Little Fires Everywhere: From Page to Screen

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Promotional poster for Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere miniseries.

Last week saw the release of the final episode in Hulu’s 8-part Little Fires Everywhere miniseries, based on the 2018 Ohioana Award winning novel by Celeste Ng. As big fans of Ng and all things Ohio literature related, the staff at Ohioana were very excited for the show. Ng’s novel, originally released in 2017, takes place in the late 1990s and is set in the Cleveland, Ohio suburb of Shaker Heights. Upon release, the book became an instant bestseller and was featured on many “best of 2017” end-of-year booklists. The miniseries has now garnered praise and popularity, as illustrated by the concurrent rise of the novel to the become the #1 title on the New York Times fiction best seller list from the weeks of April 12-April 25. Upon watching Hulu’s adaption, it’s not hard to see what people are loving about it – from new viewers to established fans of Ng’s novel.

One of Little Fires Everywhere’s first fans was actor Reese Witherspoon, known for her extensive filmography in movies such as Legally Blond and Gone Girl, and more recently for her starring role in the television adaptation of Big Little Lies. Witherspoon is also an avid reader and hosts a book club online – picking a book each month for fans to read along with her. Little Fires Everywhere was Witherspoon’s pick for September 2017 and on her website she gave it a rave review, saying: “This story of two families in Ohio moved me to tears. Celeste Ng writes with stunning accuracy about the power of motherhood, the intensity of teenage love and the danger of perfection – and the fire that destroys it all. To say I love this book is an understatement!”


Cover of Little Fires Everywhere.

Witherspoon discovered Little Fires Everywhere and began plans for a limited series adaptation before the book’s official publication. It was only a few short months after picking the book for her book club that it was announced on March 2, 2018 that the miniseries was officially in production, with Witherspoon starring. Witherspoon, co-star Kerry Washington, Lauren Neustadter, and Pilar Stone were announced as executive producers of the show, with Liz Tegelaar as writer and showrunner. Celeste Ng was also brought on as a producer and consultant for the show. Joshua Jackson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jade Pettyjohn, Lexi Underwood, Megan Stott, Gavin Lewis and Jordan Elsass were then cast to also star in the series.

The miniseries consists of 8 episodes and makes good use of every minute of that time, giving careful attention to each detail of the story and building a narrative that is emotionally investing and tense. Fans of the book will be happy to find that the miniseries is quite true to the plot and pacing of the novel, with a few key differences. For those who are not familiar with the premise: the story begins when Mia (Washington), an artist and single mother, and her daughter Pearl (Underwood) move to Shaker Heights, Ohio. They rent an apartment from a well-to-do family called the Richardsons – Elena (Witherspoon) and Bill (Jackson) with children Lexie (Pettyjohn), Trip (Elsass), Moody (Lewis), and Izzy (Stott) – who live in the wealthiest part of Shaker Heights. Eventually the members of each family become inextricably tangled in the lives of each other and that of Bebe Chow (Huang Lu), a poor immigrant mother who is trying to win back custody of her daughter who is being adopted by a family friend of Elena’s. The story explores topics of inequality, motherhood, sexuality, immigration, friendship and family relationships.


Celeste Ng with Ohioana Board President Daniel Shuey at the 2018 Ohioana Awards.

Little Fires Everywhere presents a familiar setting – and not just to those of us who are intimately acquainted with Shaker Heights and Ohio. The setting of 1990s suburban Ohio might be enjoyably recognizable to those of us Ohioana who watch it (though the series was actually filmed in California) but the scenarios that take place and the superb acting that bring the characters and story to life are what really give the series its shine. One of the most notable aspects of Ng’s novel was the ensemble-cast style form of storytelling – each character was given sufficient time in the limelight, their story examined and empathized with, their flaws brought into realistic and sometimes uncomfortable clarity.

The miniseries captures this feeling of character study excellently. Witherspoon and Washington are particularly captivating in their leading roles, often acting as opposing forces against each other. Witherspoon as Elena Richardson is fantastic as the upper-class mother of four, shiny and perfect – until she is forced to confront the things she doesn’t want to think about. Kerry Washington plays the creative, headstrong and fiercely loving Mia Warren convincingly – and shows the darker aspects of the character just as authentically.

As mentioned, a few differences do exist in the book versus the miniseries, a choice that can often risk alienating fans of the source material. However, the changes in Little Fires Everywhere truly seem to enhance the themes of the story and were done with Ng’s input and consultation. The first big change is that Mia and Pearl Warren are black, whereas in the book their race was never specified. Ng, who is Asian American, had initially wanted to write Mia and Pearl as people of color, but didn’t feel it was her place to tell that story (Atlantic). Though issues of race are explored in the novel, adding in this detail about the Warrens adds a new aspect that further complicates the relationship between the Warren and Richardson families.


Celeste Ng at the 2018 Ohioana Awards.

The second change that fans of the novel will notice is that the ending of the miniseries diverges significantly. An interesting aspect of this change is that it seems to better set up the series for a continuation of the story. Though the novel has no sequel, and at this time there are no official plans for a second season, the miniseries has gained significant enthusiasm and popularity that indicates that viewers would like to see more. Regardless, the Little Fires Everywhere miniseries proves itself as a beautiful adaptation of Ng’s work that both acts as a companion to the novel and stands alone very well.

Have you watched Little Fires Everywhere? If you’ve read the book, how do you think the miniseries compares? Would you like to see the story continue in a second season? We would love to hear your thoughts! Please share with us in the comments of this blog post or write to us on our social media platforms.

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Sources: https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/03/little-fires-everywhere-hulu-series-pivotal-change-from-novel/609151/