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When a TV Adaptation Does What the Book Could Not

The Atlantic logo The Atlantic 3/31/2020 Shirley Li
Kerry Washington, Lexi Underwood are posing for a picture: In changing Mia and Pearl’s race, the show’s writers needed to ensure that they told the characters’ stories authentically. © Erin Simkin / Hulu In changing Mia and Pearl’s race, the show’s writers needed to ensure that they told the characters’ stories authentically.

At first glance, the novel Little Fires Everywhere seems to be a suburban whodunit. In the opening chapter, a house in the progressive neighborhood of Shaker Heights, Ohio, has burned down after someone set a series of fires inside its bedrooms—and no one knows why. But then the tale rewinds to the previous summer, and from there it becomes a study of two women—Elena Richardson, a wealthy mother of four, and Mia Warren, a nomadic single mom, who become inextricably linked. Their relationships stir up a dangerous obsession among both families, revealing the story to be less a crime thriller and more a clever, moving examination of motherhood, female ambition, and sexual politics.

Set in 1997, Little Fires is an audacious novel, hence the 48 weeks it spent on the New York Times’ hardcover fiction bestseller list. It’s not just the story of two women who don’t get along. The author Celeste Ng posits that their conflict stems from the fact that they are not meant to connect, because they are constrained by their circumstances. Elena, who’s rich and intelligent and mannerly, understands success to mean a nuclear family. To her, Mia’s lifestyle as an artist and a photographer seems exotic. The privileged Elena will always see Mia as inferior, even if she refuses to admit it.

Ng had originally intended to make their differences even clearer. Elena’s white, but Ng never defined Mia’s ethnicity. “Initially I had wanted to write [Mia and her daughter, Pearl] as people of color,” the author, who’s Asian-American, told me in February. “I thought of them as people of color, because I knew I wanted to talk about race and class, and those things are so intertwined in our country and in our culture… But I didn’t feel like I was the right person to try to bring a black woman’s experience to the page.”

The small-screen adaptation, which currently airs a new episode on Hulu every Wednesday, doesn’t just take the story from the page to the screen, but goes where Ng felt she couldn’t go on her own. The show focuses on race as one of the crucial contrasts between Elena (Reese Witherspoon) and Mia (Kerry Washington). Though the book works without that detail, it presents a missed opportunity to make the relationship between the families even knottier. Shaker Heights residents take pride in the fact that their community was one of the first suburbs to racially integrate, for instance. If Ng had made Mia a woman of color, she could have delved further into that attitude through Elena. Plus, the dynamics between their families offer plenty of chances to incorporate race: The Richardsons often ogle the Warrens and pride themselves on knowing them; one of the children considers Pearl his “claim” because he befriended her first. Elena is troubled by Mia and what she calls the “dark discomfort” Mia inspires in her. And Mia cares deeply about ownership—of her art, of Pearl, and of her identity. In retrospect, it’s clear Ng was tiptoeing toward defining Mia’s race. Out of a feeling of authorial responsibility, she chose not to.

But a TV series doesn't have such a choice. And while adaptations are never carbon copies of their source material, Little Fires Everywhere hasn’t just made a change for cosmetic reasons. The concept of caging others and being caged by others—based on one’s background, values, and lifestyle—serves as a pivotal theme to Ng’s novel. Throughout the first half of the season, defining the Warrens as black complicates that theme.

a woman standing in a kitchen: The show is a study of two contrasting women, Elena (Reese Witherspoon) and Mia (Kerry Washington), who are constrained by their circumstances. (Erin Simkin / Hulu) © Provided by The Atlantic The show is a study of two contrasting women, Elena (Reese Witherspoon) and Mia (Kerry Washington), who are constrained by their circumstances. (Erin Simkin / Hulu)

Take the subplot between Elena’s daughter, Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn), and Mia’s daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood), for example. In the book and the show, Pearl is dazzled by the older Lexie; she’s enamored with her confidence, her clothes, and her social standing as the queen bee of Shaker Heights High School. On the page, Lexie takes advantage of Pearl’s naivete and admiration: When Pearl, hoping to impress Lexie, offers to help her write her college application essay, Lexie accepts—and has her write the entire piece. On the screen, Lexie does the same, but in a slightly different way. Instead of Pearl writing it, Lexie takes a story Pearl told her—about being denied entry into an honors class at Shaker because her guidance counselor assumed she, a black student who moved often, hadn’t taken enough math classes—and tells it as her own for her essay. (The prompt required her to write about a hardship she’d experienced, and Lexie had struggled to come up with anything that seemed serious enough.) Lexie tells herself it’s okay, but she also feels guilty about plagiarizing her friend’s experience. She takes Pearl shopping, and tries to clear the air without explaining what she did. “I mean, whether you’re black or a girl or, like, both, when something happens to one of us, it’s like it happens to all of us, you know?” she asks.

In a scene like this, the series captures the relationship’s dynamics as illustrated in the novel and furthers them: Lexie already perceives herself to be more powerful than Pearl, because of her age and social standing at school, but how would their races play into that? If being “colorblind”—a popular belief in the ’90s—means seeing “beyond” race, why does Lexie feel the need to confirm that Pearl agrees that being marginalized for being black is the same as being marginalized for being a girl? The book and the series may be set decades ago, but these questions make the series feel timely, reflecting the ways in which perhaps little has changed.

In making the pivotal change to Mia and Pearl’s race, however, the writers of Little Fires Everywhere needed to ensure that they told the characters’ stories authentically. The showrunner Liz Tigelaar, as a white woman, pondered the issue—one that’s been at the center of several recent controversies over art and authentic authorship—early on. “It’s like, why are you the person to adapt this novel?’” she said. “I think that’s a fair question.”

To answer it, Tigelaar began by searching for her “points of connectivity” with the source material. (For instance, she drew from her experience as an adoptee to understand the novel’s subplot about an adopted child whose mother wants to regain custody.) From there, she sought writers who could personally connect with characters’ perspectives, ones who understood the experience of black women, of single mothers, of adoptive parents, of suburban Ohioans, and so on—in her words, “the whole gamut.” “I knew things were going to change [as a result of Mia and Pearl being black], and I had my own ideas of how they would change,” she said, “but it really wasn’t until all our voices came together with everyone’s point of view that we were able to really go in and start to reexamine every moment.” Eventually, the writers room grew to seven people, a larger-than-average size for a limited series such as this, which usually brings on board three to four writers. “We collaborated with the studio and found the money,” Beatrice Springborn, Hulu’s VP of content development, told me over the phone, “because we felt like it was the right thing to do for this project.”

There may be a lot riding on the series’ success, but there’s even more pressure on the writers to do the story justice. After all, it’s not as if Little Fires Everywhere, the book, ignored the topic of race. Ng tackles the subject deftly in the subplot about a Chinese baby adopted by a white family, whose mother tries to take her back. In that arc, the characters debate the child’s future and the notion of whether she would have a “better life” with an adoptive family who doesn’t understand her culture, or with a single mother who does.

That conflict has begun to play out in the series as well. But while the book refuses to take a side, the show escalates the drama: In the third episode, Bebe Chow (Lu Huang), the baby’s biological mother, stormed into the adoptive family’s home, desperate to see her child. The fourth episode then followed Elena’s efforts to stop Bebe from pursuing custody by offering her $10,000—money that Bebe rejects, insulted by Elena’s attempt to buy her out. Elena, the show suggests, is in the wrong. Tigelaar, an adoptee herself, told me the series isn’t trying to demonize adoption, but to illustrate one of many debates the shows’ writers themselves had when interpreting Ng’s novel: whether Elena sided with the adoptive parents simply because they’re friends, or because they’re white and therefore more fit to raise a child in her eyes.

a living room with a couch a table and looking at the camera: In both the book and the show, Elena sees Mia as inferior, even if she refuses to admit it. The show, though, complicates their relationship further by defining Mia as black. (Erin Simkin / Hulu) © Provided by The Atlantic In both the book and the show, Elena sees Mia as inferior, even if she refuses to admit it. The show, though, complicates their relationship further by defining Mia as black. (Erin Simkin / Hulu)

Those debates were the point. Tigelaar wanted to establish a “common language” in the room about the book’s social commentary, so she assigned homework—including the sociologist Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism—and asked the team to share research and reading material. She encouraged her writers to wrangle with every plot point. “Every choice, every line of dialogue, every debate in the room, when I watch the episodes, feel so scrutinized because everyone kicked the tires,” Tigelaar said. “The room was a really transformative experience. I came out of it a very different person.”

Such discussions led to some of the most challenging scenes in the series so far, scenes that add nuance to the story and code characters’ relationships in a new way. When Elena tells Pearl that she’s “welcome” at the Richardsons’ home anytime, for example, the offer takes on a more complicated subtext: Elena clearly considers her way of life “normal” compared to Pearl’s own and appears to expect Pearl to thank her for being comfortable with having her around. (The book characterizes Elena’s actions as merely those of a woman happy to have her children’s friends over.) Mia’s discomfort with Pearl’s interest in the Richardsons becomes richer in light of their racial differences. When Mia sees the ways Lexie has influenced Pearl’s wardrobe and mannerisms, she’s not just worried her daughter has gotten too close to another family, but that her daughter is abandoning her racial identity in favor of adopting another. The book delves into the influence a mother can have on her child’s values; the show builds on that, adding the conversation around how a dominant culture can do the same and smother another.

With eight episodes, the series has more room to explore the characters’ life stories than the book does. Ng spends a chapter uncovering Mia’s past, but sprinkles details of Elena’s throughout the narrative. The series, on the other hand, devotes an upcoming episode to both women’s lives before they became mothers, and even uses some cold opens to examine flashbacks of supporting characters. The show also invents new character arcs for the ensemble: Izzy (Megan Stott), for example, is no longer the Richardson family outcast merely because she’s rebellious. She’s exploring her sexuality and attraction to her female former best friend—a conflict that deepens the rift between her and the conservative Elena. These additions demonstrate the writers’ intense interest in the novel’s social commentary and in using Ng’s story as a means to have timely conversations about race and gender.

The show is clearly trying to cover the bases Ng couldn’t get to herself, and it’s admirable to see an adaptation try to improve upon its source material and write toward a savvy audience mindful of social and racial issues. Yet in some ways, it can seem like the show is firing in too many directions at once. Supporting characters get more screen time, but often contribute little to the series’ message. Elena’s relationship with her husband, Bill (Joshua Jackson), for example, is used to illustrate the power dynamics of a marriage, but the arc distracts. He’s useful as further evidence of her controlling behavior—she even regulates when they’re allowed to have sex—but the series’ attempt to develop Bill muddles the audience’s understanding of Elena. In their scenes, she’s portrayed as an absolute villain rather than a complicated woman whose actions are rooted in her belief that she has the best intentions. In that sense, Ng’s laser focus in plotting her novel made it clear what she cared most about: the complicated nature of being a mother.

Tigelaar, though, certainly hopes her assembled team of writers with intersecting, diverse experiences can do justice to the characters’ journeys. “I feel a lot of peace with this because of the voices involved, that I think anything anybody might question or write is something that we endlessly talked about in the room,” she told me. “We did not take a step without three people being like, ‘Wait a minute, hold on, let me think of it this way, or this way.’”

And Ng, for her part, has no qualms with the series’ writers’ ambitions. She’s grateful Little Fires Everywhere grew beyond her book, with a team who could take it where she could not. (“My job as a fiction writer is usually me alone in my house, in my home office, possibly wearing sweatpants with my laptop,” she quipped.) Besides, she sees the room as an example of why it’s important to question the authenticity of certain stories and interrogate whether a writer is the right fit for the assignment. “It’s such a complicated thing to try and suss out ... It’s not just a writer by writer conversation or a ‘is this writer allowed to write about this,’” she continued. “It’s really sort of, ‘Can this writer do justice to it? … You are allowed to write what you want, but it is on you to try to do it right.”

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