SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the first three episodes of “Little Fires Everywhere,” streaming now on Hulu.
The first television show Liz Tigelaar ran was one she created (“Life Unexpected, which premiered on the CW in 2010), but five years later she was entering into the world of adaptations (with “Swamplandia!”, which didn’t get picked up, and “The Astronauts Wives Club”) and found herself both newly challenged and equally passionate.
“I love adapting a world that I never would have thought in my own mind to create,” Tigelaar tells Variety. “And I just love having these puzzle pieces — whether they’re true life facts or they’re facts laid out by the author in a work of fiction. It’s like the ‘Beautiful Mind’ aspect of putting things up and moving them around and making them flow.”
Now, another five years later, Tigelaar has adaptations based on Eve Babitz’ writing and Judy Blume’s “Summer Sisters” in the works, while “Little Fires Everywhere,” based on Celeste Ng’s 2017 novel of the same name, just launched with the first three episodes on Hulu.
“Little Fires Everywhere” infamously starts with a fire in the wealthy Richardson family home in the late 1990s. When arson is suspected, many of the family members point to teenage Izzy (played in Tigelaar’s version by Megan Stott). The show then flashes back a year to lay out the events that would lead to the fire — and such assumptions.
“The burning of the house is an epic thing that I felt really needed to feel deeply earned. Not that it didn’t in the book, but you can get away with lines in a book — you can gloss over a line that’s hard to imagine or unbelievable because you’re not seeing it, it’s your own imagination that will reconcile it — but I feel like it’s different when you’re seeing somebody do something,” Tigelaar says.
In order to ensure the answer to who started the fire not only felt earned but also “most satisfying,” Tigelaar acknowledges the need for the writers’ room to carefully comb over the pieces of the story that would come before the reveal.
But Tigelaar feels the true entry point into the story is not the fire, but the character of Elena Richardson. Played by Reese Witherspoon, who also executive produces, Elena is a type-A working wife and mother of four when audiences first meet her. Her relationship with Mia Warren (Kerry Washington, who also executive produces), an artist and single mother who moves to town, is the “spark that sets everything else in motion,” Tigelaar points out.
Tigelaar knew it was imperative to include “beats at the beginning to really understand Elena scurrying around Mia and where that comes from.” When Mia first gets to town, she and her teenage daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood) are living in their car while they search for an apartment. Because it is an older model, packed with bags and clothes and sleeping people (“African American, I think,” Elena says), Elena calls the cops.
When Mia and Pearl then show up to look at Elena’s rental property and Elena realizes they were the ones sleeping in the car, she feels guilty and not only offers them the place but also offers Mia a job cleaning her house.
On a more personal level, Tigelaar shares that the characters of Izzy and Pearl were also entry points for her into the story for her. “Those feelings of longing and wanting to belong and coveting different mothers and then finding out either they’re everything you hoped they would be or they’re the exact opposite of what you had hoped,” she says were areas with which she connected.
And Izzy, specifically, was a part of the story Tigelaar felt could and should be expanded from the novel.
In Ng’s version, Izzy is the black sheep of the Richardson family for her verbal defiance of her mother and authority figures at school. (In the book, she is also the one who started the fires.) But in the eight-episode series, Tigelaar wanted to “deepen” the character by exploring her sexuality.
“That’s autobiographical,” she shares. “I wanted to explore the confusion over what’s sexuality, what’s romanticism, what’s just wanting to be mothered in a way that’s just speaking your language? And I liked looking at those stories through Izzy’s relationship with Mia and Mia’s relationship with [her mentor] Pauline. They were very different relationships along very different time periods, but looking at how all of these different relationships form from your little life rafts at certain times in your life was something I’ve experienced — positive people keep you afloat, to people pulling you down.”
As in the novel, Izzy makes a connection with Mia and begins spending time at her studio. It is there that she begins to develop questions about Mia’s past. At the same time, Elena is also digging into Mia, but for very different reasons. Tigelaar says the writers’ room talked briefly about showing Mia’s past as flashes embedded into various episodes but ultimately landed on dedicating one full episode (the sixth) to that story.
“Certainly exploring motherhood feels really rich and a great opportunity, but [so is] getting to re-explore your own daughterhood,” says Tigelaar.
But because the story centered on both Mia and Elena, if they were going to dive deeply into Mia’s past, they had to do so for Elena, as well. And for this, “we had to craft a whole backstory for Elena because that wasn’t in the book,” Tigelaar says.
Ng had “written a lot of clues,” including “referencing an ex-boyfriend who wanted Elena to come to San Francisco in an anti-war way,” Tigelaar notes, but had not fully explored who Elena was before she was a wife and mother. That was something Tigelaar was interested in doing.
“We wanted an origin story for both women of what’s the tipping point of their lives where they changed to become the women they are today and how were they before that tipping point? It had to do with loss — really for both of them — and how they wanted to see themselves — what choice they made in a critical moment,” she explains.
The cold opens of each episode are designed to be different non-linear time periods, Tigelaar says, to set up diving into different characters’ stories. The writers wanted to set up an expectation right from the start of the show that the audience would be moving through time and perspective, in part, to prepare them for that special flashback episode that would “go into our cold open and then just never come out of it.”
Because “Mia and Elena’s relationship to that story is the propellant part that yields the mystery and gives you that momentum and drive,” Tigelaar says, she and the writers’ room consider the first three episodes the first act of a movie — and at the end of the first act, there needs to be a big, game-changing event. In the case of “Little Fires Everywhere,” this is Mia’s friend and co-worker Bebe Chow (Lu Huang) storming into a baby’s birthday party because Mia has told her that baby was the one Bebe left on the doorstep of a firehouse.
In the country illegally, Bebe struggled to make ends meet for herself and her newborn daughter May Ling, and ended up leaving her out in the cold overnight at that firehouse. She regretted the decision after she made it and wanted to look for her daughter but didn’t quite know how. When Mia began working with her at a restaurant, the two women bonded and, driven by her own unique experience as a mother, Mia promised to help Bebe. When she learned Elena’s friend Linda (Rosemarie DeWitt) adopted a Chinese baby who had been abandoned and was now going by the name Mirabelle, she connected the dots and told the birth mother she found her baby girl.
“At first we had Bebe in the pilot but we pulled her out because it was too much,” Tigelaar says. “So we decided to seed it a little different and know of Mirabelle first, without seeing her, and then learn about May Ling.”
The third episode ends on the cliffhanger of Bebe wanting to reunite with her child, with Mia standing beside her to help her fight, while Elena steadfastly tells Linda the baby is hers and no one will take her away from her. This becomes a major turning point in the show, not only for the relationship between Mia and Elena, but also the themes of race and class. While they are certainly explored through Mia and Elena’s own relationship, adding Bebe into the mix complicates matters much further.
“We did a lot of research on the time period — a lot of us lived it but we don’t necessarily remember it in the most thoughtful, critical thinking kind of way,” Tigelaar says. “Specifically, we really looked at color-blindness and what we were told in the ’90s about how even if you were with a small child and they said something about somebody’s race, they would jump to, ‘We don’t talk about that. We don’t say things that highlight our differences.'”
Looking back, Tigelaar says, “Your silence was revealing your own judgement and prejudice,” and that was something onto which the show endeavored to shine a light, too.
“Little Fires Everywhere” will stream new episodes Wednesdays on Hulu.