This book adaption is set ablaze. (Spoilers ahead)
In Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng earnestly presents issues of race, class, and gender in a novel about motherhood. Everyone and their mother loves this book and everyone seems to have an opinion on it. Ng crafts these beautifully honest dialogues into small interwoven plot lines that set her writing apart from that of its book club genre. On March 18th, Hulu dropped Ng’s brainchild as a TV mini-series starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington as the matriarch leads.
A quick synopsis for you if you haven’t read the novel: set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Elena Richardson and her perfect family remain the town’s starlet do-gooders-with the exception of her black sheep of a daughter, Izzy. Izzy is Elena’s wild child whose rebelling and anarchist ways drive her crazy. New in town, Mia Warren, a reticent artist and her daughter Pearl, rent out the Richardsons’ spare duplex and begin to share life with the Richardson’s. Mia’s and Pearl’s unconventional ways of living begin to infiltrate Elena’s ever-planned lifestyle. Meanwhile in Shaker, a controversial adoption of a Chinese baby girl reveals Mia’s past, Elena’s values, and the foils of both of their families.
Hulu over-dramatizes everything. Comparatively, the show features way more slamming doors, yelling matches, and crying hysteria than in the book, but personally I eat that stuff up for breakfast. I find that the show is very separate from the book. In the book, the real “little fires” are the tense conversations between the characters. These conversations are uncomfortable and make you sweat, but also make you turn the page. In the show, there’s no real balance of the drama. At the end of each episode the picture sequences move too fast to comprehend with no incline of tension over the series. Every episode feels like the climax. As a viewer, I never really felt like I could come up for air.
Acting does not fall short in this series; the producers stacked the cast. Washington’s steely facial expressions and slow responses capture Mia perfectly. Although, the book differs heavily in character decisions. A scene worth mentioning is how Mia handled Lexi’s despair over her abortion. Lexi wanted Mia’s opinion and solace about her choice and instead of giving her sage advice Mia angrily tells off Lexi for acting entitled. Of course, Lexi did put down Pearl’s name at the clinic—still, there was supposed to be a certain kind of acceptance Lexi finds in Mia. In the show’s finale, Mia smugly exposes Lexi’s secret to Elena. I find this out of character for Mia, I thought she would respect Lexi’s privacy despite her dislike for Elena.
Opposite to Mia, Witherspoon as Elena is an excellent choice. I was worried her role would be too similar to her character in Big Little Lies. But Witherspoon doesn’t disappoint and changes up Elena’s mannerisms giving her an uncertain awkwardness. In the book, I think Elena is more put together and unapologetically self-righteous. The show shares more of Elena’s backstory and ultimately her cowardness of not going against the grain of a suburban bored lifestyle—leaving her to “help others” to make her life bearable. To no surprise, the show writers let Elena expose the truth about Pearl’s parents to Pearl (in the book Mia tells Pearl in a calm manner). Pearl lashes out at Mia, sending Mia into a breakdown. In the book, I think Pearl shows more respect to Mia. In the show, she fits in way too perfectly right away with the Richardsons and ends up acting bratty. I size Pearl up pretty quickly because she seems to have more maturity in the books.
Megan Stott, who plays Izzy, has this pre-teen sass down to a T. What differs in the show is that the show plays up Izzy’s sexuality as a new story line. In the book, Izzy pulls pranks, mouths off to her teachers, and stands up to bullies. In the show, Izzy’s one-liners contradict her mom’s biased and patronizing rhetoric. When Elena condemns Izzy for wearing cut off shorts to her violin concert, Elena tells Izzy, “If you follow the rules you’ll succeed.” Izzy smartly replies, “Succeed in what? Profiling?”
Originally the book reveals that Izzy is the one who starts the fire and lights up the house, yet in the show’s finale the writers decide to let all the Richardson kids in on some arsonary action.
Izzy starts spreading turpentine all over her unwanted clothes in a moment of panic. And after a blow up fight with Elena revealing that she never wanted Izzy, Izzy makes her grand exit by running out into the snow. Next, Lexie screams at her mom admitting to her abortion then desperately urges the boys to help light the house on fire so they don’t become like their mother and lead a similar life to hers. I thought this was an awesome moment of sibling camaraderie. Queue the pyrotechnics!
In the final moments of the show, Elena stumbles upon Mia’s studio full of stranded art pieces which display Shaker from Mia’s perspective. The scene is full of close up shots of Elena looking at the photographs and art with a voiceover of Pearl reciting her poetry. The art and poem illustrate a bird in a cage analogy nodding at Richardson’s internal realities. I do think the ending provides a dose of hope that the Richardson family can rise from the ashes of their burnt life and start over.
I could write so much more commentary about the show because there’s so many other thematic details that were brought to life. From the marital problems between Elena and Bill, to the well-executed court scenes and problematic political-correctness of it all, Little Fires Everywhere achieves its purpose in igniting new, engrossing conversations.