Right from the beginning of Hulu’s adaptation of Celeste Ng’s best-selling novel Little Fires Everywhere, the author saw the series take on a vital new direction by making one of its two leads a Black woman who moves with her daughter to an affluent, white Ohio suburb.
Played by Kerry Washington, Mia Warren’s appearance in Shaker Heights quickly rustles through the small town and she and her daughter become entangled with the wealthy Richardson family after matriarch Elena (Reese Witherspoon) becomes intrigued by the newcomers. By establishing Mia as a Black character, the eight-part series of Little Fires Everywhere dove into tense discussions on race and privilege in America, as well as honest conversations on class and parenthood.
Ng, an executive producer on the series, stepped into the adaptation carefully, allowing the showrunner and writers to take the lead but offering herself as a reference for the world she had created. “I was there as a reference book for them to really understand who the characters were and once they had that information, they could really figure out what the right ending could be,” Ng explains.
The author breaks down why the series presented a more explosive relationship between its main characters, how she and the writers created consistency with the town of Shaker Heights and why the new ending was the right outcome for the show.
Q: The series does deviate a fair amount from your novel, but the world of Shaker Heights that you established was brought to the screen pretty faithfully from the book. Was that by design?
A: Shaker Heights is really one of the characters in the book, almost as much as the humans, and that was what they wanted in the show as well. We’re really making a show about a particular kind of place, a neighborhood really governed by the rules, and they put in a lot of effort making Shaker Heights as accurate as they could. The writers actually got copies and yearbooks of the Shaker magazine, a magazine that Shaker Heights writes about local residents and what’s going on in local news, and Shaker Heights history for Shaker Heights people. I read the scripts and gave them Shaker notes and anything that didn’t feel like it was Shaker Heights. We really had to get that aspect of the story right because that’s the overarching tone for who the characters are and all the stage that this takes place, it’s the context for everything that happens.
When I started writing the book, I started because I wanted to write about this place in particular, and this place as it reflects on many other places in America, so it really came out of trying to make a portrait of Shaker Heights in its positive and less positive ways. Because they were so faithful to that depiction of it from the book, everything else that came in felt really organic to me. I trusted them and they had such a clear vision of what the place was and who these characters were that even though the plot changes, they stay true to the characters.
Q: Mia and Pearl’s relationship is much more combative compared to the book. What did you feel that was able to achieve on screen?
A: I give the writers all the credit for crafting that storyline. It does take a different arc than it does in the book – in the book. they don’t have as much head-butting but I liked that in the series, you could see them really butting heads. In the book, they veer apart and come back together but in the series, Pearl is really pushing. I think it’s different when you see it on screen, you have to externalize conflicts on screen and in this case, Pearl and Mia mirror Elena and Izzy in that Izzy is always pushing Elena and Elena is pushing back on Izzy, and you see Pearl doing the same thing, this parallel between the two houses. I liked that they upped that tension, it works best for the medium.
I’m a fairly interior writer, I have a lot of characters who sit around and remember things but it doesn’t make for good TV. I like that they got to dramatize that for TV, and you get to see the pain that Mia is feeling as her daughter pulls away, and then of course when they come together and resolve it, it’s Mia figuratively giving Pearl the keys and asking ‘Where do you want to go?,’ something she’s clearly never said before because she’s always in charge, and the fact that Pearl chooses to go back to meet her grandparents is a nice full circle. In the book, it’s more ambiguous about where they’re going, there isn’t that neat resolution and some of what we expect from a film version is that we like things to come full circle.
I think it also really works because of the element of ethnicity added in. A lot of what Mia is pushing at in her art and pushing Pearl on has to do with her identity as a black woman, and with the music that she’s listening to and the lines that she draws when she says ‘you’re not like them,’ she means money and class but she also means in terms of race and privilege. The fact that Pearl is choosing to go back to her grandparents, this older generation, to a black family in a black community has a different resonance, and I think it was needed for the TV show to show that Pearl is going to embrace this part of her identity in a way that maybe she hadn’t up until that point, and she thought it didn’t matter and now she’s realizing it does matter and she wants that. I think that’s the genius of Liz [Tigelaar] and the whole writers room that had many black women with different experiences and family structures, even in the two days I was there, I heard them talk very explicitly about what Mia’s relationship to her blackness was and what Pearl’s relationship will be, and even in that one narrow slice, that was so consciously done and I think they did it beautifully.
Q: Bebe Chow’s storyline of a Chinese immigrant working class mother fighting a wealthy white couple for custody of her abandoned baby, really dove into the nuances of race and parenthood. How did you advise on her storyline and especially that ending, where we don’t see Bebe disappear in China with her baby?
A: That very last scene where we see Bebe in the car with her baby, that’s actually a scene that they went back and did a pickup on, they brought the actress back from China. I was really happy because they wanted to make sure that the audience didn’t leave with this feeling that Bebe was a villain and that she had kidnapped her child and was gone, which you might get if the last thing you see is the distraught McCulloughs, you might feel she’s a horrible woman. But if you see Bebe with her child, seeing that there is love between them and the sense that it’s more complicated, it leaves the viewer with that complicated feeling and that was what I wanted in the book and I think they did a really good job keeping the viewer torn between these outcomes.
The cases and the history I looked into when I made up this case, it’s not surprising when [Bill Richardson] says it was always set up for the McCulloughs to win. Readers have asked me if I ever intended the court case to go the other way, and I didn’t because I didn’t think that’s how it would happen. It seems to me that the system was always set up for the McCulloughs to win in that world and time, there’s no way the sympathy wouldn’t have been towards them and keeping true to that in the series was a smart move. People like Bebe don’t win – there’s the sense that if she’s going to “win,” it’s going to have to be outside that system. That’s what we get to see when we see her with May Ling in the car. She’s going on a parallel journey and she’s going to be on the run in the same way that Mia is on the run with Pearl, it’s a beautiful symmetry there.
Q: That symmetry is quite poignant, and one of many motifs running through both your novel and the series.
A: I think there’s a subconscious thing that happens when any piece of creative work is working really well, certain things keep coming up because they’re threaded through whether you put them there on purpose or they just keep coming up. I didn’t realize even when I was writing the book, how much fire there was in the book, until I gave it to my agent. When I gave her the manuscript, I didn’t have a title and she made me go through the book and pull out any phrases that stand out, and there are a lot of little fires metaphorically speaking, and then I went through it with my editor and copy editor and we kept finding all these fire imagery, and the copy editor said “you have to take some of these out, you can’t have this many fires, it’s too on the nose,” and I hadn’t even realized that I was doing that, obviously there’s a fire in the book but I didn’t realize that was happening.
Q: In the series, Elena and Mia mark each other as foes earlier than in the book, and it culminates in that explosive showdown in the finale. How did you advise on that relationship trajectory?
A: I again have to give credit to Liz and the writers room, it’s one of the reasons I was so happy to have such an accomplished group of writers on the show because I tend to shy away from conflict in my own writing but on TV, you have to allow a little more spark and when you have two great actresses in Reese and Kerry, you want to use them and give them a chance to play off each other, and I think it was brilliant how they changed that to fit the tools that they had at their disposal for screen, and then these two really dynamic, magnetic, really subtle actresses. I like that they amped it up for TV so that you can see them, I describe watching them as watching them on opposite ends of a see saw, where you can feel one of them will shift and the balance will shift and tip towards one person and it’ll shift and kick the other way, and that, when you’re watching on screen, is electrifying. If it were more subtle, as it were in the book, if it were more delayed, I don’t think you get the same pop and you certainly wouldn’t be taking advantage of the double talent you have on the show.
Q: There were many new layers added that took the series in different directions, but the finale brought the story arc almost back to the novel with some deviations. How did you work with the team on the overall story arc for the finale and were you surprised by the directions that the story took?
A: I didn’t know exactly what they would do with the finale until pretty close to the end, and that was by design. I got to talk with Liz and some of the writers when I visited the writers room for about two days, and I knew they were planning to do something a little bit different from the book and I liked that idea. I was very excited that they would take the adaptation in a slightly different direction to the book, that’s part of the joy of an adaptation, to see how it can be translated. I had talked with Liz and the writers enough to trust that they were going to keep true to the characters and the big themes, that was important to me. I also talked with Liz about a few different ideas of how to tweak the ending, and we talked about Elena starting the fire, we talked it being possibly one of the children who had set the fire, but I didn’t know which one they had ultimately settled on, so when I saw it, it was a surprise. My main involvement in that plot was that I was a sounding board at the beginning. I was there as a reference book for them to really understand who the characters were and once they had that information, they could really figure out what the right ending could be.
Q: How did the ending shift to change the instigators of the fire, and what do you think the Richardsons in the series learned about themselves in the process?
A: This is one of the main places where the show’s whole arc differs from the book, and a lot of it has to do with exploring Izzy’s sexuality, which is the root of this difference. It was a whole new element and I talked about it with Liz, and she had the idea that Izzy might be exploring her sexuality and I loved it because it was something I had thought about doing in the novel and I couldn’t figure it out how to fit it in, so I gave her 100 percent of my blessing to do that.
When Izzy’s sexuality became a part of her journey, it meant that Izzy had to feel isolated from her siblings more than she did in the book, where she has allies – she and Moody get along, she and Moody and Pearl do this prank in the book so there’s a sense that she’s not totally alone. In the series, because it was about her feeling really alone as a gay teen in the 1990s, I know Liz tried to consciously strip away all of her allies, so she had to make Izzy much more at odds with her siblings and friends at school than she was in the book. Because of that, the change is that her siblings, who shift sides and complete her action of setting the fire, for me it works beautifully because its their way of standing in solidarity with her in a way that they have never done before, it’s their way of showing that they see her and understand her and stand with her. I interpret that ending as they have all learned some things, but their viewpoint has shifted too, not just about their family but also about Izzy and what’s fair and how she’s been treated, and the fact that they do that and then pull their mother out of the home, it suggests a whole turning point for the family and the see saw has tipped towards Izzy and even Elena feels that sympathy too. The arc that they’re drawing is a couple of degrees different from the arc of the book but it’s a similar enough arc that lands in a different enough place that it feels complete.
Q: Do you foresee returning to Shaker Heights for a new story?
A: Right now, honestly, I’m not. But for right now, everything I know about these characters and about the world is on the page. If I learn something more later, I would think about it, but right now, I feel like I know what their story is and I know the ways this experience has changed them, and I think we know enough about them to have a sense of where they’re going from here.