Celeste Ng is walking inside her own imagination. At least, it feels that way.
The author of “Little Fires Everywhere,” the bestselling 2017 novel that explores the intricate relationship between mothers and children, is wandering a cavernous soundstage in West Hollywood for a glimpse of her book’s transformation into a Hulu limited series starring and executive produced by Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington.
“I think of myself as being like this little intruder,” she whispers during a break from shooting in mid-July while walking back in time through the series’ re-created ‘90s suburbia. “I don’t want to mess things up, but I also want to dissect everything.”
The relationship between novelists and the Hollywood machine can often be fraught. There are countless stories of authors displeased with how their work has been adapted for the big and small screen, and plenty of authors with clout, such as J.K. Rowling and E.L. James, have fought for greater control to ensure their vision makes it to the screen.
“My husband asked me part way through it all, like, ‘Are you feeling possessive of it?’ And honestly, I’m really not,” Ng says after scoping out some of the set‘s interiors, meticulously crafted by production designer Jessica Kender. “I wanted it to have space to be its own thing.”
For the uninitiated: While the story is set in motion by an arson — and the question of why someone in a seemingly utopian small town would do such a thing — it’s the pains and contradictions of motherhood that provide the drama. Witherspoon portrays Elena Richardson, the wealthy, perfectionist matriarch of a family with four teenage children; Washington’s Mia Warren is a mysterious, bohemian artist and mother who lives with her teenage daughter in the Richardsons’ rental property in idyllic Shaker Heights, Ohio.
The eight-episode series joins Hulu’s growing roster of literary adaptations, which includes “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Looking for Alaska,” when the first three episodes premiere Wednesday. After that, new episodes will drop weekly.
“Little Fires Everywhere” debuts at a complicated time. As the coronavirus has people self-quarantining, and Hollywood has been scrambling to adjust its film and TV release plans in response, there have been discussions at Hulu about whether to release the full season at once. But, as of now, there are no plans to change strategy.
On set last July felt like a very different world from the one in which the series will premiere.
Ng was in town from her home in Cambridge, Mass., to visit the set, and there was a palpable sense that it was all a little overwhelming — with good reason. Before exploring the various sets, Ng, dressed in a prim, mauve-colored sheath dress, sat inside the Richardsons’ formal living room, filming a scene with Witherspoon and Washington for the second episode. It’s a moment that wasn’t in the book, involving a tense discussion of “The Vagina Monologues” among the women in a Shaker Heights book club.
“It felt totally new and also really familiar,” Ng says. “It was this weird feeling of, ‘I’ve never seen this with my eyes before,’ and yet they’re the characters I imagined. There was a moment where I was sitting there and Reese was chit-chatting with some of the women in the scene and it hit me like: I’m here with Reese Witherspoon talking about vaginas.” (Soon after the trio wrapped, they posed for a photo while proclaiming “Vagina!” to the camera.)
The cameo capped Ng’s helpful, but measured, involvement with the series.
The show’s creator, Liz Tigelaar (“Casual,” “Bates Motel”), says she spoke at length with Ng about her vision for the series — including the tweaks and additions she wanted to make, like amplifying the arcs of the teen characters and exploring the sexuality of Elena’s rebel daughter, Izzy (played by Megan Stott). Ng reviewed all the scripts, mostly giving notes on Shaker Heights, where she grew up, to make it feel more authentic. She also visited the writers room while they were working on a flashback episode, bringing in her high school yearbook for inspiration.
“We would ask her a million questions,” Tigelaar says. “And we didn’t feel handcuffed in any way. Everything that we did in honoring the book came from a place of just loving the book. Our creative process was never like, ‘Oh, well, we can’t do this because that would change something.’ ”
“I really didn’t have any stipulations, because I trusted them,” Ng says. “I talked to both Reese and Kerry, and later Liz. They told me what parts of the book spoke to them and the parts that really had stuck with them. Those were the parts that were most important to me too.”
The story delves into class and race, particularly when Mia helps a Chinese immigrant coworker try to find the infant daughter she regrets giving up. And Washington’s casting as Mia pulled race deeper into the storytelling.
“In the initial drafts of the book,” Ng explains, “I wanted to make Mia a woman of color. I knew that I wanted to look at race, but I knew that there was going to be this Asian American baby, and I felt like making her an Asian American woman, which was a perspective I knew I could write, would be a little too neat. Like, of course the Asian woman will side with the Asian mother. But I didn’t feel like I was the right person to write a black woman’s experience. I didn’t want to pretend like I knew what that was like. So, I thought of her as a white woman, but I didn’t mark her racially. I am happy that Reese and Lauren saw the opening to explore that through Kerry.”
“It’s interesting, because when people hear about the show, they’re super excited and then they’re like, ‘Who’s in it?,’ ” Ng continues. “And I tell them. You can see them having to mentally readjust. And I actually really like that little mental reset, where you can see them going, ‘That is not what I expected.’ ”
For Ng, who leans on the metaphor that her song is being covered by another band, it’s what she wanted out of the process.
“I didn’t want to just see exactly what I had in my mind when I wrote the book, because I can see that any time. I wanted to see how other people interpreted it.”
It helped that “Little Fires Everywhere” found its way into capable hands.
Months before the book’s release, in the spring of 2017 — not long after “Big Little Lies” made its debut — Ng’s film agent sent a manuscript of the novel to Lauren Levy Neustadter, the head of film and TV at Witherspoon’s female-centric media company, Hello Sunshine. The actress read it and made it her book club selection, and got Washington, who she’d long wanted to work with, to read it too, along with Pilar Savone, who heads development for the “Scandal” star’s Simpson Street production company.
Witherspoon says she was drawn to the way Ng explored the complexities of motherhood — particularly how we are mothered by women other than our biological mother — with particular attention to race and class.
“What I loved about the book, it’s really about four different mothers — how they became a mother, what it means to them socioeconomically to be a mother, and morally to be a mother — and how all of those things are in conflict,” Witherspoon said by phone.
In a separate phone call, Washington added: “We tend to think in this binary judgment scale of good mother, bad mother — even when we, mothers, think about ourselves. And [Ng] was really painting a portrait of an ocean of nuance in what kind of mothers you can be ... At some point Reese and I were talking about our own outfits in the ‘90s and how we were teenagers in the ‘90s and it occurred to us for the first time that we were playing our mothers. It shocked us both a little bit that we hadn’t thought of that sooner.”
All involved believe the story will resonate with viewers just as mightily as the book did. Of course, with every literary adaptation that finds success on the small screen, the question looms about whether to extend the life of the series beyond the narrative of the book. When HBO opted to move forward with a second season of “Big Little Lies,” author Liane Moriarty wrote a lengthy unpublished novella to serve as a foundation. Ng wouldn’t be so inclined.
“It’s a hard thing for me to get my mind around,” Ng says. “It’s sort of like imagining what your kid is going to be like before I have the kid. I would feel immensely lucky if this series does well enough that they want to continue it. I don’t think I’d be able to do what Liane did and come up with the story. I feel like I’ve said everything I know about these characters. But someone else might be able to. And I’m OK with that happening.”
Tigelaar, though, isn’t ready to turn that page.
“I think it has such a beautiful beginning, middle and end — and the finale feels pretty final,” she says. “I suppose crazier things have happened, but for me, we told the story and I love, love, love where it ends.”