(Note: This piece contains specific plot details about the ending of the Hulu mini-series Little Fires Everywhere.)
Celeste Ng’s bestselling novel Little Fires Everywhere seemed like a natural fit for Hulu’s latest prestige miniseries, especially with Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington on board as stars and executive producers. The drama pitched Witherspoon and Washington as two mothers at odds: Witherspoon is Elena Richardson, determined to preserve her family’s picture-perfect façade at all costs, while Washington plays Mia Warren, an artistic newcomer whose arrival in the planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio (Ng’s real-life hometown) eventually upends Elena’s family completely.
The miniseries begins as the book does, with the Richardsons’ house aflame, set by “little fires everywhere”—indicating arson. But who set those fires? In the book, it’s clear that the culprit is the youngest Richardson, Izzy, fed up with her mother’s disapproval and constant attempts to make her conform to her own vision of an ideal family. That image does not match up with Izzy’s own; she gravitates toward Mia’s more laidback parenting style and artistic lifestyle, which only adds to the clash between the two mothers. Elena even investigates Mia’s past, and discovers that Mia’s daughter Pearl was actually the child she was carrying for an infertile couple; Mia lied and said that she miscarried, took off with Pearl, and has been on the run ever since.
In the book, Mia reveals Pearl’s real origin story to her at the end; in the series, Elena tells Pearl the truth about her parents, which is much more damaging to Elena and Mia’s relationship. The pair still leave Shaker Heights in the end, but Pearl demands to go to the home of the couple that hired Mia to carry her. But even that isn’t the biggest change in the finale from the novel: It’s Izzy’s siblings Lexi, Trip, and Moody that start the fire. They catch Izzy pouring gasoline, then Elena blows up at all of them and admits she never wanted Izzy in the first place, and Izzy runs away like she does in the novel. The devastated and enraged teenagers finish what Izzy started. When asked by the firefighters, Elena says that she started the blaze, taking responsibility for the ways that she’s damaged her children.
It’s such a marked departure from the book, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to talk to Liz Tigelaar, Little Fires Everywhere showrunner and creator, about what precipitated these huge—and ultimately effective—plot changes.
AVC: So basically our big question is: What led to the huge departure from the book ending to the series ending?
Liz Tigelaar: Well, in the book, you know that Izzy started the fire on page one. We just felt like there was an opportunity to create more of an overarching mystery. Even if it did end up being Izzy, like maybe we could not necessarily know that from the start so concretely. So that was the first change we wanted to make. Then, when we thought about it, there was just something about Izzy being—maybe the most obvious one? And we thought: Is there an opportunity to not make the one who seems like she should do it be the one to do it? It’s obviously completely earned that Izzy does it, but we thought, what would it look like to earn somebody else doing it?
So I was thinking about that just in my initial pitch to talk it out with Kerry and Reese and their producing partners to sell. I was already thinking of the ways that I would adapt it. And that was the big question. As I started to think about it, I thought, well, who is the most unlikely person it could be, and how can we earn that? Of course, the first person that comes to mind would be Elena burning down her own house. But then, in talking about that, we all kind of kicked the tires on that and thought, but would she ever really do that? Would a grown-up do that? We didn’t think she would, even though there’s something poetic about it.
Then I just started thinking: Well then, who would it be? Would it be Lexie? Would it be Trip? Would it be Moody? And then it just occurred to me: What if it was all three of them? What if we could really earn that story? What if we could expand out their arc even more? What if this was a story at the end that was really bringing them to see Izzy in a new light, and that this really turned into a generational story of what you learn from your parents, and who you decide to be. So that was what we started to build toward.
I do feel like we earned it. I love the way that it happens, the way that they come together. The way there is this kind of pack mentality, and the chaos of misguided teenagers doing the wrong things for the right reasons. I really like what it yields, which is that Elena still gets to take responsibility for starting the fire, and you don’t feel like it’s hollow. When she says “I did it,” I think she really believes that maybe yes, Izzy poured the gas, and yes, the other kids finished what she started and lit the matches, but Elena truly believes in her heart that she started all of this. And it added, I hope, layers and complexity to it.
AVC: Both the series and the book, have gotten me in this wormhole about motherhood. I have 13-year-old twins, and right now it’s like, wow, you’re not who I thought you were going to turn out like at all. Rewatching the ending again, it seems like with the letter Pearl writes to Mia about being in a “gilded cage,” both Izzy and Pearl were in cages, right? And both the moms have lost the daughters in their own way.
LT: What the story shows is that through your kids’ challenging and coming-of-age and rebellion and pushing back and pushing you—that we saw how Izzy and Pearl were caged. But so were Mia and Elena, in very different ways. But, you know, Mia doesn’t think of herself as caged. She thinks of herself as very free, but she hasn’t been free to live a certain kind of life, to put down roots, to make connection. Of course her art has become the justification of this life that she leads that is really a life on the run.
Elena is the opposite. She’s so rooted in this home that in the beginning is like gleaming on this grassy hill, as this beacon of the American dream and of the life you get if you’re lucky, and in her mind, make good choices. But really, she’s trapped by who her own family wanted her to be. She’s trapped by this house. She’s trapped by what she would call her choices—or maybe she feels [it’s a] lack of choice. There’s this idea that, especially as mothers, as parents, you raise your kids to hopefully learn from you, and they’re going to learn good and bad, and what they’re going to take away is hopefully going to help them be better than you, and be able to do the things even that you couldn’t. You see that in these stories. There’s a bravery to these kids, and that they’re able to do things that their parents couldn’t have fathomed.
AVC: Elena seems a little more—it’s probably a little harsh, but—demonized in the series. She’s the one who tells Pearl the real story about her background. What was the thought process behind that?
LT: I think [the miniseries’] Elena is both harsher and you have more of a window into her past to create empathy. Because we were able to fill in and expand kernels from the book into a whole backstory for her. That backstory really infuses where she is today and why Mia feels like such a threat; this idea that someone could be happy doing things another way, when you see that that’s kind of what Elena wanted to do. And of course, you always are the harshest to the person who went down the path that you didn’t and felt like you couldn’t. You have to root yourself in “your choices are the best choices.”
So part of it is seeing Elena do certain things that she does; reading words on a pages can be a little different than seeing something. Because there were some points from the book we pulled back a little bit. Like, for instance, showing up at [Mia’s parents’] house to say she was doing an article about their dead son. That is a level of cruelty that’s even greater than showing up and saying she’s asking about their daughter. Seeing things sometimes just naturally feels harsher.
So what might have felt like, maybe, a level of peeling back the darker things that Elena did had to be rooted in her own psyche and her own justification. And the story that she told herself, which is, “Of course I know that I shouldn’t be the one telling Pearl this.” That “I have given this woman the opportunity to, and she refuses. This kid is begging for this information—someone should tell her. A good mother would, I’m a good mother, I’m going to tell her.” Of course, we as the audience know it’s also rooted in revenge toward Mia. But I don’t think Elena thinks that’s what it is in her mind, because she doesn’t see herself that way. Also really being with Elena to understand she was right. She’s been right about Mia. Like, she’s had a gut feeling, and her intuition has been 100 percent right. This woman is lying. This woman, some would argue, has committed a crime. Certainly, she’s harboring a secret that would have humungous repercussions.
I think you have to be with Elena to justify her own actions. You build to that scene between Elena and [her husband] Bill in the finale, where he confronts her about who she is and what she’s done, and she says, “I’m a good mother. I’m a good person.” She believes that. What she’s saying in that moment is very true, which is she gave up huge pieces of her life to facilitate his life. He is living the exact life he wants, and she isn’t.
AVC: Also that Reese Witherspoon performance is going to punctuate everything in a way more than reading it. Going back to that final scene again when she screams at Izzy: It’s devastating. The other kids are so shocked, and you feel like those are ties that she just ripped open with all of her kids.
LT: Absolutely. What a painful thing—they’re both saying really honest, harsh, raw truths to each other. What Izzy says to Elena in that moment of wishing Elena wasn’t her mother, of wishing Mia to be her mother, I think that cuts Elena so deeply. I mean, that is literally the worst thing you could hear as a mother.
We debated a lot about what Elena’s response should be. Just this idea that when she’s saying, “I didn’t want you in the first place,” it’s not personal, but it’s true. Every time Izzy has acted out, every time she’s had to deal with her, every time she’s not known what she was going to do, every time she’s been scared of her own child, it’s gone through her head: “I did not want to have another baby.” But yes, hearing it is awful, hearing the thing that’s been the elephant in the room the whole time—and the thing that Izzy has always known. It’s almost, like, thank god she’s finally just saying it, because now we can all operate from that place of, “Well, now we’re saying it’s true.” But the other kids finally see their mother through Izzy’s eyes [in that moment], and finally understand what she’s been up against.
AVC: The last line of the book is that Elena will never stop looking for Izzy, and we don’t get that closure in the series. The ending is still beautiful, and the last scene with Mia’s artwork is amazing. But it’s more nebulous. We don’t know what Elena is going to do. We just know she’s destroyed.
LT: Yeah. That also is the challenge of adapting that beautiful prose. Because to see Elena never stop looking for Izzy in action would have to mean that we would have to carry through her saying, “I’m never going to stop looking for Izzy,” which just—it doesn’t feel artful. We talked a lot about [Elena’s] look up and out, and what that meant. That idea that at the end, you could see her eyes are still searching.
AVC: What did Celeste Ng think of the ending?
LT: If I’m remembering right, I think she knew that we were talking about maybe doing something different for the ending, but I don’t think she actually knew where we had landed until she read it. And she said she loved it, and that’s just a testament to how generous Celeste has been with this adaptation. She’s been so supportive the whole time, and such a champion. I feel like that would be a very hard thing to do with something so personal and so successful the way it is in its own right. But she gave us room to grow and expand with the stories. So yeah, she was incredible.
AVC: There’s one line that people seem to be clinging to, when Elena is calling Mia out about—if you’re a mother, you make the right choices—but Mia and Elena had different levels of opportunity.
LT: “You didn’t make the choices, you had the choices.” And I think that’s a line that Attica Locke wrote, and that is—I mean, that really is the heart of the show. I think that a lot of people believe that so much comes down to choice, and that if everybody just makes good choices… this idea that it’s as simple as the choices you make.
What that’s purporting is that everybody starts equally at sea level, and what Elena didn’t get is that some people start in the stratosphere, and other people start not only at the water, but weighted down and tethered to something heavy that’s keeping them there. That it’s not as simple as hey, just make good choices. You know? It’s about, well, you started at a place where you had choices and options and safety nets and security, and not everybody has that.
AVC: What do you think Little Fires Everywhere ultimately says about biological versus non-biological mothers? Because there’s the whole issue with May Ling, and her adoptive mom Linda McCullough states, “I’m her mother,” but her biological mother Bebe gets the baby in the end. Izzy is Elena’s biological daughter, but they don’t seem tied to each other, while Mia basically takes Pearl from the people who would be, effectively, her adoptive parents.
LT: I mean, I can’t mention it without saying that I’m an adopted kid. So of course I look at it through my own lens. There is definitely a way where I came into the story, and I was like, I’m sorry, the McCulloughs are her parents. Like, there’s no way you could ever tell me that my adoptive parents aren’t my parents.
At the same time, I think that a lot of us came into the room with our own ideas, and then they really shifted in the course of being in the room. The part that really got me was just looking at the inequity of Bebe’s situation and saying, but why did she have to give up her baby? Like, what were her circumstances? And why should someone be punished for those circumstances, which were essentially what would feel like the biggest loss a mother could have.
That really affected me. I mean, first of all, that was a part of the book that we really wanted—we wanted to honor Celeste’s ending in that way. We wanted to leave it open, and to say that nobody is saying that biology makes you the mother any more than being an adoptive parent makes you not the mother, or vice versa.
Because really, whoever’s character’s perspective you are in, they were making their argument fully. Mia was advocating so strongly on behalf of Bebe because of her own experience and her own vulnerabilities around being a birth mother and wanting to feel like anything she did was justified, because biology trumped everything. But of course, she had her own connection with Izzy that felt like a very maternal connection, and she had her own connection with [her mentor] Pauline, that yes, had a sexual, romantic element to it, but also had a very mothering, nurturing element to it. We’ve always said this is a story about the kind of the mothers you’re born to, and the mothers you long for, and the mothers you find along the way. I know for me I could never discount the mothers that you’re lucky enough to find, because obviously, I found my own mother that way. So I think the lesson is from the perspective of whoever you’re in. I don’t think we’re trying to say anything about who is a more deserving mother any more than we’re trying to show an example of who is a good mother and who is a bad mother.
AVC: Because there are so many gradients.
LT: And that’s the heart of the story. Every mother is trying to be a good mother. Outside of, maybe, horrible exceptions, I think anyone mothering has the best of intentions and deserves to have the opportunity to do it.