Why The Undoing Was A Flawed Adaptation
Let’s get the good stuff out of the way first: I thought as a work of television, HBO’s The Undoing was exceptionally well done. The performances, particularly those of Nicole Kidman, Hugh Grant and Donald Sutherland were works of art, the writing and directing were superb, and David E. Kelley managed to create a great deal of tension into a work where we knew the solution to the mystery pretty much by the end of the first episode. That’s all great television.
Usually when there is an adaptation of a best selling book to television, I go out of my way not to have read the book, out of fear that it will prejudice my opinion as a critic and spoil the drama for me as a viewer. I didn’t do so with The Good Lord Bird or Little Fires Everywhere, both of which are different in significant ways from book form to TV. In this case, however, I didn’t have much choice. A few years earlier, I read You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz and was impressed by it. I figured Kelley, as has been his want with adapting literature, would make some creative changes of his own. What I’m not sure of this time is whether the changes served either the book or the series well.
(Warning: spoilers ahead.)
The setup for You Should Have Known is basically the same as it is for The Undoing. Grace Fraser is a very successful New York therapist, whose husband is a very good pediatric oncologist. They have a good marriage, a young son, and they seem to be happy. And in the first episode, Grace has a brief meeting in which she meets Elena and finds her odd. Soon after, her husband leaves for a conference in Cleveland, Elena is found murdered, and her husband is unreachable.
However, this is where The Undoing fundamentally becomes a different story. In the book, Grace is successful in her field dealing with adulterous relationship. Indeed, the title of the novel is based on a book she has just written about it, and that she is on the verge of beginning a significant publicity spread for when the murder happens. After Jonathan disappears, he basically remains offstage for the majority of the novel. The major relationship in the book is between Grace and the detective investigating Elena’s murder, and his deep suspicion of how Grace could not have known about her husband affair and secret life.
The story about the affair, Jonathan’s dismissal from the hospital, and his relationship with his family are all fundamentally the same as the series, but much of the novel deals with Grace’s own trauma as she realizes that she, an expert in infidelities and the lies our partners tell us, has been completely bamboozled in her own home life. She comes to realize that not only is her husband a sociopath, but that he has managed to completely isolated and her son from having friends or any other real relationships. The trial that is the center of The Undoing barely comes in at all. The big revelations come when Grace finally confronts Jonathan after the police arrest him near the end of the novel.
In a sense, you can see that a more faithful adaptation to the source could have been just as compelling: watching Grace come to the realization that her life was a lie on her own would have been right in Kelley’s wheelhouse. If Jonathan would have been absent from the main action, it could certainly have been done just as effectively in flashback.
Now, no one is saying that Kelley doesn’t have the right to go his own way when it comes to adapting a complicated story. That may have been one of the reasons he collaborated with Susanne Bier: a few years ago, she took over a complicated novel (John Le Carre’s The Night Manager) and helped make several fundamental changes to the book that made it far more palatable to a modern audience. And it’s hard to argue the changes weren’t effective, particularly when it came to the characters of Jonathan and Grace’s father. Grant gave a performance that was so fundamentally antithetical to his persona that is truly brilliant, and Sutherland’s work was yet another triumph in a career full of them. It certainly worked for HBO as a whole: the ratings for the final episode were the highest they’ve been for an HBO program since the Season 2 finale of Big Little Lies last year.
Yet despite all of that, I’m disappointed. I don’t if a more faithful adaptation of You Should Have Known would’ve worked as well or better than The Undoing did. What I do know is that Kelley’s took what was a fundamentally original thriller and turned it into something a bit more conventional. Why did we have to spend so much time on false leads for a murder that we knew the solution to? Why did so much of the story have to center on a trial? And why did the ending have to be done is a way that seemed frankly, improbable and a bit more forced?
Don’t get me wrong: like I said, The Undoing was a superb limited series. However, I can’t in good conscience consider at the level of much of HBO’s and Kelley’s work. As a character study, it worked as well as some of the best programming I’ve seen this year. As an adaptation of a brilliant work, I think it was flawed.
Final Score: 4.25 stars.