Madeline Martha Mackenzie, the central character in Liane Moriarty’s best-selling novel Big Little Lies, thinks of Pirriwee, the fictional suburb on Sydney’s northern beaches where she lives, and where the action of the novel takes place, as a ‘country village.’ This is a signpost to Jane Austen’s oft-quoted statement ‘Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on.’ As a definition of the scope and subject matter of a novel written in the mode of domestic realism, Austen’s formulation has established a major tradition within English-language fiction.
As Martha’s allusion suggests, Moriarty follows the Austenian model. Pirriwee is the local habitation of Ed and Martha Mackenzie and their two children; of Perry and Celeste Wright and their twin boys; and of Geoff and Renata Klein and their daughter. This Austenian template is varied by such characters as single mother Jane Chapman and her son Ziggy, and the ‘alternative’ family of Nathan and Bonnie Carlson and their daughter Skye. Nathan is Madeline’s former husband, who left her soon after the birth of their daughter Abigail, now fourteen. Abigail is the novel’s wildcard, the headstrong young woman who, in Austen’s world, can go seriously astray. Like Austen’s Emma, Madeline can’t keep her feet out of other people’s affairs, a comic flaw nicely figured in her turned ankle, ‘the ungainly flip’ that kickstarts the plot. The male figure of moral authority, that other Austenian essential, is here supplied by her husband Ed, the ethical standard-bearer of Big Little Lies.
HBO’s adaptation of this novel, shown this year in Australia on Foxtel’s Showcase channel and recently released as a DVD box set, has enjoyed both popular appeal and considerable critical acclaim. This essay will analyze some of the ways in which the distinctive qualities of Moriarty’s novel have been adapted to, and occasionally transformed by, a visual medium. My main focus is on the final episode ‘You Get What You Need’. This deals with the Audrey Hepburn/Elvis Presley-themed trivia night, hosted by the local school as a fundraiser, in which the plot comes to resolution. In the opening episode, ‘Somebody’s Dead’, the very first image that we see, after the flashing red and blue lights of the emergency services, is a curtain-projection of an instantly recognisable Elvis in the early years of his fame. Already in the building, he never leaves it. In the final episode, several carefully-chosen Presley songs are used, as they are used intermittently throughout the series, to probe the characters’ motivations and to intensify the subtleties of the drama. Elvis Presley’s music is one of the languages of this novel-to-television adaptation. Yet even in television mode, Big Little Lies retains its Austenian patterns of domestic realism.
But is Moriarty’s novel also, as its pastel cover invites us to assume, a middlebrow novel? The term will resonate with SRB readers because of the controversy generated here a couple of years ago by Beth Driscoll’s essay on three novels by contemporary Australian women writers, Stephanie Bishop, Antonia Hayes, and Susan Johnson. In that review, and in her book The New Literary Middlebrow (2014), Driscoll identifies the ‘middlebrow’ as a set of practices; it’s a descriptive term that she uses to signify a combination of several features: feminization; a middle class milieu; reverence for élite literature; ethically serious subject-matter with an emotional and domestic inflection; it is a genre ‘enmeshed in commerce, and explicitly mediated,’ which presumably refers to the processes by which such products are marketed.
Moriarty’s novel ticks most of Driscoll’s boxes. It’s focused on women, and the families it represents are from the professional or entrepreneurial demographic, hence middle-class. Its reverence for élite literature is implied by Moriarty’s invocation of Jane Austen. Its subject-area of violence and domestic abuse surely signifies ethical seriousness. As for ‘commercial’ and ‘mediated’: the book has been carefully marketed, for a faux sticker on the cover directs you to the HBO series, and the cover’s pastel design is replicated on HBO’s box set, and also on the CD of the show’s soundtrack.
To judge a book by its cover may be unwise. The covers of the many novels by English writer Jilly Cooper scream ‘soft porn.’ Not so, says Ian Patterson, of Queens’ College, Cambridge, in a substantial review of Cooper’s recent novel Mount!. Patterson remarks, in passing, that Cooper’s writing ‘isn’t much studied in universities.’ Not altogether so, says a correspondent in the subsequent issue of the same journal, who recalls that Cooper’s Class was ‘essential reading’ in second year Social Class at York University. Not having read any of Cooper’s books, I have no opinion on the quality of her writing, or on her perceptions about class; but this recent exchange suggests that, in the UK at least, distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture now matter less than they once did. ‘Middlebrow’ or ‘muddlebrow’?
All three writers of the novels reviewed by Driscoll took vigorous exception to their works being referred to her ‘middlebrow’ criteria. The problem here surely is that, notwithstanding Driscoll’s disclaimer, ‘middlebrow’, as a short-hand term, can only be a label. However useful to a cultural historian, the term is less relevant to the litterateur whose primary interest is in a book’s writing, or to the citizen looking in the local library for something engaging or thought-provoking to read. Loaded as it is with its implicitly evaluative cultural hierarchy, the label erases the processes of reading and writing in which literature consists. In the words of Antonia Hayes: ‘Reading is always idiosyncratic; nobody reads the same book the same way, and readers always bring themselves to the page.’
And indeed, as Driscoll qualifies her criteria, ‘middlebrow’ starts to beg all sorts of questions. In tacit acknowledgement of the slipperiness of the term, Driscoll allows that a book may have some ‘middlebrow’ features without being exclusively ‘middlebrow’; but this very qualification shifts the term ‘middlebrow’ away from a set of practices, or measurable external features, towards the internal dynamics of a text, which are far less tangible. By allowing that a book’s ‘formal techniques’ may work against its ‘middlebrow’ qualities, Driscoll throws open the many relationships between substance and technique in which any claim to literary quality may lie. Such relationships are central to the actual, empirical experience of reading any literary text; they are the necessary locus of critical analysis, discussion, and disagreement.
So, what of Moriarty’s ‘formal techniques’? Narration is focalized through the consciousness of three main female characters, Madeline, Celeste, and Jane. The reader moves in and out of their minds as the novel shifts between narration and dialogue. There is almost no description of place or setting, and very little metaphorical or figurative language. Moriarty writes short sentences in short paragraphs, so that although her novel runs to almost 500 pages, brevity is the hallmark of its style. This plain style nevertheless generates ironic play between dialogue and narration, between what people say, and how they think or feel, or, more subtly, a play between what they think and how they feel, which then muddles how they express themselves. This socially comedic manner, finely-tuned as it is, draws out the pervasive insecurities that constitute the world of Pirriwee. The grounding irony is that each of the three women at the heart of the novel is more centred than her insecurities allow her to know.
Big Little Lies may not be Mrs Dalloway, but its pared-down bourgeois realism promotes intelligent awareness of the spaces in which identity and relationship are formed. And although its mode may be primarily comic, the novel’s social focus is concerned with violence, abuse, trauma, and evil, with things that can’t be forgiven any more than they can be forgotten. This dark side implies terrible links between the school playground and the closed doors of intimate domestic space. The novel’s overt psychological patterns are drawn in straight lines: Perry was bullied at school, which may explain his treatment of Celeste; Bonnie grew up in an abusive household, which does explain her fatal intervention at the trivia night. While each of the counselors or therapists consulted by Celeste or Jane is invested by the novel with immense authority, neither one has the presence or manner of a psychoanalyst. And although the novel raises questions about the effects of inherited genes on the individual psyche, unlike Mrs Dalloway it stops short of interrogating the nature of consciousness, or of probing the depths of the unconscious. Such limitations — if that’s what they are — suggest that Big Little Lies is not a modernist or a post-modern novel; rather it is a novel whose distinctively domestic realism is a product of its ironic play with the way the characters’ minds work in the socially-oriented world of Pirriwee.
With reference to Ivor Indyk’s criteria of literary quality: how much of this is ‘innovative’ or ‘challenging’? The updated Austenian tradition may not be new, but Moriarty cleverly adapts Austen’s pattern to the milieu of Sydney’s northern beach suburbs. The inclusion of what Emily Nussbaum has called a ‘Greek chorus’ of parents, teachers, and police is an unusual narrative device used here by Moriarty that is taken up to great effect by HBO’s writer David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, Boston Legal). And the novel’s treatment of the cruelty and violence of Pirriwee is challenging, not just in itself, but because of the comedic context through which Pirriwee’s darkness looms. Moriarty has done her background research on domestic violence and marital abuse, and the incorporation of these topics within the broadly comic framework of the novel constantly challenges her readers by bringing them up short, by asking them to think again and to qualify, or even displace their sympathy with judgment, or vice versa. This is not always an easy experience.
The major achievement of the HBO adaptation is the successful replication of this mode, the challenges of which are reflected in reviewers’ (gendered) struggles to find the right language in which to talk about it. Female reviewers have found more to praise in the show than have their male counterparts. For Nussbaum, writing in The New Yorker, the show’s best moments are associated with the risks it takes in dealing with ‘the dynamics of domestic abuse’; she reads the show as ‘an overlap of family-abuse histories’ and ‘a reflection on trauma’. Also in The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino picks up on the show’s depiction of the shocking ordinariness of violence in the domestic world: ‘The show understands that minor social transactions between women can express the nuances of violence with a unique specificity and a nauseating subtlety’. Violence, death, and a Greek chorus are the stuff of tragedy. But at the same time as these reviewers demonstrate just how deeply Big Little Lies digs, each registers her surprise at the show’s inclusive ‘generosity’ to all its characters; such generosity is typical of comedy, where its absence is profoundly disturbing (think of Malvolio’s final, bitter exit from Twelfth Night). The reviews quoted here are of the HBO adaptation, but to anyone who’s read the novel, they ring true to that, too. If Big Little Lies has one foot in the ‘middlebrow’ world, its other foot is — like Madeline’s ankle — somewhere far less comfortable.
Shifting the action from Sydney to Monterey is HBO’s clear pitch to the US market. Moriarty’s Australian argot (‘banker-wanker’, ‘mind your own beeswax’) has gone, but the crackle of her dialogue remains. Monterey’s spectacular locations expand the novel’s domestic spaces without ever quite leaving them, and the adaptation makes pointed use of such liminal spaces and places as bridges, balconies, and beaches; of such transitional interior space as dressing rooms; and of cars. The title sequence, of the three main characters driving with their children, cuts between external shots of what might be seen from the cars, and shots of the cars’ interiors, with driving mirrors reflecting the fragmented identities of Celeste (Nicole Kidman), Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) and Jane (Shailene Woodley). In one finely-conceived sequence, Madeline lies to her husband Ed (Adam Scott) as she sits at her dressing table removing her make-up. The camera picks up reflected images of Madeline from two mirrors, and as Ed sits on the bed facing Madeline, the viewer looks over his shoulder. The double images of Madeline visible to Ed are compounded by the viewer’s perspective, which both sees with Ed, and sees Ed seeing, Madeline’s duplicity. The school drop-off zone is rich with possibilities of drama-on-the-run. The shoreline of cliff and beach brings subconscious activity into play, especially Jane’s rich dream-fantasy life.
While the visual medium opens up roads not taken in Moriarty’s novel, the plot remains substantially the same. Amabella Klein (Ivy George) is bullied at school, and single mother Jane’s son Ziggy (Iain Armitage) is the chief suspect. The actual perpetrator is eventually revealed to be Max White (Nicholas Crevetti, whose twin brother Cameron plays Max’s own twin, Josh). Ziggy’s father turns out to be Perry White (Alexander Skarsgård), the mystery man who raped Jane five years ago.
Kelley enriches the novel’s drama by complicating and intensifying it. Some characters do more work for HBO than their literary counterparts do for the novel. Renata Klein (Laura Dern) is more flamboyant, and her husband Gordon (Jeffrey Nordling) is a more ugly presence, for example. Gordon — the name has an edge that the book’s ‘Geoff’ lacks — is a testosterone-overloaded alpha male, either with a drink in his fist on the balcony or popping pills as he prowls the dressing room in his gold lamé Elvis pants.
Madeline remains the centre of interest, but her marriage to Ed is not the ‘great love’ of Moriarty’s novel. Although the marriage is validated as a locus of moral and emotional value, it is destabilized, and travels a gravel road for much of the series. Ed’s self-conception as ‘Steady Eddie’ betrays his lack of self-confidence, and the invention of Community Theatre Director Joseph (Santiago Cabrera), with whom Madeline has had an affair, brings a new dimension to Moriarty’s story. So too does the reconception of Madeline’s former husband Nathan Carlson (James Tupper), now married to Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz). Obviously discontented with his role as yogafied house-husband, Nathan (who walked out on Madeline shortly after Abigail’s birth) now creates multiple opportunities to re-connect with his former wife. Although Madeline is not interested in having Nathan back, Ed feels as threatened by him as Nathan is resentful of Ed, and the tension between Ed and Nathan is the outstanding masculine drama of the series.
Abigail Mackenzie (Kathryn Newton) is sixteen, the extra two years (she is fourteen in the novel) giving her character more dramatic leverage. She comes more effectively to the centre of the drama as a point of stress in the inter-relationships of the Carlson and Mackenzie families. In both novel and adaptation she hatches a plan to auction her virginity on the internet, in order to highlight the issue of child sex-trafficking. Moriarty resolves this with a deus ex machina: Celeste creates a false email address through which, posing as a wealthy American male philanthropist, she offers Abigail a donation of $100,000 to Amnesty in lieu of her virginity, and in acknowledgment of her idealism. Alternatively, HBO resolves the issue as part of an ongoing mother-daughter dynamic. Madeline tells Abigail, in a moment of confrontation, that she herself is anything but perfect, having cheated on Ed. In acknowledgement of her mother’s openness and vulnerability, Abigail abandons her own project as likely to generate the wrong kind of publicity. This is both more plausible, and dramatically more satisfying, than what happens in the novel. And among the many marvellous moments of the final episode is a shot of Abigail standing close to Ed at Perry’s funeral.
Jane may be the only woman whose work is actually necessary to her survival. Madeline works part-time for the Community Theatre, but her involvement in other peoples’ business is what gets her mojo going. Renata, married to a lawyer, is herself a corporate high-flyer (she’s just joined the board of PayPal). Celeste was a practising lawyer before she married Perry. However attractive he originally found this, Perry is now threatened by her growing desire to return to work, and wants her to have another baby. This major change from the book — Celeste’s need to recover her professional identity — is one reason for the escalating violence in the White marriage.
Even in HBO’s translation, Big Little Lies retains the regenerative domestic patterns of a Jane Austen novel, in which the need to find the right partner is paramount, with twenty-first-century variations. Celeste must realize that she can no longer be married to Perry. As her therapist, Dr Amanda Reisman (Robin Weigert) prompts: ‘When are you going to leave him, Celeste?’ Jane’s sexuality, reawakening after five years of hell, is liberating her from past trauma by reviving her interest in men, most notably in café-owner Tom, whom Jane believes to be gay. (This is surely a nod to Clueless, Amy Heckerling’s 1995 take on Emma.) Madeline, having unconsciously tested her own marriage through her fling with Joseph, must now come to appreciate that marriage by acknowledging to Ed, and of course to herself, that he is ‘the one’ for her. All other adults must do the best they can with what they’ve got; and the children must get on with their growing up in spite of the adult world.
That world is not a pleasant place, and has few authentic spaces where children can grow and be. The community-focused school, as ‘cute’ as the beachfront mansions are ‘smart’, is loaded with physical and emotional violence. The main male characters — web-designer Ed, lawyer Gordon, and hedge-fund operator Perry — are all professionally successful, but their successes can’t suppress their domestic insecurities. Superficially, it’s the women who are insecure; but the deepest, darkest anxieties of Big Little Lies are masculine. Most adult life is hurried and problematic, including sex, which (as Dr Reisman points out) doesn’t always involve love. In extremis: the violent, anger-fuelled sex of Celeste and Perry quickly turns to horror. The final episode opens with Celeste huddled pitifully on the bathroom floor in her underwear, bruised and winded, as her husband looms over her. In one appalling shot, she cringes from his consolatory caress. Neil Young’s ‘Helpless’ wails over the soundtrack.
The attention-grabbing soundtrack of Big Little Lies both comments on the action and modulates levels of diegesis: a song that someone is listening to while they exercise may carry across to the next sequence. The CD soundtrack includes some Elvis Presley songs sung by others, while the Elvis originals within the show don’t make it to the CD. This is because the Elvis music belongs to a different order of discourse from the rest of the soundtrack.
Elvis’s image appears in the show’s opening sequence, establishing him as a presence. Musically he bursts into Big Little Lies in ‘Push Comes to Shove’ (episode 4). Arriving home to a dark, apparently empty house, Madeline calls out ‘Ed?’ The lights come up, and Ed, astride the coffee table, in trademark Elvis cape and jump suit, launches into ‘One Night’. This song was originally written as a blues ballad: ‘One night of sin / Is what I’m now paying for.’ These lyrics were sanitized for Elvis’s 1958 release: ‘One night with you/ Is what I’m now praying for’, the original song’s emotions of remorse and shame now re-written as erotic urgency. This perfectly suits Ed’s purpose, which is to seduce his wife. Madeline stops him after two verses, embarrassed by Ed’s sexual eagerness, to which she habitually responds with — Ed’s word — ‘tepidness’.
She is rescued from her embarrassment by their daughter Chloë (Darby Camp), who is helping her dad prepare for the trivia night, which, she says, needs a song that no-one else would sing. Showing an impressive knowledge of the byways of the Elvis songbook, she suggests ‘Pocketful of Rainbows’, an oddity from the soundtrack of his 1960 movie GI Blues. Chloë and Ed then combine in a playful duet, from which Madeline is excluded; but behind the Chloë-Ed show is a frustrated husband trying to get a message to his wife. ‘Am I dreaming right now?’ wonders Madeline, whose libidinal misdirection, as well as her sense of reality, is under siege from Ed’s ‘One Night’.
Madeline’s later recounting of this comic family drama to Jane is curiously selective. She turns Ed into an alien, representing him as having worn ‘a full vampire costume, with fangs and everything.’ No song, no Chloé, no Elvis, and no embarrassment. Although Madeline admits that Ed may have been trying to ‘spice up’ their sex life, she runs away from this: ‘I don’t know why I’m talking about sex so much.’ Ed’s message has got through.
Elvis surfaces next in ‘Burning Love’ (episode 6, titled after Elvis’s 1972 song of that name). Nathan, also preparing for the trivia night, mimes this song to Elvis’s record, and must be alluding to his desire for Madeline, burning strong after fifteen years. The other song he considers is ‘Trouble’, an aggressively macho number from King Creole (1958): ‘If you’re looking for trouble / You came to the right place’ — which can only be directed at the man he now thinks of as ‘fucking psycho Ed’. Absorbed in obsessive competition with Ed for Madeline, Nathan’s chosen songs are wholly self-referential.
None of these songs is performed at the trivia night, at the opening of which, in the final episode, ‘You Get What You Need’, the PA system has Elvis singing ‘It’s Now or Never’, his 1960 Americanized version of ‘O Sole Mio.’ The song is obviously appropriate to the several plot lines now rushing to resolution, and the musically-orchestrated drama now thickens. The first song in performance, sung here by Stu (no last name; Larry Bates), is ‘Treat Me Nice’, originally released in 1957 as the B-side of ‘Jailhouse Rock’, the title song of Elvis’s third movie. The next performer is Nathan’s wife Bonnie, who sings ‘Don’t’, Elvis’s follow-up single to ‘Jailhouse Rock’. These three songs were all released in late 1957, and all written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Nathan arrives at the trivia night dressed as jailhouse Elvis — stove-pipe pants, short jacket, and striped top — all set, apparently, to sing ‘Jailhouse Rock’.
Bonnie precedes him. ‘Don’t, don’t, that’s what you say / Each time that I hold you this way.’ The 1957 lyrical voice is that of a boy responding to a girl’s resistance to his sexual advances. The 2017 gender-switch to a female voice gives the song a frisson; and Zoë Kravitz’ expressive moaning of the lyrics, together with her suggestive body-language deliver what the MC calls ‘a concupiscent interpretation’ of the song. Madeline gets it: ‘I’m sure the room is full of erections.’ Yet Bonnie’s performance of this song, focused on her husband by the camera-work as surely as Ed’s ‘One Night’ was directed at Madeline, is intensely sad. Steeped in sexual melancholy, it signals something radically amiss in the Carlson marriage.
Nathan is so clearly a prisoner of his feelings that he doesn’t need to sing ‘Jailhouse Rock’. His chosen alternative is a little-known ballad, ‘How’s the World Treating You?’ Written by Nashville stalwarts Chet Atkins and Boudleaux Bryant, this country classic gleams like a gem in the rock of Elvis’s second album (1956). His young, keening voice is perfectly attuned to the song’s authentic ‘country’ timbre of aggrieved self-pity:
I’ve had nothing but sorrow
Since you said we were through
There’s no hope for tomorrow
How’s the world treating you?
In Big Little Lies Nathan’s rendition of this song is a performative expression of his loneliness and pain. (The song here is mimed by actor James Tupper, although sung by Daniel Agee.)
Nathan’s is the final performance in the talent competition, for Ed Mackenzie has already sung ‘The Wonder of You’ (actor Adam Scott miming to the The Villagers’ Conor O’Brien). For ‘One Night’, at home, Ed was Elvis in full flight mode, but he arrives at the trivia night as Elvis Lite. Sporting an aloha shirt and a lei, and shorn of the bushy beard he has worn until now, Ed is a personification of vulnerability.
As Ed and Madeline circulate among the guests, Ed picks up that there is, or has been something between Madeline and Joseph. The couples exchange pleasantries, but as Ed’s eyes dart between Joseph and Joseph’s wife Tori (Sarah Sokolovic) and Madeline, he’s putting things together. He takes all this with him to the microphone, sculls as much of a triple vodka as he can, and sings ‘The Wonder of You’ to Madeline.
Elvis released ‘The Wonder of You’ as a live recording in 1970. It became one of his signature tunes, and a pre-emptive strike against the insecurities that would destroy him; he was singing it to his audiences. The song shuffles its pronouns, telling us less about how the singer loves than how he is loved: ‘I guess I’ll never know the reason why / You love me as you do.’ This lyrical drama intensifies the interactive performance of glances and responses that has been going on since Ed and Madeline arrived. The camera’s focus moves from Ed to Madeline, for the song reminds Madeline not just that Ed loves her — he’s already told her that she’s ‘the girl of my dreams’ — but also that she loves him. In emotional shock, eyes brimming, Madeline rushes from the auditorium to the terrace; and there she finds Jane, to whom she tearfully confesses her infidelity.
This climactic episode puts the crises in the Mackenzie and the White marriages in parallel. Circumstances have now brought the series’ main women to the terrace: Madeline and Jane are joined by Renata, followed by Celeste, running from an enraged Perry, who has just learned that she is leaving him. The last of the women to arrive is Bonnie, who alone has registered the escalating tension between Perry and Celeste. Clad in black leather jump suit, after Elvis’s 1968 NBC television special, with dyed hair, long sideburns, and dark glasses, Perry’s Elvis is a near-anagram of Evil, the Prince of Darkness himself.
The script now dissolves into fifteen electric seconds of visual drama, directed by the muse of tragedy. Jia Tolentino puts it in nutshell: ‘One of Jane’s P.T.S.D. flashbacks has merged with the present, confirming Perry’s identity; her face becomes a mask of fear. Madeline looks at her, follows her gaze to Perry, and then looks back at Jane, altered—she’s figured it out. Madeline catches Celeste’s eye and turns it toward Jane, who nods almost imperceptibly. The show’s twist has been communicated wordlessly among all three of them’. It may not have occurred to any first-time viewer that the show has held Jane and Perry apart until this moment of concentrated drama, in which she recognizes him as her rapist. Perry then attacks Celeste; and as Jane, Madeline and Renata try to protect Celeste, Bonnie hurtles out of the darkness, into the pandemonium, pushing Perry over the edge of the balcony to his doom.
HBO’s recreation of the trivia night brings it to life, and wordlessly visualizes its shocking climax, in ways that the novel can’t. Perry’s funeral is another visual triumph, partly because there is no attempt to replicate the professionally-produced valedictory video described in Moriarty’s account of the funeral. As the novel’s language has given way to other languages, the adaptation of novel to television drama has also become a translation from one form of discourse to another.
Any such translation may be a realisation of the novel’s vision, or may strike out on its own, as is the case in HBO’s coda of women and children playing on the beach, in blinding pastel colours, to the tune of Ituana’s ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’. The director cuts between this matriarchal vision, in which there is no adult male presence, and flashbacks to the horror on the terrace, where an out-of-control man is thwarted, then pushed to his death, by women. The title, Big Little Lies, kicks in here. While we have seen the women speak at their police interviews, we haven’t heard what they’ve said; but the police officers’ response makes it clear that the women have got their story (whatever it is) straight. That such qualities as acceptance and forgiveness, perhaps even grace, so brilliantly visualised on the beach, should have been bought by lies, fully satisfies the conventions of comedy. There is no ethical hiatus.
Still, Gordon Klein has had his moment of malevolence. At the trivia night, Tom, Jane’s date, who has recently crossed swords with Gordon, now raises a glass to him in a gesture of goodwill. Across the room Klein responds by making a pistol of his right hand, and levelling it at Tom. Malvolio rides again.
HBO’s final ‘binocular’ frames remind us that there is a necessary police perspective on all this. Moriarty’s account of the aftermath pays more attention to the legal perspective, and here her novel comes into its own. Bonnie is convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to Community Service; but the question of legal guilt gives way, in Moriarty’s account, to the ethical and moral issues arising from the circumstances, and the crux of who will or won’t lie about what is focused on Madeline’s bonds with her husband Ed, and her former husband Nathan. This may not be Crime and Punishment, but it’s substantial food for intelligent thought, and, again, the conventions of comedy are fulfilled.
The series’ music supervisor, Susan Jacobs, has said that director Jean-Marc Valée ‘uses music like Jackson Pollock used paint.’ In the final episode especially, the minimalist script gives way not only to what is seen, but also to what is sung, as Bonnie, Ed and Nathan each perform versions of themselves and their relationships. Elvis Presley may be the forgotten man of the soundtrack, but he is also its presiding genius, for his songs become a form of poetic language expressing the drama’s emotional complexities. As large-scale figures of speech these songs recall the epic simile, whereby, in the poetry of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Milton, the action is suspended and the poetic voice gives itself over to a riff of apparent irrelevance: ‘As when . . .’ and the world of the poem is momentarily extended or expanded, as armies become migrating birds, or fallen angels become autumn leaves. But here, instead of expanding the action in the manner of the epic simile, the songs turn the action back on itself; their self-referential lyricism condenses and compresses dramatic meaning.
Virgil, Milton, Jackson Pollock: Elvis, the boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, is in select company here, and questions of cultural privilege may require some rethinking. Clive James has written engagingly of his experience, late in life, of reading Spenser’s The Faerie Queen (1596), and finding himself struck with similarities between that poem’s femme fatale Duessa, and Melisandre in HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011+). Startled, and somewhat baffled, he says: ‘it’s as if classical literature had faded into the mind’s background, and images encountered on the screen had become one’s first frame of cultural reference.’ Such displacement of familiar frames of reference may, in James’s words, usher in ‘a new, pervasive, and irresistible vocabulary of the imagination’, and that in turn may require a fresh critical vocabulary.
This new, democratic vocabulary probably has little use for such terms as ‘middlebrow’. In Moriarty’s novel, Celeste imagines telling her husband ‘Our behaviour is lowbrow, Perry.’ ‘Lowbrow’ shocks here because of its inadequacy to the context of cruelty, violence, and fear, from which Celeste speaks. But the aftershock is a potent reminder that this word and its affiliates belong to a vocabulary of abstraction, devoid of human relevance or connection.
It is a fact not universally acknowledged that Jane Austen (1775-1817) and Elvis Presley (1935-1977) each trod this earth for forty-two years.
Ace Collins, Untold Gold: The Stories Behind Elvis’s #1 Hits. Souvenir Press, 2005
Clive James, Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook. Yale UP, 2016
Emily Nussbaum, ‘BEACHES: Monterey Murder on Big Little Lies’. The New Yorker, March 6, 2017
Jia Tolentino, ‘The Cathartic Finale of Big Little Lies’. The New Yorker, April 2, 2017.