Inside ‘Defending Jacob,’ ‘Little Fires Everywhere,’ ‘Mrs. Fletcher’s’ Adaptations’ New Endings

Defending Jacob Apple TV+
Courtesy of Apple TV+

The art of adapting a novel into a television series is a tricky business, one that involves speaking to the audience that has already read the book while also drawing in viewers who have not. Several limited series this season took the additional step of tweaking the endings of those stories, some to infuse an element of surprise and others to add layers of complexity.

In bringing Celeste Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere” to life at Hulu, showrunner Liz Tigelaar decided that the series, about two women in pursuit of vastly different familial ideals, needed a new arsonist at its climax. In the book, the youngest Richardson daughter and resident problem child sets fire to her own home.

“It obviously works so well in the book,” says Tigelaar. “But you know on the first page, basically in the first sentence, that Izzy did this. It’s a TV show, we’re going to want a driving mystery.”

Tigelaar considered scenarios in which different characters, from Kerry Washington’s Mia Warren to Reese Witherspoon’s Elena Richardson, started the fire. Ultimately, it didn’t seem like an “adult” decision for Elena to make — but what did was her taking the blame for the three of her four children who committed the crime.

“It was basically: Could we tell a story where Elena truly does feel like she burns down this house, but wasn’t the person who actually lit the match?” Tigelaar says.

HBO’s “Mrs. Fletcher,” about an empty nester (Kathryn Hahn) rediscovering her sexuality, ends with her son Brendan (Jackson White) walking in on her having a threesome. The novel, by contrast, explores more of the aftermath of that event and further fleshes out the emotional journey of both mother and son. But Tom Perrotta, in adapting his own work, says he had originally ended the book where the series concluded, with “an almost novella-like quality to it.” But ultimately he decided to include more, such as evolving Brendan’s worldview from that of an unsympathetic jock.

The clipped ending of the series meant that White, whom Perrotta calls “a remarkable actor,” had to do more of the heavy lifting in showing possibility for Brendan’s reform.

“He makes Brendan’s loneliness and vulnerability clear really early, and I think that his potential for actually learning from this moment is clear,” Perrotta says.

Meanwhile, Apple TV Plus’ “Defending Jacob” centers on parents Andy and Laurie (Chris Evans and Michelle Dockery) grappling with the idea that their son might be a murderer. In adapting William Landay’s novel, Mark Bomback decided not to add a second murder, and not kill off the titular character, complicating the audience’s view of Laurie’s decision to crash a car with her son in it.

He wanted the conclusion to feel both “surprising and inevitable.” So in reverse-engineering the story, which in the book is only told from Andy’s perspective, Bomback added moments to justify Laurie’s position, such as a “critical scene” in which she is sideswiped by a reporter.

“This is this moment where we’re starting to see her psyche fracture just a bit — that she realizes that if she even tends to open up to anyone, even that is going to be sort of destroyed,” he says. “I knew that that car scene would have such a burden on really having to deliver, that I needed to make sure that this journey you’re on with Laurie is as central to the story you’ve been watching as the journey you’ve been on with Andy.”