“Little Fires Everywhere” and the power of adaptation

By Kyler Guebert, Staff Reporter

My mom made a deal with me while I was growing up. If I wanted to see a movie in theaters that was based on a book, I had to read the book first. 

Her main goal was to teach me to work for what I want. However, this also taught me so much about the process of adaptation. In many cases, this often leads to conversations about how “the book was better.” 

I remember reading John Green’s “Paper Towns” in high school and falling in love with it. I couldn’t wait to see the movie, but I was disappointed when the film didn’t meet my expectations. 

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Certain plot elements were changed and characters didn’t exactly match how I pictured them. However, even then, I was able to appreciate certain elements of the film, even if they weren’t like they were in the book.

This leads me to “Little Fires Everywhere”, a novel released in 2017 by Celeste Ng. The story, set in Shaker Heights, Ohio where Ng grew up in the late 1990s, revolves around what happens to the community when a traveling artist and her teenage daughter move into town. 

Hulu announced a miniseries based on the novel, which was slated to premiere March 18th of this year (Hulu ended up dropping the episodes a day early), with Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington set to star.

I decided to follow my mother’s advice and read the book before the miniseries dropped. I devoured the novel in one night. 

Ng’s writing is poetic and masterful and her ability to edit every element of the story perfectly, revealing information at the perfect time for the story, is brilliant.

Ng’s novel touches on so many topics in such a short amount of time that it’s difficult to narrow what the novel is about down to just one thing, but her writing brings them each to the surface perfectly and finds a balance between the elements. 

From race to motherhood to the consequences of well-intentioned actions, “Little Fires Everywhere” had me hooked from the very beginning and never once let up. 

To say my love for the novel influenced how I watched the first three episodes of Hulu’s adaptation of the novel would be both slightly disappointing and accurate. 

Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington are amazing and the source material is so perfect for an adaptation like this. My expectations for the series were so high after just having read the novel that I sat down ready to see an absolute masterpiece.  

And, so far at least, “Little Fires Everywhere” on Hulu is giving me the reaction I feared: The book is better. But, the miniseries is also different. 

The skeleton of the novel is set in the miniseries and it is following similarly paced beats, but some elements certain friendships, family dynamics, character motivations are not as strong as they are in the novel and some elements have been completely erased or added. 

This isn’t to say these elements are bad in any way. The miniseries is flowing beautifully and the first three episodes were all written and directed exceptionally well. 

The entire cast is thrilling to watch, especially Witherspoon and Washington. When the two of them are on screen together, it’s impossible to look away. The editing is incredibly tight and the opening credits are entrancing from the very beginning. 

Writer Celeste Ng is also a producer on the show, which reassures me that she endorses the changes made and likely was included in the writing process. These changes make the world in Shaker Heights a little more dramatic and bring the characters a little more depth right off the top of the series. 

One of the best parts about this adaptation is the unspoken tension between the characters, with many conversations playing out on-screen exactly as they had in my mind while reading. 

I’m hoping that tension sticks around through the five remaining episodes, which, if they continue following the story as they have, will rely so heavily on that tension to allow the complex characters of “Little Fires Everywhere” to make decisions that make sense for themselves while also allowing the audience to question their processes. 

There is still so much of the world Ng created to explore and I am genuinely so excited to see what they do from here, even if it’s not a perfect adaptation. 

Staff writer Kyler Guebert can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @kguebert88. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

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