It starts with a fire, a house blazing against the night sky, surrounded by the chaos of firemen and sirens. At the still centre, a woman watches the blaze, her face full of emotion – but her expression unreadable. The opening credits take us into the house before the fire, and the lives of the family still untouched by what was about to disrupt them.
It’s always a pleasure when a screen adaptation matches the fictional world you see in your head when reading the book. Chinese American writer Celeste Ng, whose first novel Everything I Never Told You (2014) became a multi award winner and Little Fires Everywhere (2017) maintained Ng’s track record. Fires became an instant New York Times bestseller, and was the novel of the year for Amazon, Good Reads, Barnes & Noble, and Washington Post among others.
The success is well-deserved and the series has done justice to the complex tale of race, class, privilege, feminism and motherhood, with a compelling mystery thrown in to keep you hooked from the first scenes.
Reese Witherspoon and Golden Globe winner Kerry Washington co-produce and co-star as Elena Richardson and Mia Warren respectively. Elena is a well-meaning liberal whose comfortable life and controlling ways make her blind to her privilege and entitlement, while Mia is her polar opposite, a single black mother, a strongly independent artist with a huge and justifiable chip on her shoulder.
Both struggle with teenage daughters who fight to claim their own identities.
The cast is strong. Witherspoon is spot-on with her nuanced depiction of Elena, keeping her just on the right side of caricature, while Washington brings a fierce presence that plays off everyone she holds a scene with.
The kids are good too, and the story lets us fully into their worlds and secrets, not just as adjuncts to the main protagonists but as provocateurs with their own motives and agendas. Lexi Underwood is particularly well cast as Pearl Warren, Mia’s clever and beautiful daughter seduced by the Richardson family’s wealth and privilege.
And though it’s largely a female two hander for Elena and Mia, Joshua Jackson (remember Dawson’s Creek?) puts in a nicely ambivalent and pivotal performance as Elena’s lawyer husband.
The book and series are set in the Ohio city of Shaker where Ng herself lived during her teenage years. It’s a progressive, liberal environment but its inherent ‘old family’ wealth and privilege engenders blind spots. As Ng says, “We often suppress racial and cultural biases in ourselves, even when we can identify them in someone else”.
Elena embodies this liberalism and blinkered vision. She states her motto is “Doing kind things for kind people who appreciate your kindness,” and is an incorrigible fixer and rescuer. She is blind to her controlling behaviour and how it constantly categorises and appropriates people like Mia and her daughter, who are in a lower social-economic class and racially different.
It’s a terrific set up for us to examine so many societal nuances, using scenes in the privileged family home as the pivotal drama, contrasting with Mia’s bohemian lifestyle and the social nightmare of high school, complete with prom nights and mean girl bullies.
Throughout, there is debate about being a woman, with a funny and excruciating discussion of the ‘Vagina Monologues’ at the wannabe progressive book club, to teenage daughters struggling against their mothers’ moulding them in their own likeness.
Mia says, ‘how can we see ourselves when we’re afraid to look at who we are?’ She attempts to explore the darker side of human emotion through her art but at the same time is keeping as many potentially explosive secrets as everyone else, those ‘little fires’ threatening to burn out of control at any moment.
Like the book, the eight episode series is un-putdown-able, in spite of a few heavy handed scene transitions. Ng was involved throughout in translating the book to screen but it is writer/producer Liz Tigelaar (Bates Motel, Morning Show) who deserves credit for the very strong script. Tigelaar co-produced and worked closely with Washington and Witherspoon, and was, as she said to Variety, committed to writing “a show about the truth and complexity of women’s relationships to each other”.
Variety also reported it was Tigelaar who put together a unique writers room of seven, including six women, many of colour, several of them mothers. “This show would not be what it was without every single person who was in that room,” she insists. “I see them in every line, every choice, every debate.”
Of note is that the very recently departed Lynn Shelton directed 4 of the 8 episodes.
Little Fires Everywhere launches on Amazon Prime Video from May 22, 2020