There’s an oft-quoted line, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” When there’s a troubled production or a death in the cast, sometimes a film or TV series sees a boost in audience numbers. Real life drama can add to the drama unfolding on the screen. For the Hulu series “Little Fires Everywhere,” the death of vibrant 54-year-old director Lynn Shelton from an undiagnosed blood disease may draw a larger audience. It’s a nice way to pay tribute to her.
A talented writer as well as director, Shelton made eight films in 14 years. She parlayed success in smaller intimate films to work in television. Her lucrative TV work then helped finance her independent films. Most known for the “dramedies” “Humpday,” “Your Sister’s Sister,” “Laggies” and her last film, “Sword of Trust,” Shelton also directed episodes of “The Mindy Project,” “The New Girl,” “Glow,” “Mad Men,” “The Morning Show,” andher romantic and creative partner Marc Maron’s comedy specials. “Little Fires Everywhere”was her last project.
Watching the Hulu series will be a different experience for those who haven’t read the bestselling book of the same name. The book’s focus is on the photographer and her relationships, both with her daughter and the mother of a privileged family. There’s a more in-depth backstory and an emphasis on her art. The series features Kerry Washington in the role of main character Mia Warren. However, with Reese Witherspoon as a producer and costar, the character of the self-serving woman of white privilege Elena Richardson becomes a central focus.
The production values are very high with a beautiful soundtrack and a brilliant title sequence. I enjoyed watching the artfully filmed series of burning objects that represent various plot points so much that I never fast-forwarded through it. The acting is strong across the cast, with the weakest casting being Joshua Jackson as the long-suffering patriarch that lets Elena rule the roost. His befuddlement and lack of support for his children may be representative of the times (both the series and book are set in the early 1990s), but Jackson is more believable playing the hapless husband and less successful as the irresponsible parent.
Witherspoon shines in her passive-aggressive role. Washington starts strong as a single mother negotiating her way in the world, but the screenplay turns her into a weepy mother afraid to confront her daughter. It rings false and is clearly a ruse to let Elena have the upper hand with Pearl. Lexi Underwood is strong as Pearl, as is the young actress who plays Mia as a young woman. Two of the Richardson siblings, Izzy (Megan Stott) and the love-struck Moody (Gavin Lewis) give nuanced performances, but the interracial couple of Brian and Lexi have some extended stilted scenes that cause the story to stutter and stall.
There are many changes from the book to expand the story into the series. Instead of focusing on Mia’s backstory exclusively, there’s more backstory for Elena. Each of the Richardson siblings is given a spotlight, and Izzy’s story is dramatically different and expanded. The mystery of how the house burns down is also different, and I would say, better, in the series. The accountability of the tragedy is claimed by the one person whose meddling and narcissism caused three families to split apart. Most of the changes add depth to the central story of motherhood. What was missing was the art.
The series does feature a series of photos to represent Mia’s work. The backstory of her time in art school highlights her passion for her art and love story. What’s not evident is a central concept in the book. Mia is known as a promising artist; an up-and-coming photographer with a gallery show in the works. In the book, her work draws large sums from collectors. In the series, it’s a photo taken of, not by her that sells for a large sum. Though there are scenes of her creating, Mia’s photos are mainly absent.
There’s a scene of Mia shopping and being inspired as she grabs bags of flour. Her character is shown in a creative flurry, creating a diorama of this planned community, Shaker Heights. There’s a pivotal scene showing her taking photos proudly; Pearl finally allowed into her studio. Sadly, the big reveal is a letdown. In the book, Mia’s created a series of photos that represents the hidden personalities of all the Richardson family. In the series, it’s a cliché of a “white bread” village, and the one interesting art piece glimpsed earlier, the burnt photo strips of Elena’s face, is missing.
In expanding the story to include teen romance, school bullying, racial appropriation, Pearl’s poetry and sibling rivalry, there was less room for Mia’s art, which diluted the power of her story. With so many storylines in the series, a novel that let you have sympathy for hard choices made by different mothers is lost. Still entertaining, the series becomes a soap opera where the costumes and references to pop culture take away from the emotional punch felt in the more intimate novel.
Whether you’re drawn to the series because you want to see Shelton’s work or you pick up Celeste Ng’s book because you loved the “Little Fires Everywhere” characters, both are worthy of your attention and time. And that’s no tragedy.
Drinks With Films rating: 3 perfectly measured glasses of Chardonnay out of 5. Earlier episodes are more intriguing, but the end is a soap opera of drama.