Culture

‘Everyone Has a Stephen’: Tell Me Lies Author and Showrunner Break Down the Hulu Adaptation

Spoilers for both the book and Season 1 of Tell Me Lies ahead.

Most people have That Ex. No, not the “one who got away,” the other one: the one you kept breaking up with, only to disappoint all your friends by getting back together less than a week later; the one who made you doubt your own perspective on the relationship; the one you can’t stop thinking about, but for all the wrong reasons. In case you’re one of the lucky few who don’t know what I’m talking about, Tell Me Lies, the new Hulu series based on the book by Carola Lovering, brings that exact type of toxic relationship to vivid, unflinching life. Starring Grace Van Patten and Jackson White, Tell Me Lies follows college freshman Lucy (Van Patten) as she gets sucked into a fraught and all-consuming romance with junior Stephen (White).

In the novel, the story of this relationship plays out almost entirely inside both characters’ heads: Cutting between the two points of view, the book steeps readers in Lucy and Stephen’s innermost thoughts. Adapting such an insular story into an ensemble-led TV series is no easy feat—but showrunner Meaghan Oppenheimer pulled it off with aplomb, turning Lovering’s novel into a visually propulsive show populated by a rich cast of characters, all while preserving the core themes of the book. We got together with Oppenheimer and Lovering over Zoom to discuss the adaptation process, the impact that formative romantic relationships like Lucy and Stephen’s can have on our lives, and that jaw-dropping finale scene.

What can you tell me about the initial process of adapting the book?

Meaghan Oppenheimer: What I loved about the book was the emotions were so real and so raw, and Carola went to this place that is very full of shame and very full of a lot of humiliating feelings that you think but you don’t say, even to your closest friends, and I just had such a strong reaction to it. So I really wanted the show to be truthful to that emotional core, but it was about figuring out, what’s the structure, how does that work for television? There were multiple timelines in the book and it’s hard to do that many visually, because it can get a bit confusing, so I had to streamline that.

Carola Lovering: Meaghan did the most brilliant job seamlessly adapting the book to TV, and I’m so in awe. I signed on as a consulting producer, which basically means that I was sort of available throughout the process if anyone had questions about the book, but I really wasn’t involved on a day-to-day basis in the writing or the filming of the show. In the very beginning, [executive producer Karah Preiss] and I had some conversations about what my vision would be for a show and what kinds of things would I want to stay true to the book, and what I remember saying mostly is that I just wanted the emotional themes in the book to stay there. I really think that Meaghan and everyone involved has done such an incredible job with that—like, the depiction of a toxic relationship in a real, raw way is totally there, and the dysfunction between Lucy and Stephen is there, and the emotional isolation and shame that Lucy feels is there. I have trusted Karah from day one since we sat down and got coffee and talked about this, and I think because I have that trust in Karah I knew that whoever she brought onto the project was gonna be great. I remember Meaghan and I had a Zoom very early on.

Oppenheimer: It was right before we started the writers’ room, which was great. As the person adapting it, your worst nightmare is that you’ve failed the author of the book. I’m such a book lover, I worship authors, and I think Carola’s amazing. It would have been my worst nightmare if she did not like the pilot, and it was so lovely having that Zoom with you and hearing your enthusiasm about the pilot script and you were just so, yeah, so supportive and really—I felt like I got your blessing with the way that it was going, and it meant so much to me.

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How did you decide what elements to keep faithful on a literal level versus what elements needed to be altered?

Oppenheimer: I had to decide, just from the get-go, what is this show? And at its core, it’s really the deconstruction of this toxic relationship. What I loved about the book was that you get both sides of the story, and I did feel like it still needed to be Lucy’s show at the end of the day, but I was very excited by the two-hander aspect of the book. One of the things that I felt like we needed to kind of change a bit was expanding the world outside of Lucy and Stephen, because it would have been just a little too much if it was just on them the whole time, so I had to kind of flesh out some of the ensemble characters and give them their own stories that had not existed in the book. But there were some key moments in the book that were just so visually amazing. I think Lucy’s sexual awakening in the book was a really, really important part of it. I think there is something about those first sexual experiences when you’re that age that knocks you off your feet, and I thought the book captured that so well, and I really wanted to keep that. And I love how Carola depicted Lucy’s depression. I have depression myself, and in the book there’s a scene in the therapist’s office where he says, “Stephen didn’t make you depressed, he brought you temporarily out of it, and then the comedown is making it even worse,” and that really resonated with me from my past relationships. So, I really wanted to keep Lucy’s mental state and the sexual awakening aspect of it. And then there’s the scene at the Hawaiian party that’s in the book, and it’s so mind-blowingly awful for Lucy that I was like, “We have to finish the season with this, ‘cause it’s so visual and such a gut punch.” Honestly, every time I watch the finale now, I giggle evilly at that scene ‘cause it’s just so brutal, and it’s pretty much exactly how it was in the book.

Can we talk about the decision to replace Macy with Jackie and move that storyline into college?

Oppenheimer: It wasn’t my intention to have Macy replace Jackie, initially—I had just taken Jackie out because I felt like we had enough ensemble best friends with Pippa and Bree—but then making Macy into Lucy’s roommate was sort of two birds with one stone. I thought [Macy’s death] was such a great storyline, but I needed it to be in the present because I didn’t want that many timelines going on. And with the ramifications of the friend group, I just thought making that storyline part of the whole group experience would be a cool addition. I went through a period of time from 18 to 22 where I had multiple friends die, and for a lot of us it was the first time we experienced the death of a peer. There’s something very interesting and weird that happens to a friend group that goes through something like that together, and you get kind of tied emotionally to people that maybe you shouldn’t be tied to forever.

Lovering: I think it made a lot of sense and was really smart to bring that Macy storyline into the college and just make it all a bit more cohesive. It just made the stakes feel a little higher for everyone involved in a way that it didn’t in the book. I remember talking to Karah about the importance in a show like this of having a real ensemble feel, and it wasn’t like that as much in the book—it was more just Lucy-Stephen, and the friends were more in the background. What Meaghan did by kind of bringing this group of friends together and giving the show more of an ensemble vibe really works for the screen and will be fun for viewers. It’s funny, though, because Jackie was loosely based on my best friend from college, so she’s always like, “What happened to Jackie? Where’s Jackie?”

Oppenheimer: That’s so awful! I feel terrible about that.

Lovering: She’s like, “Maybe Jackie will come back season 2?”

Oppenheimer: We could have a Jackie season 2; you never know! We definitely will have to bring some new people in.

tell me lies    “lightning strikes”   episode 101    lucy starts her freshman year at baird college, where an unexpected turn of events during welcome week flips her life upside down macy lily mcinerny, shown photo by josh stringerhulu

Lily McInerny as Macy.

Josh Stringer/Hulu

I think it added to Lucy’s feelings of isolation that the Macy thing was a private memory for her in the book, but the ensemble becomes so much more necessary in the show because it’s such a visual medium and you can’t see inside Lucy’s head.

Oppenheimer: Yeah. There was a period of time where I was wondering if we should have voiceover, because I loved so much of the internal dialogue in the book. Some of the pieces of dialogue from Stephen were just so great, just biting—I’ve never been a Stephen, but I’ve certainly dated a Stephen, and those little soundbites from his brain felt so accurate. So I did consider putting in voiceover for a bit, but then I figured it’s better to keep some things hidden and not always know what they’re thinking for the screen.

Lovering: Yeah, but you can insinuate a lot of the time what Stephen’s thinking, especially if you’ve had an experience like that, which I think so many people have. And I know Meaghan tried to humanize him a bit more for the show, and I think that was also a great decision.

Stephen does feel a lot more sympathetic in the show, whereas in the book he feels like a textbook sociopath.

Oppenheimer: I think it was kind of a two-part thing. In the book, Lucy doesn’t know everything he’s thinking, so we understand in the book why she falls for him. She’s definitely getting some really shitty behavior from him, but she’s not aware how bad he is because she can’t be inside his brain. And he was charming to her—he was really good at love bombing. He didn’t always seem like a bad guy. So we needed the audience to be able to be fooled along with Lucy, and I think that if he had just been completely bad all the time, the audience would have had a hard time rooting for Lucy. It would have been like, “Why on earth are you doing this?!” because he’d have to be doing enough externally to show how bad he was, because we don’t have the benefit of the internal dialogue. But also on a practical level, hopefully it’s an ongoing TV show with multiple seasons, and if he’s the male lead, it’s kind of closed-ended if he has no ability to feel empathy and goodness. There was just more to play with if it’s not that he has no ability to feel empathy, it’s that he has locked those feelings down as a survival mechanism. For me, it’s always easier for me to write my characters if I am not judging them or if I have something about them that makes me forgive them, and I just don’t know if the audience would have been able to stomach a love story about that.

In the book, Lucy’s eating disorder is a really big theme, pretty much from the first page. What made you decide to eliminate that from the show?

Oppenheimer: I can be really honest. The main reason I took it out is that the book was such an accurate depiction of eating disorders, and I have a history with eating disorders myself, so I was like, “I just can’t spend that much time in this headspace.” Reading the book where she’s losing all the weight and she’s counting everything, it definitely flared up some feelings in me, because an eating disorder is a form of addiction. Also, I think it’s one thing to read about an eating disorder, but it’s really hard to put it onscreen without to some degree glamorizing it, because what am I gonna do, tell Grace that she has to start losing weight? In the book, she is whittling down—she’s literally shrinking alongside her mental health—and so I didn’t think that there’d be a way to put that on the screen visually without being a little bit irresponsible.

Lovering: I also think it would have really taken over in a big way, and it would have sort of taken away from other things. Especially with Lucy, it could have just swallowed her identity in a way that would have been just a little too much, I think. The word triggering is overused these days, but I think that it’s very triggering.

Oppenheimer: The funny thing about eating disorders is that with any other type of addiction, you just cut the substance out of your life. You don’t have to have any kind of dialogue with it. If you’re an alcoholic, you don’t have liquor; if you’re a drug addict, you don’t have drugs. But you have to eat, so even if you’re recovered, every single day you’re having this dialogue about food, about this thing that you have such a fraught relationship with, and so it’s just something I worry about putting onscreen. But I thought it was so well-done in the book, I can’t even tell you. It was so accurate.

The show does hint at other characters’ struggles with addiction, so there are definitely doors to explore addiction in other ways as the show continues.

Oppenheimer: Absolutely. I think that that is something we’ll be able to dive more into in future seasons—definitely with Wrigley’s character for sure. I mean, the whole show in a way is about addiction, because Lucy is completely addicted to Stephen. One thing I loved about the book was how Lucy becomes such a bad friend because of this relationship, which is just so real. She is so emotionally absent from what is happening with a lot of her friends, so you can imagine that those characters in the book had their own stuff going on, and Lucy just was so tunnel-focused on Stephen that she’s not aware. The idea of what happens behind closed doors, what are the other people keeping a secret, I thought that was just a fun thing to play with. And I loved Wrigley in the book. At first you think he’s just going to be this obnoxious guy, but he ends up not being that.

Lovering: He has a big heart. I love what you did in the show with how Wrigley was this big player and had hooked up with every girl on campus, but he really genuinely cares about Pippa. I loved Episode 3’s focus on Wrigley, and I love in general how you kind of honed in on a different character in each episode.

tell me lies    “merry fcking christmas”   episode 105    lucy and stephen go home for winter break and deal with family tension meanwhile, lucy uncovers a secret lucy grace van patten and stephen jackson white, shown photo by josh stringerhulu

Grace Van Patten and Jackson White as Lucy and Stephen.

Josh Stringer/Hulu

What are your hopes for the future of the show and a possible season 2?

Oppenheimer: Who knows what will happen. It would be amazing to have three or four seasons of this. I’d love to see them through college, but I’d also love to see more of their adult years. I think it’s interesting seeing Lucy after falling off of “Stephen Mountain” and playing with what happens when they do meet again in the future. Is she able to stay away from him? Probably not, and in future seasons we will start to go a little bit more frequently between the two timelines and explore the adult years more as well.

Lovering: I would love for the show to go on for as long as Meaghan wants to keep creating seasons. [Laughs] It’s also such a gift to watch the story reach more people through the screen. I also think watching more of their lives would be really interesting. In the very beginning of the pilot, when you see Lucy doing her hair at Bree’s, she says to Pippa, “I invited Max, but he couldn’t come,” which was a total lie. Even at that adult age, she’s still being dishonest with herself, she’s still being dishonest with her best friends, so I just think there’s a lot more to mine there and explore.

Oppenheimer: I’m just so grateful to Carola for writing this book, honestly. Even just as a reader, it hit so close to home, and I wish I’d read it when I was 18. It would have maybe saved me from a lot of really bad decisions. [Laughs] No one’s written a book like this about that dynamic, especially one that’s so accessible to younger readers as well. Whenever people normally write about this age group, they don’t take them really seriously. There’s sort of this idea that those relationships when you’re 18 don’t affect you, but they’re so important, and they’re so impactful and those habits are so hard to unlearn.

Lovering: Thank you so much. I’m so glad I wrote it when I did, because I really don’t think I would be able to write it now. I had a Stephen too, and it was all pretty fresh when I wrote the book, and I think that’s kind of why I was able to be so honest and so visceral with it. You’re right, people say, “Oh, college, being 18, whatever,” but it does matter, and I definitely know people who have gotten stuck in a place in their lives at that age, and it can be hard to untangle yourself from these addictions and these unhealthy habits.

Oppenheimer: You know what’s so funny? Our joke about the show is that everyone has a Stephen, but my first week in the writers’ room, my texts popped up on my computer, and we were on Zoom, so everyone could see my face. It was a text message from my Stephen from so long ago, and it was such a rude—my face was just—I was floored. Everyone in the writers’ room was like, “What just happened,” and I was like, “I just got a text from my Stephen.” They were like, “Read it! Read it!” So I did and they were all like, “Ewww!”

Lovering: Yeah, everyone has a Stephen to some degree. That’s crazy—so he still texts you?!

Oppenheimer: Once a year. I’m like, dude, you’re barking up the wrong tree!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.