Spoilers ahead for both the Big Little Lies book and the HBO series.
Producers can’t stop snapping up the rights to novels about wrathful women these days. Ever since Gone Girl dominated the best-sellers list and the box office, more and more studios have started turning to hell-hath-no-fury literature that’s designed to feed crowds hungry for more. And with every adaptation the same inevitable question starts percolating through the internet: But will they change the ending?
Adapting a whodunit that millions have read and passed along to their best friends presents a conundrum for the filmmakers — stick to the route that readers adored and risk creating a thriller in which everyone knows the twist, or design an entirely new ending that could alienate loyal fans?
Big Little Lies, the 2014 novel by Liane Moriarty, had already undergone some major renovations before the finale aired: the setting was moved from Australia to California, new subplots like Madeline’s affair were added, and poor Fred Mackenzie (Madeline’s son in the novel) was entirely excluded. The adaptation had done the work of lifting out some of the novel’s cheesier threads — Big Little Lies may have been addictive reading but it was never the literary peer of Gone Girl — and it took a safe route when it came to the ending, dropping dozens of red herrings along the way and changing things just enough to tone down the hysterical writing of the novel and more authentically deliver a cathartic showstopper of an ending.
Here are the changes to the finale, ranked from least important to most:
9. Jane’s haircut.
Book: The day of Trivia Night, in a fit of self-reinvention, Jane chops her hair into a pixie cut to look like the Audrey Hepburn of Roman Holiday. Like a latter-day Rachael Leigh Cook, the haircut and a bit of makeup reveal that (gasp) Jane has been pretty all along. “I’m just so happy to see you wearing lipstick!” Madeline tearily blurts out. Good to know where her priorities lie.
Show: Alas, there’s no haircut montage scene in HBO’s version. Instead, Jane goes to the party in nearly the same getup as Celeste — the infamous black dress, pearls, and French twist of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The parallel getups are a nice touch: Just as Jane realizes she was simply a substitute for Celeste as someone for Perry to beat and disparage, she’s also aesthetically a paler imitation of her. And maybe Shailene Woodley, who just grew out her Fault in Our Stars chop, had a hair rider attached to her contract?
8. The food and beverages.
Book: The caterer doesn’t show up for Audrey and Elvis night and so the parents aren’t just drinking — they’re drinking on empty stomachs and secreting away bags of pretzels discovered in the school kitchen pantry.
Show: The “Otter Bay”–themed cocktails are loaded with enough booze to put down Madeline Martha Mackenzie even after she’s potentially eaten her fair share of canapes. I’ve been to black-tie weddings that didn’t have as much glitz as this school fundraiser. It looks like they spent a small fortune on tiki torches alone, and so it’s fairly clear that the food must’ve been divine. Note to self: Get child into Monterey Bay school system.
7. Where Perry dies.
Book: Otter Bay Elementary (called Pirriwee Public in the novel) is described in detail: Trivia Night takes place in a large, glassed-in event room on the school’s second story, and a balcony with ocean views lies immediately outside. That’s where the crowd gathers, and where Perry dies. Seated on a bar stool and shamelessly smirking at the women he’s wronged, Perry goes over a railing that it is later determined to be just a bit too low to meet regulations.
Show: Trivia Night instead takes place outdoors, and no such balcony (or ocean view) exists on the show. Instead, the crowd gathers at the top of those caution-taped steps, which have been irking Madeline throughout the series. They were actually ironic breadcrumbs leading us to the scene of Perry’s death, at the bottom of the outdoor staircase.
6. The injury tally.
Book: The Trivia Night injury tally is quite a bit higher in the novel after Renata discovers her nanny was having an affair with Gordon (who is called Geoff in the book), and then Gordon discovers that the nanny was also sleeping with Harper’s husband, Graeme. Just as Perry goes overboard, Gordon and Graeme come crashing through the glass, resulting in further chaos for the police inquiry. The affair is provided as reasoning for why Renata would have such a change of heart and defend the group of women she’s spent the past school term battling: Her sympathy for Celeste’s situation increases as a direct result of her own embarrassment at Gordon’s behavior. And as a result, Renata leaves her husband and decides to move to London with Amabella.
Show: There were certainly enough affairs and intrigue without adding what would’ve amounted to a major distraction. Not to mention the fact that the fight over — of all the cliché things — a French nanny cast a dose of levity on the book that the show wouldn’t have benefited from. This also means Renata stays in Monterey instead of fleeing to London, which makes much more sense (can CEOs just up and change continents like that?).
5. The witnesses.
Book: The balcony is a lot more crowded in the novel: Ed and Nathan witness Perry’s death, along with the group of women. This means that in the aftermath there are more stories for the police to sort through.
Show: Ed and Nathan are absent from the scene when Perry dies. Instead, it’s fittingly only the five women who fight him off and see him die. With their powers combined, they’re basically the Captain Feminist that Monterey needs.
4. Abigail’s virginity.
Book: After Abigail’s virginity-selling stunt goes live online, Madeline and Nathan panic, but there’s nothing they can do to shut it down. Ultimately, an 83-year-old man from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, named Larry Fitzgerald writes to Abigail, “If you close your auction immediately, I will make an immediate donation of $100,000 to Amnesty International … you are a child yourself, Miss Mackenzie, and I cannot in good conscience stand by and see you take this project to fruition.” It’s never confirmed, but Madeline suspects — and we’re led to believe this is the truth — that Larry Fitzgerald is really Celeste.
As a small detail, this wouldn’t much matter. Except it’s Nathan’s words to Perry about their generosity that sets Perry off on Celeste, in a scene immediately preceding his death. He’s just discovered Celeste’s apartment, and he responds, “Is this another of my wife’s secrets? … She also seems to think we have unlimited financial resources. Doesn’t earn a cent herself, but sure knows how to spend it.” And that’s the beginning of the end.
Show: Instead, Abigail shuts the site down herself, perhaps to keep the ending a little less cluttered. Somehow, she isn’t even grounded.
3. Jane and Perry.
Book: Until Jane and Perry are introduced on the balcony, readers might not even realize that they haven’t met all this time. But within seconds, Jane realizes who he is and says, “I think we’ve already met.” Perry asks if she’s sure and then claims, “I don’t recall.” “I’m sure,” Jane responds, “Except you said your name was Saxon Banks.”
Whereas in the show Madeline and Celeste hunt down a man named Saxon Baker, which is the name Jane claims he gave her the night he raped her, in the book, she had told them earlier it was a man named Saxon Banks, who happens to be Perry’s cousin. It’s agonizing for Celeste, who knows her husband’s cousin is a married man whom she can’t imagine committing such a horrific act. But the moment on the balcony makes it clear to Celeste, Madeline, and Jane that it was never Saxon at all; Perry borrowed his cousin’s name and used it to fool and seduce women.
“It meant nothing,” Perry keeps repeating to Celeste. But his protestations have the opposite of the intended effect. Celeste discovers that the violence, or passion, or volatility, or whatever you want to call it, wasn’t exclusive to their relationship. Perry isn’t a good man with a bad temper. He’s just a bad man. A rapist. A philanderer. An abuser. And when he refuses to even acknowledge Jane with a look, Celeste throws a drink in his face and he responds with a “perfect, practiced, brutal arc that flung back her head and sent her body flying across the balcony.” There is no scrum, with the women dragging him off Celeste’s body. There is his backhand and then, from Bonnie, the push that sends him over the rail. It’s intentional.
Show: Not even a word passes between the two on the show. Perry appears, after following Celeste, and time slows to a crawl as Jane looks at him and reacts viscerally to the presence of her rapist. A knowing look moves to Madeline and Celeste, and then appears on Perry’s face as well. He moves to drag Celeste from the scene, and a brawl breaks out as Madeline, Jane, and Renata jump in to defend her. It’s a particularly well-done moment. Any words might have cheapened the shock factor of discovering that Perry has been the bogeyman haunting Jane all this time. Instead, the actors deliver the entire scene with their expressions.
2. Bonnie’s motivation.
Book: Bonnie’s motivation is related loud and clear at the moment of Perry’s death. “That’s why your son has been hurting little girls,” she rasps at him. “Because he’s seen what you do.” Perry insists that his children have never seen anything. “Your children see!” Bonnie screams. “Her face was ugly with rage. ‘We see! We fucking see!’”
As the child of a domestic abuser, it turns out that Bonnie’s dedication to a Zen lifestyle isn’t just a show of how much athleisure she can afford — it’s a direct reaction to the chaos of her childhood. Without even learning the details, the other women — led by Renata — chime in that they didn’t see the fall. “Maybe it was actually an unspoken instant agreement between the four women on the balcony: No woman should pay for the accidental death of that particular man. Maybe it was an involuntary, atavistic response to thousands of years of violence against women. Maybe it was for every rape, every brutal backhanded slap, every other Perry that had come before this one.”
Committed to keeping Bonnie’s secret, the group, with the exception of Ed, agree without speaking to lie to the police and protect her. But in the end, Bonnie turns herself in and admits her crime. She’s sentenced to 200 hours of community service, which she serves with pleasure.
Show: We don’t learn much about placid, beatific Bonnie throughout the series. It’s easy to see why Nathan has fallen for her — she’s everything Madeline isn’t. Always measured, and never without her clogs, Free People kimonos, and impressive turquoise collection, she’s a walking sage smudge stick who whispers little lines that she must channel direct from Thich Nhat Hanh. She notices Celeste and Perry arguing at Trivia Night and slyly follows them both. She basically happens upon the scene of the fight and delivers the fatal blow more to defend Celeste than anything else.
1. Celeste’s life post-Perry.
Book: After Perry’s death, the book reveals a fair amount about what happens next. We discover that although Celeste could have lived a life of glass-housed, seaside-gazing luxury for the rest of her years, instead she moves into the apartment she was planning to flee to and has returned to her career as a lawyer. For a woman so energized to change her life, the move made sense and felt right: Of course Celeste wouldn’t want to retreat back to a version of the life she’s had with Perry.
In one final chapter, we also learn that the twins haven’t coped well since Perry’s death, lashing out angrily and sometimes violently. Celeste is also still in love with Perry, but admittedly confused about what that means, as she explains to her counselor. But most moving, she’s chosen to share her story with other victims — to work as an advocate. Unlike the Celeste of the show, who keeps her silence over her husband’s crimes, the Celeste of the novel ends with the final line: “This can happen to anyone.”
Show: All we know about Celeste’s life after Perry is that she’s easily forgiving of her husband’s killer — and that donning a silky tunic and frolicking on a beach can do wonders for the recently traumatized.