Nicole Kidman's New Drama 'The Undoing' Is Based on a Beloved Book

Jenny Hollander
·5 min read

From Marie Claire

Much like Nicole Kidman and David E. Kelley's last HBO vehicle, Big Little Lies, their drama The Undoing is based on a beloved book: Jean Hanff Korelitz's "You Should Have Known." The series is a looser adaptation of the source material than Big Little Lies was, but the characters of The Undoing are based on those in "You Should Have Known," and at least the first episode bears a strong resemblance to the book. Both book and series revolve around Grace and Jonathan, a therapist and pediatric oncologist, respectively, whose lives are torn apart by a terrible crime. Spoilers for episode one of The Undoing ahead, as well as spoilers for the book You Should Have Known as they pertain to episde one.

Ahead, some of the most notable similarities and distinctions between The Undoing and its source material (which, I should note, is a great book in its own right, and well worth a read whether you're enjoying the series or not).

What's the same: The family unit of Grace, Jonathan, and Henry Sachs.

The central family of The Undoing bear the same names and many of the same traits as those in "You Should Have Known." There's Grace, a therapist born and bred in New York City, whose specializes in relationship therapy and considers it her duty to tell her clients when they're in prisons of their own making. Then we have Jonathan, a charming pediatric oncologist who is a loving husband to Grace and father to Henry. Henry, meanwhile, is a young violin student who goes to a private school in New York called Rearden, tuition of which is paid for by Grace's wealthy father.

Photo credit: NIKO TAVERNISE - HBO
Photo credit: NIKO TAVERNISE - HBO

But other characters in The Undoing—specifically Sylvia, Grace's other friends from Rearden, and Grace's father—are quite different from how they're portrayed in the book. For example, Grace's father is fairly meek and happily married in the novel, whereas in the series he's a larger-than-life character who doesn't appear to be in a relationship.

What's different: The character of Elena.

This is a key difference. Jean Hanff Korelitz's version of Elena is called Malaga Alves, and she's considerably less young and beguiling than the HBO version. Malaga Alves seems similar to "Elena" in that she's also the mother to a young son and infant daughter, but Elena is a very different personality: Elena has agency, for one, whether Malaga never seems to. Malaga also doesn't display sexually provocative behavior around Grace—I'm talking about the gym and elevator scenes, to be clear, not the breastfeeding scene— that is shown in The Undoing.


There are a few likely reasons Malaga became Elena. First, Malaga has come under fire for being a Latinx stereotype. Secondly, this a gorgeous, glossy TV show, and Elena is a young, gorgeous, glossy woman who appears naked in literally her second scene; Malaga, meanwhile, is older and less overtly sexualized. Third, Malaga has only a small role in the book, and in the series it's immediately clear she's a key character.

What's the same: The tragedy that defines the series.

I'm going to be deliberately vague here in case you haven't gotten to this scene in episode one, but the trajectory of the series is based on a horrific event that occurs. This event occurs in the book, in very similar circumstances. It's something that Grace finds out about in episode one and in the early chapters of the book, and it's a violent and appalling event that dictates the rest of both the series and the book.

What's different: Grace's self-help book.

In "You Should Have Known," the title is a reference to the self-help book Grace is writing. This is one of the central conceits of the book: That Grace, a woman writing a self-help book specifically about how "you should have known" the core traits of your partner before you committed to them, finds herself in her current situation. The Grace of the book lives by central tenet of the self-help book she's writing: That before you marry a person, you know their worst traits, and you know what you're getting into—even if you convince yourself later that you didn't.

The self-help book is entirely left out of the series. Though Grace of the series has the same profession and displays a "you should have known"-esque attitude to bad relationships, there is no book.

What's the same: The story about Jonathan and the dog.

Something that seems innocuous at first but later reveals itself to be telling in the book: Jonathan's aversion to dogs. In "You Should Have Known," Jonathan won't let Henry get a dog, because his childhood dog escaped while on Jonathan's watch and the event turned Jonathan's family against him.


This same story is told in the series. In the very first scene of the Sachs family unit, we see Jonathan and Henry go head-to-head about whether they can get a dog, and Jonathan insists he's allergic. Later in the first episode, Henry confides in his mother that he doesn't think his father is truly allergic to dogs. Grace agrees, and shares with her son that Jonathan was shunned by his family after the death of their beloved dog.

What's different: Jonathan is not British.

There's no great mystery as to why this change was made. Jonathan of the book is American, and was born and raised just a couple of hours away from Grace.

In the series, of course, Jonathan is played by Hugh Grant. While I have no doubt that Hugh Grant could do an American accent, I gotta say that seeing Hugh Grant do an American accent and try to pass it off as normal would be...a major distraction. It makes far more sense for Jonathan of the series to be British and to have settled in New York.

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