Celeste Ng’s acclaimed 2017 novel, Little Fires Everywhere is one of those books that you can finish in one single, breathless sitting. The plot is tight, the storytelling nimble. It effortlessly admits you into the believable world of Elena Richardson, Mia Warren and their contrasting, conflicting lives.
The book is what one calls good fiction and is aptly deserving of the countless accolades – 48 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list, winner of the Goodreads Readers’ Choice Awards 2017 (Fiction), and so on.
So, when last year Hulu announced the book’s adaptation into an eight-part miniseries, starring and produced by Academy award-winning actor Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, one expected nothing less than sparks on screen.
Witherspoon played the rich, blond perfection that Elena Richardson is. She got the wonderful Kerry Washington to take on the pensive artistic role of Mia Warren. But despite the strong casting, the show, currently streaming on Disney+Hotstar in India, falls a bit flat.
At the heart of Ng’s novel are these two central characters, their diametrically opposite parenting styles, and an immersive underlying theme of child custody. Set in the wealthy and idyllic Shaker Heights, Ohio, of the 90s, Witherspoon’s version of Elena checks all the boxes – an uptight, stubborn journalist and privileged mother of four, married to a lawyer-husband – yet, it doesn’t match the book version. It seems like she’s trying too hard and it is only as the show progresses and her obsession with Mia grows that her character finds the much-needed solemn tempo.
Kerry Washington’s Mia is a little too complicated. In her attempt to render the mysterious, nomadic artist-photographer single mother with a secretive past, working part-time at a diner to make ends meet, she inadvertently comes across as arrogant.
The tension between these two central characters is the obvious essence that builds a seamless narrative in the book. In the show, however, the balance is off and the overtly dramatic scenes spoil the subtlety of their chemistry.
What also doesn’t quite work on screen is the forced theme of colour and race. Mia and daughter Pearl are represented as black-Americans on the show (as opposed to the book), which is fine until white upper class elitism begins to supersede every second scene, thus making Celeste Ng’s nuanced and intelligent writing seem dull.
Two other characters that don’t convince are that of Lexie and Trip, Elena’s eldest daughter and son. One expected Lexie to be far more glamourous and a bit callous too, and Trip a bit more high-school brattish. The show ends up putting them on periphery.
The younger kids, however, seem to have it under control. Moody (Elena’s son) played by Gavin Lewis is the perfect balance of nerdy and sweet; Lexi Underwood is excellent as the timid, emotional and inquisitive Pearl. And the casting of Megan Stott as Izzy (Elena’s youngest) couldn’t have been better. She’s all parts rebellious and it is pure joy to watch her defy her mother’s rulebook.
The only theme, and perhaps the most important one, that the show manages to stably highlight is that of motherhood. Mia’s co-worker Bebe’s poignant regret of giving up her child, Elena’s friend Linda McCollough’s never-ending woes, first with multiple miscarriages, and later with the custody battle involving Mirabelle / May Ling (Bebe’s child, whom she found abandoned at a fire station).
For anyone who has read Celeste Ng’s book will agree that Little Fires Everywhere treads the grey area and beautifully so. There’s a bit of right and a bit of wrong, and a lot of heart. The characters are far from perfect, and their imperfect choices make them more human.
The show isn’t all that bad, but it’s not a must-watch either. Motherhood-battles steer the tune of the show, unfortunately adding a soppy element to an otherwise clever plot. It’s nowhere close to the excellence of the book, which is a sure shot page-turner. Celeste Ng deftly combines difficult choices concerning motherhood, along with unsettling perspectives of class that surprisingly seem relatable. Her clean, strong prose ensures it’s a story well-told and one that stays with you.
Then perhaps it is true that not many screen adaptations do justice to their literary counterparts. And maybe stories are in fact better told from inside the pages of a book.
Little Fires Everywhere released on 18 March 2020 is available on Disney-Hotstar.