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For anyone who’s ever had a toxic, just-can’t-quit-you type of relationship with a significant other, the new Hulu show Tell Me Lies might feel a little too familiar. Executive produced by Emma Roberts and based on the addictive novel by Carola Lovering, the series introduces us to Lucy Albright (Grace Van Patten), a twentysomething woman on her way to her college friend’s engagement party—only to find her biggest-deal ex, Stephen DeMarco (Jackson James White), also in attendance. The series then flashes back to Lucy’s first year of college and proceeds to show us exactly how Lucy and Stephen got involved—and what their relationship ultimately cost, not only the two of them but everyone else in their orbit.
In the way that the storyline closely tracks Lucy’s time at Baird College and the evolution of her relationship with Stephen, the Hulu series remains fundamentally faithful to its source material. From the first scene, though, it’s clear that showrunner Meaghan Oppenheimer isn’t afraid to make a few departures from Lovering’s book. So what tweaks were made in adapting Tell Me Lies for the small screen? Glad you asked.
Spoilers for both the book and series of Tell Me Lies follow.
Setting: In the book, Lucy and Stephen have relocated from the neighboring Long Island towns of Cold Harbor and Bayville (respectively) to attend Baird College in sunny Southern California. In the series, Lucy and Stephen are both still Long Islanders—but Baird College has been moved to New York State. It’s hard to tell exactly where the college is located, but given the characters’ semi-regular jaunts into NYC, we’d have to guess it’s no more than an hour or two north of the city.
Lucy’s relationship with food: We learn from almost the first page of the book that Lucy lives with a pretty severe eating disorder, and that she’s been struggling with it for quite some time. Throughout the novel, Lovering pulls no punches in describing the extent to which Lucy’s preoccupation with food shapes her life. In the series, however, little to no mention is made of Lucy’s relationship to food. In fact, this seems to be a complete nonissue for her.
Family matters: In the novel, Lucy comes from a well-off family in Cold Harbor, Long Island, and grew up surrounded by preppy teenage tennis players with their sights set on Ivy League colleges. Her dad is well-to-do, whereas her mother, CJ, comes from a less illustrious background and is very invested in her identity as a rich man’s wife. In the series, Lucy hails from the same affluent community, but her own family’s circumstances are a little less grand. CJ is a working mom, and Lucy—who, in the book, took tennis lessons during a pivotal high school summer—hasn’t spent much time courtside. Most significantly, her father, who passed away several years ago, was an army vet—not quite the high-flying financial professional he is in the novel.
While the big-picture changes are significant, the differences get a lot more pronounced as you watch the individual episodes. Here’s what each installment does differently from the novel.
A lot happens in the first episode: Lucy settles in at school, where she meets her soon-to-be besties and her new roommate—Macy Campbell. Lucy and Macy quickly bond with Pippa and Bree, who live in the room across the hall, and Pippa invites the girls to a junior-year party at her friend-with-benefits Wrigley’s house. There, Lucy meets Stephen—who seems to intrigue and alienate her in equal measure—as well as Diana, whom Lucy doesn’t yet know is Stephen’s on-again, off-again ex-girlfriend. Within days, the excitement of the new school year comes crashing to a halt—literally—when Macy dies in a car accident while driving home from an off-campus party.
- Bree getting married: In the book, Lucy is heading to Bree’s wedding (and plus-ones aren’t allowed unless engaged or married, so she’s flying solo). In the show, Lucy is on her way to Bree’s engagement party—and she leaves her boyfriend home on purpose, telling him it’s not a big enough deal for him to come, then lying to her friends at the party by saying that he was held up because of work.
- Rearranged roommates: In the book, Lucy shows up at Baird haunted by the death of a high school friend named Macy Peterson. Once there, she quickly forms a bond with her roommate, Jackie, who’s also from Long Island. In the first episode of the series, though, Lucy shows up to her dorm room to meet her new roommate—Macy Campbell. By the end of the episode, Macy dies just as she did in the book, making the trauma of her death a much fresher experience for Lucy than it was in the novel.
- Stephen’s mom: Stephen has a fraught relationship with his parents in both the book and the series. In the novel, that’s because his mom was severely mentally ill, and he hasn’t seen her since his dad—who’s still hung up on her—divorced her when Stephen was a teenager. In the series, Stephen’s mom is still a difficult woman, but it’s his dad who’s no longer in the picture: he tells Lucy that his dad left them when he was little, leaving his mom to raise him and his two siblings by herself.
- Wrigley’s brother: Wrigley is largely the same as he was in the book—warm, friendly, a little too into coke—but a prominent new addition is the addition of Drew, Wrigley’s little brother, who is also a freshman at Baird. (Wrigley makes no mention of any siblings in the novel.) Drew seems to hit it off with Bree, but that ends after he ghosts her following Macy’s death. Speaking of which, it becomes clear by the close of the episode that he knows more about the accident than he initially let on…
At the beginning of the episode, Drew tells Wrigley and Stephen exactly what he knows about Macy’s death—and Stephen advises him to keep it a secret. Meanwhile, Stephen and Lucy grow closer.
- Drew’s involvement: In tears, Drew admits that he was at an off-campus party the night Macy died, left to make an alcohol run—and swerved to avoid an oncoming car that appeared to come out of nowhere. The other car crashed, and Drew fled the scene without calling for help, only discovering later that the driver who crashed was Macy. This marks a significant departure from the book, in which Macy’s death took place while she and Lucy were still in high school, and Stephen was the only other person at Baird who ever knew her—let alone was affected by her death.
- Princess Diana: In the book, Lucy never really interacts with Diana, Stephen’s on-and-off ex. In the second episode, however, she attends a fundraiser thrown by Diana’s sorority, where she’s dismayed to learn that Diana is actually a genuinely sweet and kind person.
The secret of Drew’s involvement in Macy’s death starts to reach new people. Meanwhile, Stephen and Lucy are getting hot and heavy, but Stephen doesn’t want to be monogamous with her. (Probably because he’s secretly still trying to get back with Diana, though Lucy doesn’t know that.) He encourages her to see other people—and she decides to take him up on it. At home, Stephen is going through his old photos…including several naked pictures he took of Macy. Dun, dun, dun!
- Wrigley’s disability: We learn in this episode that Wrigley has a serious learning disability, but he apparently hasn’t told anyone in his life about it and is extremely reluctant to ask for testing accommodations. Just when it seems a failed midterm may force him off the football team, the sports-obsessed alumni association arranges for him to receive academic support in private.
- The bartender: While out getting drinks in town with Bree, Lucy meets a bartender named Max, who turns out to be the bar owner’s son. Bree heads back to campus, but Lucy stays behind—and winds up spending the night with Max, who doesn’t appear in the book at all.
- The truth gets out: After trying to make each other jealous at a party, Pippa and Wrigley get into a fight that only gets further complicated by Drew. When Drew drunkenly blurts out some cryptic comments in front of Pippa, Wrigley chases after her and tells her about where Drew was the night Macy died. Though Wrigley and Pippa ultimately make up and decide to date exclusively, she admits to him that she wishes he’d never told her.
While attempting to juggle secret relationships with both Lucy and Diana, Stephen goes to stay at Diana’s family’s place in Manhattan while interviewing for an important legal internship. He tells Lucy he’s actually staying at Evan’s parents’ house, but after he invites her to come join him in the city, Lucy begins to suspect that Stephen may be lying to her. Pippa and Wrigley have made their relationship official, but Pippa is deeply conflicted about hiding Drew’s involvement in Macy’s death. Meanwhile, Bree finally loses her virginity and begins exploring a newfound connection with Evan—as well as reconnecting with Drew.
- Stephen’s class anxiety: In the book, Stephen pursues a legal career with a single-mindedness born of his desire to escape the less-secure circumstances of his youth. He is determined to be rich, at any cost. In the series, Stephen is similarly concerned with setting himself up for success, but his family’s financial precarity is far more pronounced, and its effects on Stephen’s psyche are made clear. In his job interview, Stephen tries to present himself as more affluent than he actually is—a move that ultimately backfires and results in his tanking the interview. And when Lucy later accuses Stephen of hiding their relationship by only taking her on off-campus dates instead of to parties, he calls her spoiled for failing to consider that he comes from a less privileged background than hers—so the fact that he spends what money he has on dates actually matters. (Of course, two things can be true: after all, he is hiding their relationship from Diana…)
- Diana’s background: We know very little about Diana in the novel other than how Stephen feels about dating and sleeping with her. In the show, she gets to be a fully fleshed-out person—even if she seems unrealistically perfect. She clearly comes from money; her family’s New York City loft is massive, and after Stephen bombs his interview (and it seems she may have pulled some strings to get him in the first place), she takes on the responsibility of helping him find something else. Still, it’s clear that Stephen resents her privilege, even as she tries to leverage it to support him.
- Bree’s backstory: As written in the novel, Bree doesn’t have much to do, but that changes as a result of her expanded role in the series. In both the book and the show, Bree and Evan travel in the same circles. In contrast to the novel, where Stephen finally introduces them for the first time after everyone’s out of college, their first meeting in the show is a bit more awkward: Bree is hired as a nude model for Evan’s art class. They next bump into each other at the mailroom, where he sees her laughing at a postcard she’s received. This leads to a conversation in which Bree reveals that she’s a former foster kid—an element of her background that was not present in the book—and admits that she hasn’t told this to any of their other friends, not because she’s ashamed but because “they haven’t asked.”
Lucy and Stephen make loose plans to see each other over Christmas break, but those plans fall by the wayside as each gets caught up in family drama: Lucy stokes her resentment toward her mom while Stephen’s mother becomes determined to weasel her way back into her ex-husband’s life. Meanwhile, Lucy decides to go to Macy’s memorial service in Stephen and Macy’s nearby hometown of Bayville—where she finds evidence that Stephen and Macy were closer than he’s led her to believe.
- Stephen’s family: In the first episode, Stephen told Lucy that his mother, who raised him and his siblings alone after their dad left, is a difficult woman. (In the book, Stephen’s mother is the absent parent.) In this episode, we learn that this is an understatement. She guilt-trips her three children into centering their lives on her emotional whims, barely seems aware of her responsibilities as a parent, and has started stalking her kids’ father’s pregnant girlfriend. At least the kids are somewhat united in their efforts to survive her destructive ways: When Stephen’s little sister Sadie asks him for help applying to boarding school—an application process that requires a parent’s signature, but which the kids’ mom would never in a million years sign off on—Stephen blackmails their father into signing the forms, thereby giving Sadie an extra shot at getting out of their childhood home.
- CJ’s betrayal: In both versions of the story, Lucy’s disdain for her mother, CJ, runs deep. In the novel, her animosity can be traced back to the summer Lucy was 14, when she witnessed her married mother having an affair with Gabe Petersen, Lucy’s 22-year-old tennis coach and crush (and Macy’s older brother). In the series, CJ is a widow, and her betrayal is even more heart-wrenching: Three years ago, when Lucy’s dad was dying of cancer, CJ had an affair with his best friend Jake. Now, while on holiday break, Lucy is horrified to discover that CJ has seemingly been spending time with Jake again.
- Diana and Wrigley: While the book implies that Stephen has introduced his family to Diana, it’s unclear how much she knows about his fraught relationship with his parents. In this episode, however, it’s clear when Stephen calls Diana for emotional support that she has at least some understanding of what he’s going through. She surprises him with a visit to his mom’s house, and after sex, she shares some information that didn’t exist in the novel: During Welcome Week their freshman year, Diana and Wrigley hooked up. She thinks the story is funny and inconsequential, especially now that two and a half years have passed, but one look at Stephen’s face makes it clear that he isn’t amused.
Keely Weiss is a writer and filmmaker. She has lived in Los Angeles, New York, and Virginia and has a cat named after Perry Mason.