Celeste Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere was published in 2017 and adapted for the screen by Hulu in 2020. The general plot remains the same in the miniseries, though some of the details undergo significant changes. In both cases, the story follows the intertwined fates of two families living in Shaker Heights, Ohio, in the 90s.
Mia is an artist and photographer who travels the country with her teenage daughter, Pearl, moving from place to place as she completes each creative project. In addition to selling her work, Mia works several part-time jobs to make ends meet. Pearl doesn’t know anything about her family history but is glad when Mia promises that they’re going to stay in Shaker Heights for good.
At Shaker, Pearl meets and befriends Moody Richardson, who is one of four children of an affluent family. His mother Elena writes for a small paper, while his father Bill is a lawyer. Trip, Moody’s older brother, catches Pearl’s eye early on. His sisters Lexie and Izzy also find ways to worm themselves into Pearl and Mia’s lives. Izzy often clashes with her own mother and seeks comfort from Mia, who seems to understand her better than anyone, while Lexie uses Pearl and Mia whenever she needs something.
Both the book and the miniseries begin with the Richardsons’ house on fire. In both cases, it’s implied that Izzy may have had something to do with it, but she’s nowhere to be found. However, in the miniseries, what begins as a crime mystery turns into a psychological thriller about race as well as the book’s topics of class, motherhood, and identity. Pearl and Mia’s race is never specified in the book, though most readers assume they’re women of color. The series doesn’t tiptoe around this topic, and though the book can be read through this lens, the screen adaptation examines racism more overtly – and this is where all of the other differences between the two stories spawns from.
- Izzy Richardson
Elena’s youngest daughter, Izzy, plays a significant role in both iterations of the story. In the book, she’s the one to light the Richardson house on fire, though this isn’t confirmed until the end. In some ways, this reveal doesn’t add much to the story because it’s already heavily implied from the opening chapter. The miniseries opens with a police officer questioning Mr. and Mrs. Richardson about Izzy’s absence.
Izzy has a tumultuous relationship with her mother, which begins from a young age. In the book, it ties into Izzy’s premature birth and Elena’s struggle to be her mother. Elena resents Izzy from the beginning of her life, but in the series, she seems to make an effort to be nice – at least in the early episodes. The series makes this conflict more overt: Izzy acts against her mother, sabotaging her performance at a concert and burning her hair on purpose.
In the screen adaptation, Izzy is an artist and Mia allows her to use her studio whenever she likes. This allows them to form an emotional connection. In the book, Izzy’s curiosity is directed more towards Mia than her art.
The biggest difference in Izzy’s character is her social life; she isn’t gay in the book, nor does she seem to have any friends. Her entire story is focused on the pull between Elena and Mia. This aspect is still important in the series, but the backstory behind it is completely different.
2. Elena and Mia’s Relationship
Because of the marketing strategy for the show, it makes sense that Elena and Mia, played by two stars (Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington), are presented as the main characters of this story. In the book, both of these women feel more distant; Mia, because Pearl sees her closed-off and serious, and Elena because she simply isn’t present as much as she is onscreen.
The key difference in their relationship, and the way the plot plays out, is that the two women don’t pretend to be friends. In the show, they have some wine and discuss motherhood after a book club meeting – but neither the conversation nor the book club exists in the book’s world. Thus, the two never get a chance to argue and have a falling out. Mia remains her maid for the duration of the story, while in the show she quits, causing further conflict between the two families.
At the center of Elena and Mia’s onscreen conflict is Pearl. In the show, Pearl often seeks Elena out for comfort or secretly sleeps at the Richardsons’ house when Mia bans her from visiting them. In the book, Mia doesn’t ban her from the family because Pearl is quieter, and more firmly on her side about things like Bebe. This change allows Elena to use Pearl to get to Mia – and vice versa. In the book, she’s not so involved with the Warrens, so she wouldn’t even consider threatening Mia to reveal the truth about her past to her clueless daughter. This leads to loud arguments between Mia and Pearl, but both are much calmer and quieter in the books and rarely fight at all.
3. Bebe and May Ling
When Bebe learns that the McCulloughs have her baby, she is too afraid to act because of the racial and class differences that put her at a disadvantage. In the show, Bebe storms the baby shower (which isn’t included in the book at all), where she has sent Mia to find May Ling under the pretense of taking photos for Linda. This gives Linda more reason to fear Bebe, along with rumors that Bebe steals money and deals drugs at the restaurant where she works. In the book, Bebe’s financial circumstances seem much more dire than they do onscreen; her clothes and living space look too nice, and she probably wouldn’t be able to afford a car.
When it comes to the trial, Mia agrees to testify for Bebe. In the book, Mia isn’t so involved in the case. As with all other matters, she prefers to stay on the sidelines, unnoticed. But in the series, Mia tells Bebe about her past, which helps Bebe understand why Mia is so passionate about this case. The Richardsons, on the other hand, are much more divided over Bebe’s case than they are in the book. Moody seems to take Izzy’s side and support Bebe in her claim over her own baby. In the book, the other Richardson children don’t care so much about Bebe because they’re so wrapped up in their own problems. However, this change makes sense for the miniseries because it helps to focus the story.
4. Mia’s Backstory
Mia is portrayed as a mysterious, taciturn woman, even around her daughter. She’s reluctant to reveal the truth about her checkered past, including the identity of Pearl’s father. Mia’s pregnancy is organized by a wealthy couple who need a surrogate. Mia agrees, for a sum of money that will cover her college tuition. However, during the pregnancy, she grows close to Pauline Hawthorne, her mentor. In the book, Pauline helps Mia get through college, which is one of the hardest periods of her life.
When Pauline dies, still pregnant, Mia drops out of college, flees the city, and changes her name. The show presents the reasoning behind this decision in a different way than the book does – perhaps so that it’s easier to grasp in the absence of narration. Pauline and Mia are not at all romantically involved in the book; in fact, Pauline has a girlfriend named Mal. Their relationship is strong only because of their shared passion for art. In the book, Mia has already left the city when she gets a call from Mal about Pauline’s health. Mia returns and stays in their apartment. Onscreen, Mia almost lives with Pauline, but in the book, she’s reluctant to accept such charity.
Mia raises Pearl as best she can all on her own. She cuts herself off from her parents, who are much harsher in the book – in regards to both her pregnancy and her career choice. She barely scrapes by financially and is utterly focused on her work as an artist. In the book, it’s made clear that Mia is romantically and sexually inexperienced, perhaps because she’s asexual, but also because she doesn’t have the time or the means to involve herself with anyone else.
5. Lexie’s Story
Lexie’s part in the story is much larger in the series than it is in the book, and this may be one of the strongest changes made for the adaptation. Her more important role adds nuance to the story, especially when it comes to the portrayal of race and class inequalities.
Early in the show, Lexie announces that she’s applying for Yale, but that she needs to write an essay about hardships she’s faced. Elena dismisses this task as ridiculous saying that she and her husband should be praised for creating an environment for their children that is free of hardships. So, when Pearl comes home talking about a teacher who insisted on changing her math class because he doesn’t think her capable enough, Lexie claims it as her own. However, she erases the issue of race and changes the details so that the story is about her being a girl.
When her boyfriend Brian, who is Black, hears about this, he’s disappointed in Lexie – but she can’t understand why. This causes their relationship to slowly crumble, whereas in the book their relationship is perfectly intact until the end.
Later in the series, Lexie gets an abortion. She asks Pearl to accompany her because she doesn’t want anyone to know about it. In the book, the clinic receptionist is her mom’s friend, but in the series, there doesn’t seem to be as much of a connection. This makes it easier for Lexie to use Pearl’s name on the admissions form. Later, when Elena is investigating Bebe Chow’s medical history, she visits the clinic but finds Pearl’s name in the records. Her discovery isn’t as impactful as it is in the book because of the missing connection with the receptionist.
After the abortion, Mia learns that Lexie used her daughter’s name, but Pearl doesn’t tell anyone in the book. This gives Mia a chance to be angry, which readers don’t get to see on the page.
6. Melodrama vs. Subtlety
Overall, the book is much subtler on many fronts. This is understandable, given the visual nature of a television series that doesn’t have any voiceover narration to offer insight into the characters’ decisions. Scenes are added in to make things more visually obvious to the viewer. For instance, in the book, Mia’s decision to keep the baby has nothing to do with Warren’s speech when he comes to visit her. In fact, he doesn’t visit her at all in the book.
Many of the scenes are imbued with typical T.V. drama; for instance, Mia and Pearl never fight in the book, but they do experience tension. Mia doesn’t have a secret reason for their less-than-glamorous life on the road; she simply can’t afford anything else.
One of the biggest differences between the two iterations of the story is how racism is presented. In the book, the Warrens’ race is never made explicit, and thus, the reason behind the rivalry between them and the Richardsons can only be inferred. Bebe Chow’s case has more to do with race than Mia and Pearl’s stories, though the link between these women gives readers the impression that everything in the book is about race. The difference between the show and the book here is that Ng’s narration is much subtler and leaves room for readers to fill in the gaps themselves.
7. Elena’s Backstory
To transfer Elena’s story from exposition to a visual medium, her internal conflicts are mad external. For example, her younger self is given a decent chunk of screentime to explore her past relationships and key life choices that have lead her to where she is now. As a young woman, she has the opportunity to leave Ohio with her then-boyfriend, Jamie. She’s tempted but ultimately refuses because of her fear of the unknown. Elena has grown up with a very specific idea of her life in mind, and she never strays from it.
In her adulthood, Elena comes to regret her choices and even visits Jamie (this doesn’t happen in the book). When her husband Bill finds out, the conflict becomes external. Throughout the season, Bill is much more present than he is in the book, and it’s largely because the narrative is building up to the final conflict, which leaves Bill and Elena with completely new perspectives of each other. The book is more subtle about Elena’s regret, and Bill never even suspects that she misses a former lover and the life they might have shared together.
8. Mia and Pearl’s Relationship
Because of the external nature of the screen adaptation, the conflict between Mia and Pearl is exacerbated. Towards the end, Elena sits Pearl down and tells her the truth about Mia’s past. In the book, Mia is the one to tell Pearl herself. Thus, the tension between the two families is more subtle and unsettling in the book, where everything simmers just below the surface.
A lot of things are left unsaid on the page, especially between Pearl and Mia. For instance, she never tells Mia about her relationship with Trip. There’s never a suggestion of it being a one-time fling – Pearl is interested in him because she likes him as a person. Still, when Pearl does tell her mom, it allows them to grow closer. In the book, their bond is more distant, and they certainly don’t have a secret knock.
Mia is a more enigmatic figure on the page, whereas onscreen, her life seems a little too nice for her circumstances; their new house in Shaker Heights is roomy, pleasant, and more comfortable than what Mia could realistically afford.
9. Pearl, Trip, and Moody
A love triangle forms between these three teens when Pearl fails to read the signals Moody’s sending. Onscreen, Moody is more proactive about his feelings for Pearl – he even asks for Trip’s advice on how to broach the topic with her. This interaction results in Trip confronting his own feelings towards Pearl, whereas on the page, Trip isn’t conflicted about this at all. Thus, he doesn’t argue with either Pearl or Moody. Because he doesn’t ask for Trip’s advice in the book, Moody doesn’t feel betrayed when he learns that his brother is now seeing the girl he likes.
In the book, Pearl and Trip are too careful about their meetings (and their location) to be caught, and they never plan on telling anyone. Moody catches Pearl in her lie and then confronts Trip, but in the book, he puts two and two together on his own. All in all, every character has a bigger role to play in the series than in the written version, and this is why the conflict is externalized so much.
10. The End
The ending of the miniseries leaves a little to be desired in terms of a resolution between the Richardsons and the Warrens. However, it offers a more layered sequence of events leading up to the fire. The outcome is the same in both mediums, but the timeline and the events leading up to it are different.
When everything falls apart, Elena demands that Mia leave the next day, but onscreen, the decision to leave without delay is Mia’s. In the book, Mia doesn’t want to leave, and Pearl argues bitterly. She and Moody have a wordless reconciliation which doesn’t translate to the screen. This is because more time passes between his discovery about her and Trip and the Warrens’ departure.
In the book, Izzy burns the house down in secret on the morning of the Warrens’ departure, and every step is carefully planned. Nobody knows for sure that she did it, though they can guess – interestingly, this is given away in the opening pages of the book.
The first episode of the miniseries suggests that Izzy has something to do with the fire, but the final episode untangles the true mystery behind it. Izzy’s siblings stop her before she can light the first match, and the rest of the family (except for Bill) contributes to the fire in their own ways. In the book, Lexie isn’t even present for the fire, having spent the night at Serena Wong’s.
Nobody expects Elena to take responsibility for burning her own, carefully constructed home. Her children believe she hates Izzy and would like to see her punished, and her husband is still hurt after their argument the night before. Not even the viewers would expect her to be so selfless after learning everything they have about her past.
As for Pearl and Mia, they leave without a clear destination in mind. They’re ready to let go of the past, but they don’t exactly know where they’re headed. Pearl only knows that she’s not ready to meet Mia’s past yet, but in the show, Pearl is the one to knock on her grandparents’ front door.