How the Not-So-Obvious ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ Adaptation Changed the Rules Around Pilots

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Hulu’s Sasha Silver, ABC Signature’s Tracy Underwood, Hello Sunshine’s Lauren Neustadter and showrunner Liz Tigelaar break down the complex process

Quentin Blair and Kathryn Hahn in a still from "Tiny Beautiful Things."

Cheryl Strayed’s “Tiny Beautiful Things” was the opposite of an obvious adaptation.

Composed of advice columns addressed to relationship aficionado, Sugar — an alias that Strayed took on through literary magazine “The Rumpus” — the Hulu adaptation weaves three timelines together of the life of Clare Pierce (played by Kathryn Hahn). Creatives across Hulu, ABC Signature and Hello Sunshine put their heads together to weave the letters and details of Strayed’s life into a reimagined version of Strayed who hadn’t hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, allowing Tigelaar to create what she calls one of her beloved “Little Families.” Tigelaar encouraged the team to think beyond the typical TV formula.

“With most pilots… by the end of the pilot, [Clare] has to unequivocally decide she is taking on this advice column… that’s ingrained in me from a storytelling perspective,” showrunner Liz Tigelaar told TheWrap. “It was really important to me to honor the feeling of the book, and to challenge myself to break out of those known TV formulas and molds.”

With a full series order at Hulu for the limited drama series, Tigelaar broke the mold of the typical premise pilot by extending Clare’s decision to become Sugar beyond just the first episode — a move that likely wouldn’t have been accepted had only a pilot been ordered.

The team behind the series, who previously collaborated on “Little Fires Everywhere,” also played with genre. “Is it funny or serious?” Tigelaar recalled about landing the show’s genre. “It’s gonna be all the things.” So, the series switches between comedy and drama for the eight half-hour episodes.

Tigelaar, Hello Sunshine’s President of Film and TV Lauren Neustadter, Head of Drama at Hulu Originals Sasha Silver and EVP of Creative Affairs at ABC Signature Tracy Underwood sat down with TheWrap do discuss the unique process of adapting the book into the Hulu series.

Kathryn Hahn and Tanzyn Crawford in "Tiny Beautiful Things"
Kathryn Hahn, left, and Tanzyn Crawford in “Tiny Beautiful Things.” (Hulu)

When you read a book, what are some elements that you identify would make it a successful adaptation? What was it about “Tiny Beautiful Things” that you knew would make a compelling series?
Sasha Silver: From the Hulu perspective, whether intentionally or not, we go back to the well constantly to mother-daughter stories — “Little Fires” was one, obviously “Tiny Beautiful” even going back to “The Act” and “Handmaid’s Tale” are demented mother-daughter stories.

Lauren Neustadter: “A different flavor of mother-daughter…”

Silver: It felt like it shared that DNA that a lot of our previous shows had had, and it told that story in a really different way. I don’t think we’ve quite seen a woman like Clare or Rae on TV, and then being sandwiched between the dual mother-daughter stories —  I think that everyone can relate to that on a certain level, depending on you know, how traumatic their relationships with their parents are.

Tracy Underwood: It wasn’t an obvious adaptation at all… I think all of us read it and just were like, “OK, how do we do it?” It felt like it took a lot of time for us all — Liz in particular was super smart — she did this on “Little Fires” also — about making sure we had the template of the first episode; making sure that was cracked and written before we actually started the (writers’) room, so everybody knew exactly what the roadmap was. Figuring out the start, what is the starting point? and then where do we go? I love that challenge in this particular book.

Most consumers are totally unaware how the process of getting rights works and how competitive it gets. How far in your planning or imagination do you get before you even have the rights to an adaptation?
Neustadter: Hello Sunshine actually had the option for it, obviously because of “Wild,” Reese and Laura and Cheryl had this relationship. We knew that this was going to be the most intricate adaptation [that] must be placed in the right hands because it’s this gorgeous collection of letters, but the entire thing is invention. So we knew that we really needed to find the right writer, so I asked Liz — I got down on one knee in the Hulu parking garage. Amazingly and poetically, it was on the day that we did our season pitch out for “Little Fires Everywhere.” Liz said, “I do.” Then we made “Little Fires Everywhere,” and we were focused on that, and we went through post on that, and then COVID happened. Then Liz really unlocked the whole thing, and we came to Hulu and ABC [Signature] and said, this is our vision for this, and they were so in straightaway.

How have you seen author involvement enrich the adaptation process?
Tigelaar: Where Cheryl enriched the series the most, aside from being the entire foundation that created the series, is in the writers’ room. In the beginning, I went off and wrote the pilot, I came back with it, I would give it to her, we would go through it, talk about it, [and] she would give me really wonderful notes on it. From that process, we started to talk about what this was going to look like in a series. I basically said to her, you can be in the writers’ room as much or as little as you want… she came into the writers room and never left.

Underwood: It’s only made the work better, to be that open to the authors stepping in. It’s not easy to do, and it’s not easy to shift from one medium to another. So when you have the guidance of somebody super generous and sensitive, like Liz, I think it’s a totally different experience.

Neustadter: This was so personal to Cheryl, so I think it was very important for her to be in conversation… it’s about finding the formula that works best for everyone that allows everyone to do their very best work in the way that makes them feel safest and most supportive. One of the things that we always do is just facilitate those conversations at the outset, and say, “What’s the best way?” We’re always talking about what is the very best way to tell this story? And part of that is, is it a movie? Is it a limited? Is it ongoing? And part of it also is, what’s the best path toward adaptation?

What are the challenges of adapting a book? How do you balance the production limits of adapting a book versus what the readers expect?
Tigelaar: I just tackle it from the perspective of being a fan. I don’t put too much pressure on like, what are the readers gonna think? I go with my gut, which is, I’m the audience. I’m the reader. If I like this, chances are, they will like it. I think having the authors involved is helpful. We changed the ending of “Little Fires,” not in such a fundamental way, but from a plot perspective, it was different, and Celeste [Ng] was on board with that. I think Celeste being on board that allows the audience to be on board with it. I think that that gives readers a safety to love it too.

Silver: You also have so many timelines, time periods too, that you’re servicing — I feel like that can also be such a production challenge and development challenge.

Underwood: We knew, going in, when we were selling the show that they trusted us and would give us the leeway to make the show we needed to make and support it financially and support it with time and with launch.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.