Even though Celeste Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere” was on my read list for quite some time, I didn’t find the motivation to pick it up until Reese Witherspoon put it on her book club list and subsequently decided to turn it into a show. Witherspoon’s track record of executive production is superb, so I’d watch grass grow if she had her name on it.
The Hulu series (which dropped this week with three episodes and five more to come), lives up to expectations. It’s a slow burn, giving the viewer time to flesh out the characters’ nuances, which is crucial for this story. Starring Reese Witherspoon, Kerry Washington and a slew of age-appropriately-casted teens, the book and series follow the Richardson family (Elena, Bill and their four high school kids, all a year apart: Lexie, Trip, Moody and Izzy) and the Warren family (Mia, an artist, and Pearl, her teenage daughter).
A first impression of the 2017 novel errs on the side of basic: A wealthy woman’s “perfect” life is turned upside down by a mother-daughter duo who embody the polar opposite of everything she believes in. But what pulls you into the novel is its powerful intricacies and dynamic subtleties that paint a much, much larger picture. This story is about motherhood, identity, race, classism; it’s about how we build relationships with each other and our children and how we see ourselves, defending our choices and making excuses, if need be, in order to live with who we’ve become.
We see it in Elena’s relationship with her daughter, Izzy. The two just don’t get along, as Izzy doesn’t fit into the expected Pleasantville-esque frame that Mrs. Richardson continuously tries to shove her into -- early on, she throws out a pair of Izzy’s black leather combat boots simply because she doesn’t like them. Elena tells herself she’s hard on Izzy because she was a sickly baby and losing her would be too much to bear...but isn’t it more because Izzy embodies everything the Richardsons are not, representing what Elena missed out on: the freedom to be something else?
"It's about what you do with new information," Witherspoon said to Entertainment Weekly. "Do you soften to it, or does it break you? Are you open to new ideas or does it so rattle your worldview that you can't hold on anymore?"
We see it in Mia’s strong-willed defense of Bebe Chow. She feels the need to come to Bebe’s rescue and kickstart the custody battle for her daughter not because she feels any kind of kinship with Bebe. It’s because Mia's told herself that she believes, on principle, that a mother should be with her child to allow herself to live with the fact that she kept Pearl.
From the first three episodes of “Little Fires Everywhere,” we can already see how Witherspoon and Washington plan to pull out those complexities: Izzy’s haircut, which Elena tries to steamroll; Mia’s judgment of the Richardsons, her holier-than-thou attitude masking her insecurity that she denied Pearl a life like theirs; even Pearl’s slight disdain at Mia’s parenting style and fascination with Mrs. Richardson is made more visceral (sneering at her mother’s presence in the Richardson house, hiding Elena’s involvement in switching her math class), pushing the narrative of these two characters’ meddling, control-hungry personalities even harder.
"[Elena and Mia] have this commonality between them, which is that they believe they're doing what's best for their children," showrunner Liz Tigelaar told EW. "Through the story, that notion gets unraveled in both of them. They each hold up a mirror to the other, and the results change their lives, the lives of their families and the lives of the people in the town."
What’s more, Ng never specifies Mia and Pearl’s race in the book -- she leaves the race discussion for her Chinese characters, much like she did in her debut, “Everything I Never Told You” -- but the show does. Washington and Lexi Underwood (Pearl) are African American. The deviation somehow strengthens the backbone of the book without overshadowing the existing themes, and Tigelaar told Ng herself in an ELLE interview that the change made it possible for her to further explore the motifs with the casting decisions.
“We got to go even deeper and do even more with what was already there,” she said.
Which, of course, is helped along by Witherspoon’s brilliant talent for embodying hypersensitive, authoritative and headstrong-as-hell women and Washington’s emotional depth as an actress.
Ng told Bustle that she had the epiphany of Witherspoon being Elena Richardson long before Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine, came knocking. While watching HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” the wildly successful miniseries adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel, Ng saw the parallels between Madeline Mackenzie and her own Mrs. Richardson.
“I said to my husband, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if in some magical universe, Reese read my book and decided to option it?’ Then somehow it happened,” she said.
And aren’t we glad?
The rest of the season of “Little Fires Everywhere” are set to be released one episode per week starting next Wednesday, April 1 on Hulu.
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