Laura Dern, and Laura called Shailene Woodley. Zoë Kravitz we all knew. It was friends creating opportunities for friends” finished Kidman recalling the way the book adaptation became finally true.
The TV drama features five women — Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, and Zoë Kravitz, in addition to Witherspoon and Kidman — as mothers of first-graders in a wealthy Northern California community.
But why this book, and no other, grabbed this talented actresses attention?
At first glance, “Big Little Lies” seems like a simple mystery, but it isn’t. There’s a murder and, just to add a twist, there’s a question of who the victim is.
“I thought it had so many really interesting characters and a big reveal, and a nice sort of juicy plot twist. Murder is just a hair’s breadth away for some of these people,” said Witherspoon, explaining why she thought the story was perfect for a feature adaptation.
The story is definitively no simple whodunit, declares the features article on Variety. Underneath the sun-soaked California exterior, “Big Little Lies” tackles dark subjects: bullying, infidelity, physical abuse. That meant for a challenging script. The team struggled to strike the right tone — balancing the mystery with a few laugh lines and then those shocking notes of violence. It was a delicate tightrope walk.
That balancing act felt in the expert hands of writer and renowned showrunner David E. Kelley (“Ally McBeal,” “The Practice”).
“When we first started the project, there was a question mark in terms of the tone, because the book is at times silly and at times very, very ugly,” Kelley says. “I think that we stay very true to the dramatic tentpoles of the piece, but allow ourselves to be funny where we can, because life often is. Even if you don’t feel laughing, sometimes it laughs at you.”
“If you can get David Kelley, you should go with David Kelley,” Witherspoon explained to editor Debra Birnbaum, why she felt Kelley was perfect for the job. “I think something so interesting with David is that he can write these dramatic scenes with Nicole and Alex [Skarsgård, who plays Kidman’s husband], but also the funniest dialogue for me.”
Witherspoon, who serves as executive producer along with co-star Nicole Kidman, handpicked her “Wild” director for this creative reunion. (The 2014 film, based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, chronicles a woman’s journey of self-discovery as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail.) This time, their collaboration birthed a seven-hour film that just happened to be aired on HBO.
“I say episode six is better than most movies I’ve been in,” Witherspoon notes.
Given that they were adapting a bestseller read by millions, there was debate about how faithful their version should be. The most noticeable change is location: The action is transplanted from Australia to Monterey.
“That was a big, conscious choice,” explains Witherspoon. “I think we all agreed that [Monterey] brought more of the sense of a small community where everybody talks about each other.”
The original book cover with an exploding lollipop is an indicative of the explosiveness that can occur even in a perfect beautiful setting. As the New York Times Book Review explains:
“The book is peppered with parents’ voices commenting cryptically and amusingly about the terrible, terrible night — in this case, a costume party at the school called Trivia Night — on which something terrible happened. Was the root cause a French nanny? An erotic book club? Head lice? ... Ms. Moriarty writes all this in an easy, girlfriendly style that only occasionally lands with a thud. (“The word ‘help’ screamed silently in her head, as if she were begging for something: a solution, a cure, a reprieve. A reprieve from what? A cure for what? A solution for what?”) And a low-level bitchiness thrums throughout the narrative, becoming one of its indispensable pleasures. The witnesses’ descriptions of whatever happened are usually comically distorted, as in a game of telephone, so that everyone’s understanding of Trivia Night is at best half-wrong.”
But underneath the melodrama and moments of acerbic humor are women dealing with private angst, running the gamut of adultery, divorce, volatile marriages, sexual assault and the stresses of motherhood, as explained by Villarreal in her article about Big Little Lies. Beneath all that too is a sense of sisterhood when intense situations call for it.
When the one-time TV Series first aired on HBO last February, neither the production team or the main actresses were sure how the audience will respond to the book adaptation. Kidman confesses having nervous thoughts.
“When it first aired, I was like, ‘Oh, maybe it’s not gonna catch on like we’d hoped it would,’ and then it just built momentum through the whole season. I would get texts and calls and emails, and that’s when I knew it was really penetrating. Particularly when my husband was saying, ‘Oh, my friend just texted me and they were like, ‘What’s gonna happen next week?’ I haven’t had that for years, so it’s been an extraordinary journey.”
Will we see any other great adaptation of female-driven stories soon on the big or small screen?
For Moriarty fans, there is a glimmer of hope: She has a long line of best-sellers, and Kidman and Witherspoon have secured the rights to her latest novel, Truly Madly Guilty. But no one’s ready to commit to a reunion just yet, explains Birnbaum.
Time will tell, but if we believe those t-shirts going around EVERYWHERE with the slogan “The future is female”, then there’s definitively hope.