Why Little Fires Everywhere Worked Better as a show than as a Book

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I’ve made no secret that I considered Hulu’s adaptation of Little Fires Everywhere one of the premier accomplishments of this year. Led by the exceptional performances of Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, this daring study of two completely different mothers living in a planned community in 1990s Ohio was superbly written, directed and acted all the way through.

I didn’t read Celeste Ng’s original novel before I saw the series. This isn’t strange for me; a lot of the time when films and TV shows based on novels are out, I try to go into them with no knowledge of the source material so that I can make an impartial judgment. After the series was over, I spent a fair amount of time before I finally read the book, hoping it might fill in some of the gaps that producer Liz Tiglear and her staff left out. I finally finished reading it earlier this week and frankly, though it was a good read, I was left wanting a bit more.

(Warning: spoilers for both the book and the series are ahead.)

The fundamental story of the book is the same as the limited series; it deals with the relationship between the Richardson family, a white family lead by Elena and her four children who seem to have the perfect life, and the Warrens, Mia, a photographer who travels the country with her daughter, Pearl. Pearl becomes friendly with the younger son, Moody, and slowly becomes more involved the Richardson family, something that Mia doesn’t like. More to keep an eye on her daughter, Mia agrees to do housework at the Richardson family. In turn, she becomes friendly with Izzy, the youngest daughter who doesn’t bend to the structure of her school or her home, and who her mother seems to openly not like. Eventually, the tension between Elena and Mia begins to boil over, when Mia helps Bebe, a Chinese woman try to reclaim her child from the McColloughs, whose wife is Elena’s best friend and who adopted her daughter after Bebe left her in a fire station during a fit of post partum depression.

What’s absent from the book that I found so prevalent in the limited series was the level of detail that was in the latter. In the series, Elena is distrustful of Mia from the beginning, and there are definite indication that she looks down on her. There are many confrontations between Mia and Elena in the series; in the book, there’s only, near the end. Elena is pictured in the book as a sheltered woman, but we never get a clear picture as to how. In the series, she has ambitions, which she gives up after she finds out she’s pregnant with Izzy. There’s a clear indication that she wants to abort her at one point, which is probably the cause of her resentment of Izzy when she is grown. And there are always indications of a life she never got a chance to have, one that she at point considers going back to with her boyfriend from college, who she nearly has sex with… and then backs away from at the last minute. There was never a clear explanation for this in the series and I was hoping the book would explain it. In the book, the character is there for all two expositional paragraphs.

Mia’s backstory is essentially the same as the book — and because it’s one of the more successful things, I won’t repeat it. There is, however, one critical change. Mia is revealed to have had a lesbian relationship with her mentor, which leads to a picture being taken that is critical to the series. In the book, Mia is a virgin (the explanation as to how she had Pearl is the same in both version, so I’ll leave it to you to find out why). Mia’s sexuality is critical because of her relationship with Izzy.

There are also major disappointment about the stories of the children, the biggest of which is Izzy. Izzy is trying to be an iconoclast even before she meets up with Mia, but we never get a clear reason as to why. In the series there’s a very clear reason — Izzy was attracted to a fellow classmate who shared her affection until it was exposed, and has now abandoned her to the hostility of her fellow students. This is a common bond between Izzy and Mia that is far more enlightening then we get in the book.

And by far the most disappointing thing about the book is its conclusion. The book and the series both open with the Richardson house having been burnt to the ground. Everyone assumes Izzy did it. In the book, that’s exactly how it plays out. We understand the reason why she did it, but it makes the ending completely anticlimactic. The limited series conclusion is, in my mind, far more satisfying. (I’ve already revealed it in a previous article, so I won’t repeat myself.) There was a reckoning for Elena that just wasn’t there in the original book — she makes a false assumption about Pearl, and as far as we know, its never corrected.

There are ways the book is superior — we get a clearer reason as to how Lexi ended up pregnant, which leads to Lexi and Mia end up having a closer relationship, and there’s also a much clearer explanation as to why Bebe abandoned her child. But in my opinion, in almost every imaginable way, Hulu’s adaptation of the book is far better than reading the novel.

Last week, I gave an explanation as to why I thought The Undoing, while a great series was a flawed adaptation of its source material. I’ve come to the reverse conclusion when it comes to Little Fires Everywhere. I can see why Reese Witherspoon was drawn to it in the first place — there’s a lot in it that resonates — but those, like me, who often think adaptations leave out more than they bring in, will find that the latter is true in this case. I make the following recommendation; if you haven’t either read the book or seen the series, see Little Fires Everywhere first. It is a thunderbolt. The book is just a novel.

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