There’s a reason that Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington wanted to tackle the tale of Elena, a wealthy mother of four, and Mia, a single mother always on the move, both as executive producers and stars: the novel by Celeste Ng spent 48 weeks on the New York Times’ hardcover-fiction best-seller list, thanks to its complex characters and nuanced take on race, socioeconomics, motherhood and more delicate topics.
But that doesn’t mean the Hulu adaptation, which aired its finale on April 22, followed every beat of the book, with Little Fires Everywhere undergoing some pretty major tweaks for the small screen, including one major one even before the series began: making it clear Mia is black, with the novel never specifying the Warren women’s race.
“Initially, I had wanted to write [Mia and Pearl] as people of color,” Ng, who’s Asian-American, told The Altantic. “…but I didn’t feel like I was the right person to try to bring a black woman’s experience to the page.”
Arguably the biggest change from book to screen was the reveal at the end about who burned down the Richardson home.
In the series, it’s a shocking reveal when the three eldest Richardson siblings—Trip, Lexie and Moody—decide to do it together after realizing Izzy has run away, spurned by their mother’s shocking revelation about never wanting her, and realizing their entire life is a charade. They manage to get a spiraling Elena out of the house before it goes up in flames entirely, burning down the facade of the perfect family she had tried so hard to maintain.
“In burning down the house, they are burning down these versions of who they have been, hoping desperately they can grow into something better, and sending up a smoke signal to Izzy,” Tigelaar continued. “Telling her that it’s safe to come home.”
The book’s version of the tragedy is far more straight-forward, with the author revealing it in the very first line: Izzy is the one to burn it all down, making sure none of her family members will be home before doing so and not realizing her mother was unexpectedly in the house. She manages to escape, while Izzy runs away, using Mia’s mother’s name to go to Pittsburgh.
In episode six, which was almost entirely flashbacks to both leads’ younger years to shed a light on the choices they did or didn’t have as young mothers, viewers learned Mia was in a relationship with Pauline Hawthorne, her older photography professor, when she was living in New York City.
In the book, however, Mia and Pauline never have a romantic relationship, and Pauline actually had a longtime partner Mal, with the two almost serving as surrogate parents to a young Mia, who never had any real relationship experience and Ng implying the character was asexual.
Like in the series, Pauline also dies, but she does get to meet Pearl first, photographing the mother and daughter together before her death.
Sure, the mother-daughter duo were constantly at odds in Ng’s pages, but it’s taken to another level in the Hulu series, with Elena admitting in an outburst that she never wanted to have a fourth child. In the book, it was her fear of losing Izzy after she almost died as a baby that made her try to exert so much control over her youngest child.
“In our series, we set out to isolate Izzy even more than she had appeared in the book,” Tigelaar explained to Glamour. “To show that, among her siblings, she really was the black sheep.”
The series also addresses Izzy’s sexuality, revealing she is a lesbian and was in love with her former best friend, April, something the book never delved into.
While readers briefly learned of Jamie, Elena’s former beau, in a small passage that indicated no signs of regret or nostalgia on her part, TV Elena has had multiple encounters with her ex-boyfriend, none of which her husband (Oh hey, Joshua Jackson!) is too thrilled about after he learns about them.
First, she ran off to find comfort in Jamie shortly after having Izzy and is overwhelmed with having four children while coping with the loss of her professional identity. And Elena once again reaches out to her ex in the show’s present-day timeline, set in 1997, when she goes into the city to investigate Mia’s past, grabbing drinks and flirting with Jamie, who rejects her advances and calls her a “narcissist.” Which seems to be the point, as the TV Elena is far more villainous and callous than the book version of the character.
Elena deals a devastating blow to Mia in the show when she is the one to reveal the truth to Pearl about her father. In the book, it’s far less dramatic, with Mia being the one to explain it to Pearl, with the two ultimately deciding to drive off so the younger Warren can meet her father and grandparent.
In the book, Lexie does in fact use Pearl’s name when she goes to get an abortion, going on to recuperate at the Warren home with Mia helping to take care of her and is rather empathetic.
TV Mia does also help Lexie to an extent, but doesn’t hold back when Lexie attempts to find validation for her choice, delivering one of the series’ best scenes:
Another scene involving Lexie that we’re not treated to in the book is her break-up with Brian, which leads to a necessary conversation about race and the privilege she’s not even aware she has.
While not a major plot point, the photograph of Mia taken by Pauline Hawthorne does factor into both the book and show. In the book, Mia never has to sell the portrait of her in a bathtub while pregnant with Pearl to help Bebe pay her legal fees in her custody battle, as the lawyer ends up taking on the case pro bono. (Oh, and Elena never offered Bebe money to drop the case in the book!)