In the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) is sitting down to dinner with her husband and four kids in the meticulously decorated dining room of her spacious home. Across town, single mom Mia Warren (Kerry Washington) is also sitting down to a meal with her daughter…at Lucky Palace, the Chinese restaurant where she recently landed a waitressing job. Mia and young Pearl (Lexi Underwood) are new to the city, and they don't intend to stay long — certainly not long enough for the smoke to clear.
Hulu's eight-episode limited series Little Fires Everywhere is based on Celeste Ng's best-selling 2017 novel about a tight-knit (and uptight) Midwestern community in the '90s and what two very different moms bring out in each other. "They have this commonality between them, which is that they believe they're doing what's best for their children," says showrunner Liz Tigelaar, who worked on the Apple TV+ series The Morning Show that starred Witherspoon as an impulsive TV reporter. "Through the story, that notion gets unraveled in both of them. They each hold up a mirror to the other, and the results change their lives, the lives of their families, and the lives of the people in the town."
Because, as the title suggests, this story ends with fire — or rather, that's where it starts. Both the book and the series open with a house fire, one that seems to point to Elena's problem child, Izzy (Megan Stott), as the person holding the match. But nothing's quite as it seems. Slowly, we get to know the rest of Elena's children — Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn), the overachiever with a thing for cardigans, Trip (Jordan Elsass), the archetypal jock who just needs to find the right girl to reveal his heart of gold, and Moody (Gavin Lewis), the sensitive guy destined to live in the friend zone. Then there's Pearl Warren, the new girl, who finds herself deeply entangled in the lives of all of the Richardsons. It's a story about the simplest of human interactions, and how those interactions can provoke larger conversations about racism and classism. That's what made Ng's novel a success and why Witherspoon selected it as the fourth pick in her book club.
"I met Celeste at a conference," remembers Witherspoon. "She stopped me and said, 'I have a new book, and I really want you to read it, and my dream is that you'll turn it into a TV show.' I'm thinking, the likelihood of that happening is, like, 2 percent, because sometimes you can read a really great book but it's not cinematic." But after reading Little Fires Everywhere, Witherspoon not only acquired the rights through her production company, Hello Sunshine, but immediately reached out to Kerry Washington because the two had been looking to collaborate. "I fell in love with the book and could immediately see [Reese] as Elena and me as Mia, and it just started to come together," says Washington, recently seen in Netflix's American Son. Witherspoon then found the perfect showrunner in Tigelaar, whose "ideas for my [Morning Show] character always really jumped out to me," the actress says. "It was clear that she had really incredible skills as a screenwriter."
They agreed that Ng was right: Little Fires was the kind of print story that would translate to the screen, in part because Shaker Heights is not your typical place. As Ng writes in the book, the city has rules. It's the kind of wealthy community that puts a curfew on trick-or-treating and cites residents when their grass grows longer than six inches. It isn't for everybody, but it was made for Elena, the woman who keeps a color-coordinated calendar to schedule her children's events — one color per child — measures her wine pours each night, and has sex with her husband only on Saturdays. "I was really curious about people who get stuck in a mindset or a socioeconomic bubble and can't see out of it," Witherspoon says of the exacting role.
And that's where Mia comes in: She's going to pop that bubble. Driving into town in her beat-up Chevy, Mia doesn't come from a world privileged enough to care about the length of its grass. She's an artist who works a day job to pay the bills. And, in the biggest departure from the book (which never specified her race), Mia is African-American. "It takes a story that's about race and class that involves the supporting characters [in the book] and puts the story right between Kerry and Reese," explains Tigelaar.
Things become more complicated when the pair find themselves on opposing sides of a court case. After Elena's friends the McCulloughs (Rosemarie DeWitt and Geoff Stults) struggle to have children of their own, they adopt a Chinese girl. But happiness is short-lived when they discover that the baby's biological mother Bebe (Huang Lu) — who left the child at a firehouse after she was born — wants her back. Elena defends her friend's right to raise the child, and Mia sides with Bebe.
"It's a think piece," says Witherspoon. "Do we value money over biology?"
Bebe's abandoment of her child isn't her only hurdle: She's also an undocumented immigrant. "There are three different classes represented. There's the rich and the underserved, but there's a level underneath the underserved, which is not only not economically empowered but you are an immigrant so you are socially devalued," says Witherspoon. "Each one of them is whole and not seen by the other and they are all parts of society that don't recognize each other, and in this show they are forced to see that."
Shot in 2019 in L.A., Little Fires attempts to answer the age-old question of what makes a good parent and, in Elena's case, what happens when a less affluent mother and daughter try to navigate a perfectly groomed town? "It's about what you do with new information," says Witherspoon. "Do you soften to it, or does it break you? Are you open to new ideas or does it so rattle your worldview that you can't hold on anymore?"
In other words, do you adapt or do you burn it all down? As Elena and Mia will learn over the course of the series, perhaps it doesn't matter if your dinner is home-cooked or takeout, served in fine stemware or plastic cups. The biggest difference between the homes they've made is that only one of them ends up in flames.