Comparing Big Sky To C.W. Box’s Novel
Trust Me, The TV Series Is Way better
Ever since Big Sky debuted in the fall of 2020 and I learned that its source material came from a series of novels written by C.J. Box I have been waiting to read the books it was based on. Near the end of last year I finally got a chance to read The Highway the Box novel that is the ‘inspiration’ for the series. I use ‘inspiration’ in quotation marks because having finished the novel I’m genuinely baffled how David E. Kelley, who ever since his adaptation of Big Little Lies back in 2017 could have found some kind of inspiration in this series. Indeed, it would be more accurate to consider The Highway source material for Big Sky in the sense that it shares character names and the basic plot for the first half of Season 1. And given what I read in The Highway I understand why Kelley and his cadre took the liberties that they with the novel. Because if they had stuck a little closer to the source material I don’t think any service, much less a broadcast network, would have considered it for a series. I think they’d have had a hard time getting a film made of it.
(Warning: Spoilers for The Highway and the first several episodes of Big Sky ahead.)
In Big Sky Cody Hoyt, his ex-wife Jenny and Cassie Dewell are private investigators working in Helena. In the novel Cody and Cassie are both deputies in Montana. Cassie is being used by her boss to try and bring Cody down for mishandling procedures when it comes to arresting felons. Cody is being brought up on charges. Then I learned Cody’s backstory and it became very clear why the changes were made.
In the novel Cody Hoyt — played in the series by Ryan Philippe — is a law enforcement officer who has no respect for the law — or really anybody. In fact, he’s already been kicked off another state police job. He thinks the judicial system is lazy and ineffective, he thinks that criminals are monster and he doesn’t care if they shoot each other up as long as they don’t hit a civilian. Not that he has much use for civilians either — he has a horrible opinion of just about everybody on either side of the spectrum. When a parent reports his child his missing, he can barely work up the sympathy for him because he considers him soft. The Cody Hoyt in the book would turn up his nose at being a PI and is actually considering becoming a criminal at one point. He is an alcoholic and both Jenny and Justin are with knowing it’s a matter of time before he falls off the wagon — which he does after he’s put on suspension.
To say that this would be a problematic character for a series in the era of BLM — which Cody would basically say ‘No Lives Matter’ — would have been impossible. Earlier in the Golden Age of Television, I’m not entirely sure any network would have been willing to buy into is — even HBO or FX. Because Cody Hoyt is essentially the kind of cop that Vic Mackey would no was too dangerous to be on the force and that Raylan Givens — who spent every episode of Justified working himself into a position to shoot a criminal — would not have any respect for because Cody would gladly shoot anybody. He’s the kind of cop who would barely fit in Deadwood — in the opening scene of the series, he would’ve let the mob hang Clell Watson and Seth Bullock wouldn’t dare have him as deputy. Al Swearengen might have made use for him at the Gem, but at some point he would make sure he was fed to the pigs consider Cody would not have just killed Francis Wolcott when he started making his threats on gold claims and would have just as simply killed George Hearst the moment he showed up.
Now just as in the series, Cody is dead by the halfway point of the novel. But everything about the investigation and its process is far superior in the TV series. Because it’s not just that Cody seems to be the character that Box has sympathy for, he makes almost everybody in the book far worse by comparison. In the series the action is started when Danielle and Grace are driving on break from college to see Justin. In the book, Danielle is a full-out bitch who ignores a warning light on her dashboard, pretends her sister is a whiner, and most importantly decides on the spur of the moment to change their itinerary to see Justin — who isn’t glad to hear of her plans because he’s trying to break up with her. And when Danielle and Grace are abducted by Ronald in the series, Box does everything in his power to make Danielle weak. She has none of the momentum or will that her sister does; in fact when her sister tries to work out an escape plan, she sells her out before it can start. When the girls are eventually rescued by Cassie, she almost seems to blame her for Cody getting shot: “He was looking for you.” This is as close to a crime novel where the victim is fundamentally blamed for what happens and it’s not a pretty picture.
But then Box doesn’t seem to make any of his characters seem sympathetic. Jenny is barely a presence in the novel. Sally, Rick Legarski’s wife, is divorced from him in the novel and is barely given much consideration. Neither has anywhere near the presence that Kathryn Winnick and Brooke Smith does; you can’t imagine Jenny getting in a brawl with Cassie or Sally killing her husband. They’re barely two-dimensional.
And the villains are actually worse than they were in the book. In the novel Ronald and Trooper Legarski don’t traffic the victims — they repeatedly rape and beat them until they kill them and they also film the actions. Ronald doesn’t even bother kidnapping half his victims, he just kills them. He has far less respect for Legarski, who seems far less clever than he was in series.
Indeed, there is no real investigation — Cassie gets the information when Ronald drops the secrets to Legarski in her lap. When she rescues the girls, she decides to kill Legarski without hesitation — ‘What Would Cody Do?” she chillingly thinks — and then plants a drop piece. By the end of the novel Cassie has essentially become an extension of Cody which Box seems to paint as a good thing. I was basically horrified.
I can actually tell the audience for a lot of books by how their written. I’m kind of stunned that anyone would want to read the Box series — they’re basically the same kind of murder porn that far too many police procedurals are. I suppose they may call back to the Western in its setting and styles, except for the fact Box seems to be calling for some kind of ambiguity — in that everybody is horrible, especially the hero. At one point it’s mentioned that in the previous book Cody shot a pedophile and left him hanging alive in a national park. Cody not only shows no remorse but actually seems to want appreciation for the fact.
So let me put it bluntly. If you’ve seen Big Sky and you haven’t read the novels, don’t under any circumstances. They will introduce you into a world where the sun doesn’t shine and the badge is used as an excuse for more violence and corruption by the good guys. I haven’t usually approved of the liberties Kelley and his writers have done with the source material they did, even though I was a huge fan of both Nine Perfect Strangers and The Undoing. In the case of Big Sky, thank you, oh, thank you, for making a book that I would never read into a series I can’t stop watching.