Little Fires Everywhere…and big changes everywhere, too.
There’s a reason that Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington wanted to tackle the tale of Elena, a wealthy mother of four, and Mia, a single mother always on the move, both as executive producers and stars: the novel by Celeste Ng spent 48 weeks on the New York Times’ hardcover-fiction best-seller list, thanks to its complex characters and nuanced take on race, socioeconomics, motherhood and more delicate topics.
But that doesn’t mean the Hulu adaptation, which aired its finale on April 22, followed every beat of the book, with Little Fires Everywhere undergoing some pretty major tweaks for the small screen, including one major one even before the series began: making it clear Mia is black, with the novel never specifying the Warren women’s race.
“Initially, I had wanted to write [Mia and Pearl] as people of color,” Ng, who’s Asian-American, told The Altantic. “…but I didn’t feel like I was the right person to try to bring a black woman’s experience to the page.”
But when Washington took on the role of both Mia and executive producer, Ng, a producer on the series, told Asia Society, “I’m especially looking forward to seeing Kerry bring Mia to life as a black woman; I’d wanted to do that in the novel, but didn’t feel I was the right person to do that. Kerry is, though.”
Here are the biggest changes from book to screen, from the dramatic ending to Mia’s romantic history…
Who Burned Down the House
Arguably the biggest change from book to screen was the reveal at the end about who burned down the Richardson home.
In the series, it’s a shocking reveal when the three eldest Richardson siblings—Trip, Lexie and Moody—decide to do it together after realizing Izzy has run away, spurned by their mother’s shocking revelation about never wanting her, and realizing their entire life is a charade. They manage to get a spiraling Elena out of the house before it goes up in flames entirely, burning down the facade of the perfect family she had tried so hard to maintain.
“My first thought was that Elena could set the fire. It would be the arc of all arcs,” showrunner Liz Tigelaar revealed to Glamour, going on to reveal the writer’s room ultimately decided on all of the Richardson siblings.
“In burning down the house, they are burning down these versions of who they have been, hoping desperately they can grow into something better, and sending up a smoke signal to Izzy,” Tigelaar continued. “Telling her that it’s safe to come home.”
The book’s version of the tragedy is far more straight-forward, with the author revealing it in the very first line: Izzy is the one to burn it all down, making sure none of her family members will be home before doing so and not realizing her mother was unexpectedly in the house. She manages to escape, while Izzy runs away, using Mia’s mother’s name to go to Pittsburgh.
Mia’s Romantic History
In episode six, which was almost entirely flashbacks to both leads’ younger years to shed a light on the choices they did or didn’t have as young mothers, viewers learned Mia was in a relationship with Pauline Hawthorne, her older photography professor, when she was living in New York City.
In the book, however, Mia and Pauline never have a romantic relationship, and Pauline actually had a longtime partner Mal, with the two almost serving as surrogate parents to a young Mia, who never had any real relationship experience and Ng implying the character was asexual.
Like in the series, Pauline also dies, but she does get to meet Pearl first, photographing the mother and daughter together before her death.
The Elena-Izzy Relationship
Sure, the mother-daughter duo were constantly at odds in Ng’s pages, but it’s taken to another level in the Hulu series, with Elena admitting in an outburst that she never wanted to have a fourth child. In the book, it was her fear of losing Izzy after she almost died as a baby that made her try to exert so much control over her youngest child.
“In our series, we set out to isolate Izzy even more than she had appeared in the book,” Tigelaar explained to Glamour. “To show that, among her siblings, she really was the black sheep.”
The series also addresses Izzy’s sexuality, revealing she is a lesbian and was in love with her former best friend, April, something the book never delved into.
Elena’s Blast From the Past
While readers briefly learned of Jamie, Elena’s former beau, in a small passage that indicated no signs of regret or nostalgia on her part, TV Elena has had multiple encounters with her ex-boyfriend, none of which her husband (Oh hey, Joshua Jackson!) is too thrilled about after he learns about them.
First, she ran off to find comfort in Jamie shortly after having Izzy and is overwhelmed with having four children while coping with the loss of her professional identity. And Elena once again reaches out to her ex in the show’s present-day timeline, set in 1997, when she goes into the city to investigate Mia’s past, grabbing drinks and flirting with Jamie, who rejects her advances and calls her a “narcissist.” Which seems to be the point, as the TV Elena is far more villainous and callous than the book version of the character.
When Pearl Finds Out
Elena deals a devastating blow to Mia in the show when she is the one to reveal the truth to Pearl about her father. In the book, it’s far less dramatic, with Mia being the one to explain it to Pearl, with the two ultimately deciding to drive off so the younger Warren can meet her father and grandparent.
Lexie Isn’t Let Off the Hook
In the book, Lexie does in fact use Pearl’s name when she goes to get an abortion, going on to recuperate at the Warren home with Mia helping to take care of her and is rather empathetic.
TV Mia does also help Lexie to an extent, but doesn’t hold back when Lexie attempts to find validation for her choice, delivering one of the series’ best scenes:
“I think my daughter skipped school to help you, and you thanked her by using her name and then demanding that she take care of you,” Mia tells a shell-shocked Lexie. “I spent two months cooking your dinners, working in your house. You never so much as uttered a ‘thank you.’ And now you want more. Pearl may love to give and give to you, but I do not. I’m done…when you’re done, wash out your own mug. For once.”
Another scene involving Lexie that we’re not treated to in the book is her break-up with Brian, which leads to a necessary conversation about race and the privilege she’s not even aware she has.
The Mia Portrait’s Role
While not a major plot point, the photograph of Mia taken by Pauline Hawthorne does factor into both the book and show. In the book, Mia never has to sell the portrait of her in a bathtub while pregnant with Pearl to help Bebe pay her legal fees in her custody battle, as the lawyer ends up taking on the case pro bono. (Oh, and Elena never offered Bebe money to drop the case in the book!)
Izzy ends up finding out about the portrait when The New York Times covers the sale of it for $30,000, and she also discovers the portrait in a surprising way in the book along with the rest of the kids: it is featured in a small museum their school attends. But it’s a different photo, one of a young Mia holding Pearl as a newborn that Pauline took before she passed away.
Little Fires Everywhere is streaming on Hulu.