By Bridget Sjoberg | Editor-in-Chief
“Little Fires Everywhere” has everything going for it to be wildly successful. It stars and is co-produced by Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, two of Hollywood’s most popular leading ladies. It’s based off of Celeste Ng’s best-selling novel of the same name, which was also a pick for Witherspoon’s book club. It’s also being released as a Hulu series of eight episodes. With all of these expectations behind it, the first four episodes still manage to hit the mark…mostly.
The plot, taking place in the ‘90s, follows two mothers, Elena Richardson (Witherspoon) and Mia Warren (Washington), who couldn’t be more different. Elena lives with her husband and four children in the picture-perfect suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio, and works as a journalist at a local newspaper. Mia, an artist, moves from city to city with her teenage daughter Pearl, and has a free-spirited approach to life. The plot picks up when Mia and Pearl move to Shaker Heights in a duplex that Elena is subleasing, and the two mothers’ lives intersect.
The show is cast nearly perfectly. Although the characters’ races are not identified in the novel, the choice to cast black actresses for Mia and Pearl adds another important layer of complexity to the plot. It creates commentary addressing racial privilege, along with the socio-economic privilege discussed heavily in the book. Washington does an excellent job playing a mother who is completely devoted to her child, yet whose desire to protect Pearl often drives her further and further away. She plays Mia with an air of mystery, building up important tension that leads to revealed secrets later in the story.
Pearl, and each of the four Richardson children, are also well-cast. They perfectly capture the intricacies of their characters in the novel, who are forced to confront issues that make them question their identities. Although Witherspoon seems like a shoo-in for playing Elena, her previous role of Madeline Mackenzie in “Big Little Lies” makes her portrayal of Elena fall a bit flat. Madeline is a comical character whose ridiculous desire to appear perfect leads to over-the-top, controlling behavior. Although this exaggerated behavior worked for Madeline, it doesn’t work quite as well for Elena, who is easily vilified in the TV adaptation.
In the book, important questions involving motherhood are presented through an objective lens — while both mothers make mistakes and have difficulties relating to their children, they also prove to have admirable and sympathetic qualities that the reader can relate to. The book was quite nuanced, letting the reader make the choices themselves about who is right or wrong. In creating drama, the TV show provides a more black and white picture in which Elena, in her condescending efforts to not be seen as racist, is more clearly presented in a negative light.
This, however, is only a minor difference that would only be picked up by someone comparing the show to the book. If a viewer watches the show without reading the novel, the more dramatized storyline is not necessarily a bad thing. Highlights of the show include the tense relationship between Elena and Mia, the further development of Elena’s daughter, Izzy, from being more than just a rebellious teenager, and the social commentary exchanged during a time when social media was nonexistent.
As the first scene in the show showcases, all of the drama results in the Richardson’s house being burnt to the ground. The mystery and secrets leading to this incident will be further uncovered in the show’s next four episodes, which will be released once a week Wednesdays on Hulu.