Hello, everyone! I’m intrigued by the idea of failed book-to-screen adaptations. More often than not, it seems like these adaptations live and die on the strength of their adapter’s ability to understand the main themes of the source material. A series may have perfect casting, stunning cinematography, and a stellar screenplay, but if it can’t capture the original’s essence, it will inevitably fail to feel like a “true” adaptation. Among other problems, Nine Perfect Strangers’ main flaw is its complete disregard for the deeper meanings hidden in its source material. Where Liane Moriarty’s novel emphasized introspection, subtlety, and open-mindedness, Hulu’s TV adaptation relishes in the brash, salacious, and confrontational. Its A-List cast can’t save a show that’s too enamored with itself to actually adapt the novel that inspired it.
Synopsis: Nine strangers arrive at Tranquillum, a wellness resort run by the enigmatic Masha. Each dealing with their own personal demons, the strangers first struggle to adapt to Masha’s strict and invasive protocols, but soon warm up to her unconventional method of “healing.” But when Masha starts crossing boundaries, the nine guests must work together to solve their problems and keep Masha in control.
My thoughts: On the surface, Hulu’s adaptation seems just right. Set in a lush resort in Australia, the show has a dreamy, environmental, sun-soaked aesthetic, reminiscent of Big Little Lies, which is no surprise given that the series shares both a writer (David E. Kelley) and a Director of Photography (Yves Bélanger). The cast is stacked, from Nicole Kidman as the mystical Masha, to Michael Shannon as the bereaved father Napoleon, to Luke Evans as the handsome cynic Lars. Once you look beneath the surface, however, the show’s quality starts to crumble.
From the little things, like Nicole Kidman’s atrocious blonde wig, to the big things, like rewritten characters and plot points, the show feels “off.” Liane Moriarty’s novel was meandering and floaty, chapters of reminiscence and introspection connected by a loosely structured plot. Hulu’s show is rigid in its desire to focus on “events,” rather than character development. Instead of leaning into its source material’s understated tension, it pumps inflated conflict into every scene. An awkward encounter between two characters by the side of a road becomes an exaggerated shouting match. A day of reluctant fasting transforms into a day of starvation so acute that a character would rather kill a goat than wait for dinner. Meditations on the inevitability of death turn into a scene where Masha asks the guests to literally dig their own graves. Hidden crushes become passionate romance, secret thoughts become spoken words. Everything that is implicit in the novel is recited onscreen so that even the most tuned-out viewer can keep up.
Even worse than the butchered plot is the character revision. Every character is exaggerated into a caricature, and their backstories are revised so that their motivation no longer makes sense. An irritable former football player becomes a crude asshole, a neurotic romance writer becomes an obnoxious elite, and a couple trying to save their relationship are transformed into two bickering airheads. The most egregious example is Masha, who is changed from a survivor of a heart-attack to a survivor of a bullet wound. While the former near-death experience was a perfect explanation for Masha’s obsession with inner and outer health, the latter has no connection to Masha’s desire to impose perfection upon herself and her guests. The end result is a complete disconnect between the viewer and the characters. It’s difficult to care what happens to them when they are so difficult to relate to, so exaggerated in personality, and so inconsistent with their motivations.
The script itself is clunky, neglecting both established character development and an already written plot in order to create a more scandalously soapy tale than the novel ever attempted to tell. Only five episodes have been released, but the show has already deviated so substantially from the book that I’m unsure how the two can come together. Moriarty’s novel is about quiet healing, and how the search for “wellness” can actually lead to destruction. Hulu’s show is about nothing, really. It has all the pretty aesthetics of prestige dramas like Big Little Lies, but none of the subtlety, sophistication, or deeper meaning. It’s actually frustrating to me that Hulu would take a novel like Nine Perfect Strangers and strip it for parts. Maybe I would have liked it more if I hadn’t read the book, but as it stands, it seems superficial and pretentious in comparison. Why even adapt the story if they were going to change everything about it? In the end, it’s not an adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel, but a show that should have put “inspired by” in the opening credits. The only characteristics the two versions share are names and places, and once you see through the glow of the “prestige drama,” it’s just another show that cares more about the aesthetics than telling a good story.