Adapted from the 2017 novel of the same name by Celeste Ng and created by Liz Tigelaar, Little Fires Everywhere is set in 1990s Shaker Heights where everything is planned and everybody plays by the rules. Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) embodies this spirit more than most, but when Mia (Kerry Washington), an enigmatic artist and single mother who’s always on the move, arrives with her daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood), their idyllic bubble bursts. As Mia rents a house from the Richardsons and begins working in their home, all four Richardson children – Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn), Izzy (Megan Stott), Moody (Gavin Lewis) and Trip (Jordan Elsass) – are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past and a disregard for the status quo that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community, as Elena becomes determined to uncover her secrets.
This is my review of the TV adaptation. You can read my review of the book here.
When Reese Witherspoon picks a book for her book club and likes it so much that she goes on to produce a TV adaptation of it, I instantly know that this is a book I need read. And having enjoyed Ng’s source material, I couldn’t wait to see this TV adaptation.
With exceptional performances, perfect casting, and high-quality cinematography throughout, Little Fires Everywhere is a remarkable adaptation of a book that gets your mind ticking away. Although it differs slightly from the book, it is a superbly written story that brilliantly expands on the book’s primary themes of motherhood and identity, exploring a handful of significant issues from various perspectives through its excellently crafted but largely contrasting characters.
Reading the book, I could see why Witherspoon connected to the character of Elena. Witherspoon is such a self-aware actress that it’s no wonder she could see herself playing the role. There’s a lot to aspire about a woman like Elena. But while she has good intentions, she’s blind-sighted by her ignorance which is what makes her very unlikeable at the same time. She’s planned her whole life to ensure that she can give her children the best of everything, but she’s also neglected to put them first to be able to do this.
But is it better for a child to come from a family who can afford to give them better opportunities, or is it better for a child to be with their biological parents, despite anything else? It’s this question that the book poses, ultimately serving as a story about what it means to be a mother, whether the child is biologically yours or not, while beautifully exploring the fragile bond between mother and child and discussing the right we have to decide whether we want to bring a child into the world or not in the first place.
While I don’t think the series handles the theme of motherhood as well as the book does, it does deal with the topics of race, identity, and sexuality brilliantly, expanding on the profoundly developed groundwork that Ng has set-up with a great impact. The issues raised are used a bit too obviously, but they are all important topics that feel fitting to be given a fuller account of.
The theme of race, especially, is handled in a really outstanding way, as the series highlights the problem of white privilege by making the conflict much more apparent and contrasting. There are also many added scenes that open up the discussion about race even more, as Mia tells Pearl to keep her hands seen in the car as the cops are not on their side, and questions about whether it’s acceptable to say black or African American and whether it’s racist to offer Mia the cleaning job or racist not to are raised.
The book also adds an element of fear regarding Mia’s past. She often comes across as scared that she might lose Pearl at any second, is worried that she may be being followed, and is constantly startled awake from her nightmares. But instead of making her seem more caring, the series made me dislike Mia a whole lot more. In the book, she tries not to appear rude but she’s so much more standoff-ish in the series, not even allowing Elena to finish a sentence.
There’s still a lot to dislike about Mia in the book, but she’s not so quick to put people down and the book isn’t so upfront about how selfish she can be. It was the one thing I disliked about the book as it almost tried to justify her actions, so I understand why the book makes her come across as more harsh. But it just made it too difficult to like her. The scene with Lexie in particular really reflects this change. In the book, Mia comforts her which allows the audience to see her maternal instinct really come through. In the series, however, she tells Lexie to look elsewhere for sympathy, which I found really off-putting.
Instead, the series tries to make Elena come across as the more sympathetic character, as there’s more background given into Elena’s past to emphasise her regret in life. Ordinarily, I would consider this additional context as a bonus, but when the story is about black characters not having the same privileges as rich white people, the added focus on the white character while simultaneously making the black character more aggressive just doesn’t sit right with me. The series does give the story a better resolution, though, explaining why Mia gave Bebe the money as she tries to prove to herself that she did the right thing.
With plenty of minor changes sprinkled throughout, the biggest one comes at the end. I won’t spoil anything more until the next section for those who haven’t seen or read it yet, but I actually thought that this change worked quite well, even if it does alter the story somewhat.
Most of all, the series is full of quality acting, especially from the young cast. Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington both give standout performances, but it is Megan Scott who absolutely shines. Izzy’s character is handled exceptionally well. There’s nothing hinted at about Izzy’s sexuality in the book, but the series deals with this obstacle in her life rather impressively. This added trait works especially well for her character as it allows us to get to know her more, ending with us engaging with the only character who remains sincere.
Although I couldn’t relate to Lexie as well as I did in the book, Jade Pettyjohn gives a strong performance, too, and it was also nice to see the inclusion of Joshua Jackson, especially with all the 90s references.
The series goes into more detail about some of the things that are only briefly mentioned in the book, but aside from these expansions and the differences I have mentioned above, here is a list of a few more:
- Moody doesn’t have a wreck where he hangs out with Pearl in the book.
- Izzy doesn’t burn her hair and start wearing black clothes in the book.
- Elena and Lexie don’t drink Slimfast in the book.
- In the book, it’s not until they find the professional photograph of Mia that Elena begins to feel suspicious of her. In the series, Elena checks up on Mia straight away.
- In the series, Mia tells Elena what jobs she will do as the house manager and makes her own rules. In the book, Mia doesn’t want to sound rude and just accepts being her cleaner.
- In the series, we see Mia having sex with men in her car. Pearl also says that her mum says that sex doesn’t mean anything but sex, and that Mia sleeps with whoever she wants, whenever she wants. In the book, it is hinted that Mia has either only ever had sex once or maybe not even at all as she doesn’t need sex in her life.
- There is no book club at Elena’s in the book.
- In the book, Lexie has to write a famous story from a different perspective for her university essay and Pearl offers to help. In the series, she has to write a story about a hardship and steals Pearl’s letter.
- Pearl doesn’t help Trip with his algebra in the book.
- Trip doesn’t seem to feel bad about sleeping with Pearl in the book.
- We don’t get to know Linda very well in the book and therefore don’t see her close friendship with Elena.
- There is no Homecoming or Halloween party in the book.
- In the series, Brian talks to Pearl about their race. They don’t talk at all in the book.
- Lexie comes across as more racist in the series and Brian constantly questions her attitude, but we don’t see this side to her in the book.
- Mia doesn’t smoke weed in the book or take cocaine in her past.
- Mia doesn’t burn a photograph of Elena in the book.
- In the series, Mia tries to sell her painting to get money to pay for Bebe’s lawyer. In the book, she gets a lawyer pro-Bono because of all the publicity.
- In the book, the children see the famous photograph of Mia in a museum. It is of her feeding Pearl. In the series, Mia sells the photo and it appears in the newspaper and it is of her pregnant.
- In the book, Mia has a selection of photos of her with Pearl and she sells one whenever she needs money. In the series, there is only one photo.
- In the book, nothing is mentioned about Bebe being in America illegally. Elena doesn’t go to visit her, either, so she doesn’t offer her a cheque for an immigration lawyer to try to persuade her to settle.
- In the series, Mia and Pauline are lovers. In the book, Pauline is married to a man.
- Mia and Pearl do not talk about sex in the book.
- Elena doesn’t pine over her ex-boyfriend in the book and doesn’t seem disappointed in her life.
- In the series, Elena is struggling to cope with four children. In the book, Elena struggles because Izzy is premature and she can’t bond with her since she’s not allowed to hold her.
- In the series, Mia rings Madeleine when Pearl says that she wants to meet her father. This doesn’t happen in the book.
- In the series, Mia gives Pearl the chance to say goodbye to Trip but she doesn’t want to. In the book, she takes Pearl out of school and doesn’t let her say goodbye to anyone.
- In the series, everybody starts the fire and Elena takes responsibility for it. In the book, it is only Izzy and Elena doesn’t stand up for her.
- In the book, Mia leaves each of the Richardsons a portrait of themselves. In the series, she has made a model of the town.
Although there are many small changes throughout the series and a different ending compared to the book, the only one that really affects the story is the change in Mia’s personality. Other than that, the series does a great job of expanding on Ng’s source material, exploring the themes of race and sexuality with great insight and really allowing the message of “What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?” to shine through clearly.