Hulu’s adaptation of Little Fires Everywhere has featured substantial changes to Celeste Ng’s novel, from changing the race of central characters Mia and Pearl to giving Elena Richardson and her youngest child, Izzy, fully developed back stories that helped explain their fraught relationship.
“Find a Way,” the series finale, packed another surprise punch: We learned those little fires were set by all of the Richardson children — not just problem child Izzy, as it happened in the 2017 best-selling book. The idea to change that part of the ending occurred to showrunner Liz Tigelaar early in the adaptation process, but was cultivated in the writers’ room.
“We thought there was an opportunity to create more mystery,” Tigelaar says. “Why tell the audience who did it at the beginning? Let’s make that a mystery that we can tease in concert with the other mystery of what’s Mia’s deal and what is she doing? … It didn’t rule out Izzy as being the person to do it but, certainly, we thought everyone who’s read the book is going to know the ending. So what if there is an ending that captures the spirit of her doing it, but we have the opportunity to add even more layers and complexity to it?”
Vulture spoke with Tigelaar and Ng, in separate interviews, about the revelations in the finale, and whether they are considering a second season for a show originally conceived as a limited series.
Who Set the Fire
In the book, Izzy sets fire to each of her siblings’ beds while they are out of the house. On the TV show, Izzy attempts to start a fire in her room, but is stopped by her siblings. This leads to a blowout between Izzy and Elena, after which Izzy flees the house and her siblings, shocked by their mother’s words, finish what their sister started.
Tigelaar: At first I wondered, Who burns it down? Is it Elena? Is that crazy? I thought Elena would definitely be the craziest person to set the fire, and then I thought if we could get her to do it, wouldn’t that be, like, the biggest arc you could take a character on? But then as we all talked about it as producers we were like, “But is that even believable?” So we kept thinking — would it be Lexie? Or Trip? Would it be Moody? And I couldn’t buy it as any of them. But what I got really excited about was the idea of the three of them collectively, and what would that mean and what kind of story would that be? How could that feel at the end if they finished what Izzy started? And what you got at the end is this idea that, yes, they got the gas tank and lit the matches, but when Elena takes ownership of having done it, she means that. She feels as though she caused all of this to happen. So we earn it with Elena without her having to commit arson and burn down her own house.
But then when we got into the writers’ room, everyone had different ideas about who started the fire and what they believed in. We didn’t really have consensus, so we left it open to discover in the process, but went with the initial idea of the kids doing it. Once we started crafting the story toward the ending, it all started to fall into place. When we read through the episode with the actors at the final table read, tears were just falling out of my eyes, and I think it was just sheer relief that it was working, that it all was making sense.
Ng: I was really excited to see the ways in which they would add a different twist to it, because I liked the idea that this series would be its own thing, and that it was going to go in a slightly different direction. I really liked that shift. You get the sense that everyone has been changed by this. They all see things differently than they did at the very beginning. And their taking action in that way shows their lives are going to be changed by this, too. Not just Izzy’s, not just Elena’s, but everybody in the family. So, for the show that they built up, I thought it felt exactly right.
There’s a saying in writing about how your ending in fiction needs to be both surprising and inevitable, meaning you should be surprised when you get that, and then when you think back, nothing else could have happened. That’s how I felt about this ending. I loved it.
In the book, Izzy is not aware that her mother is sleeping in the house when she sets the fire, but Elena escapes. On the TV show, Izzy’s siblings set the fires together and then pull their mother out of the house.
Tigelaar: For the first time, Lexie, Moody, and Trip experience what it’s like to be Izzy and they see their mom through her eyes for the first time. And that really propels them into action — and, of course, there’s this excitement and energy and pack mentality. But, once the house is on fire and they’re kind of mesmerized by these flames, they’re like, We need to get the fuck out of here. Their intention is not to kill their mother.
Ng: There’s a sense that what they want to destroy isn’t their mother but the life in which they all have been kind of trapped. I thought that was a really genius way of doing it. We see that the kids changed because they set the fire and they put themselves on Izzy’s side. Elena’s changed, too. She’s recognizing maybe for the first time that she has been responsible for so much of what’s gone on. She’s taking responsibility for all of it. Before, she was always trying to blame it on somebody else and picture herself as the righteous person. So the double reading of that line at the end [when Elena says “I did it”] gives me at least some hope for Elena in the future. She’s maybe recognizing something about herself that she hasn’t throughout the whole rest of the show.
Mia’s last art piece
In the book, Mia leaves each member of the Richardson family a portrait she has taken of them. On the TV show, Mia’s artwork is a model of Shaker Heights, made from white flour, with a cage at the center.
Tigelaar: In the book, Mia is much more connected to the Richardson kids. There’s class disparity but there isn’t race to deal with in terms of their relationships. We were very aware of telling a story where a black woman comes in and “sees” all these white kids and leaves them for the better. That felt like it would be potentially leaning into a trope of how black women care for white children. It just didn’t feel authentic to me. The only person she has a connection to is Izzy, and even her relationship with Izzy has certain boundaries. So that was something that was really important to us as we debated what the final art piece should be.
For a long time, Amy Talkington, who wrote that episode, was the keeper of the art and had so much vision for what the final art piece should be. She really came up with that idea and presented it to us and then we expanded it. It was this idea of the cage and how the cage was rooted in this town in this immovable way, stuck in this white flour, and everything in this town had solidified and was immovable. And the cage was where the Richardson house was, and inside the cage is this feather that Mia took from Izzy’s room — this idea that Elena is both the cage and she’s been caged, and that there’s a door, and that potentially this could be her way out, too.
Ng: In the book, she leaves each of them an individualized portrait, a way of saying, “I see who you really are for better or for worse.” This is much more of a statement about the entire life that they had been living, rather than the particulars of their person. It melds really well with them setting a fire to the lives they’ve been trapped in.
A second season?
The Hulu series covers the entire arc of Ng’s book, and ends with Mia and Pearl having left Shaker Heights and the Richardson family behind. Little Fires Everywhere is billed as a miniseries — but that hasn’t always stopped other shows (including another based-on-a-book series starring and executive produced by Reese Witherspoon) from expanding into a second season.
Tigelaar: Personally, I would love to do a season two because this was the best creative experience of my life. My issue with season two is, I don’t know how Elena and Mia ever come together in an organic way. We talked a lot in the room about how we’re supposed to feel at the end about Izzy. How can we not be worried for her? But we also talked about the reality of the moment — that she probably would turn around after a few days and come home. So, yes, I do think there are stories to tell. But that’s more of a spinoff than a second season. It’s hard to say good-bye, but there’s something about trying to extend it past its shelf life that I feel would dishonor what it was. It’s hard to say that because I would love to work in that writers’ room for the rest of my life.
Ng: You never say never, right? I’m thinking about Fleabag, which is a show I loved last year. She was like, “Nope, that’s it.” And then three years later, “Actually, I have one more idea.” And it was great! I’m so glad she did it, right? But I think for me, right now, everything that I know about the characters is on the page. And I think that’s how Liz is feeling about it, too, from having talked to her. But you never know. These characters may come back to me with an idea about more story that needs to be told. Right now, I feel like the series did such a good job of ending where you have an idea of what people’s trajectory is going to be. We don’t see it, but we have an idea of what’s changed for each of them, and from that we can extrapolate. So right now I don’t have more to say about them, but maybe three years from now, we’ll make another episode and there’s gonna be a hot priest.