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How Cheryl Strayed's 'Tiny Beautiful Things' was adapted for TV

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Dear Sugar, how do I respectfully take ownership of a source of material that was created by another writer and has a community of admirers who feel a really strong sense of connection to the work? It was the question Liz Tigelaar, a writer and producer whose credits include “Little Fires Everywhere” and “Casual,” wishes she could have posed as she set out to adapt a book of essays based on Cheryl Strayed’s beloved online advice column.

Strayed began writing the column under the pseudonym “Dear Sugar” more than a decade ago when she was a struggling writer. She developed a loyal following by dispensing insightful and compassionate guidance on life’s hard, messy and heartbreaking conundrums by mining her own experiences. They were the basis for the 2012 collection of essays “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar.” (She later revived the column as a podcast and, more recently, as a newsletter.)

In the new Hulu series, titled “Tiny Beautiful Things,” Tigelaar avoided the temptation of having the letter writers be a character in each episode in orbit of its protagonist, Clare Pierce, played by Kathryn Hahn in the present and Sarah Pidgeon in the past, choosing instead to build out the memoir element of the essays.

“I’m almost less curious about how she finds the advice in the present day, externally,” says Tigelaar, a self-described Strayed super fan. “How does she find the advice inside of her from what she’s already gone through? And how do we bring those stories to the front? It ended up being constructed where maybe the letter writer didn’t need to appear. “

In a video call this week, Tigelaar discussed what it was like having Strayed in the writers room, deciding what letters would help drive the narrative, and the joy and heartbreak of passion projects like “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” and a shelved limited series on Tonya Harding.

Two women, one wearing headphones, sit on a film set looking at a camera

“Tiny Beautiful Things” showrunner Liz Tigelaar, left, and director Desiree Akhavan during filming of the Hulu series.

(Jessica Brooks / Hulu)

Before we fully get into things, can we just start by talking about the wonder that is Kathryn Hahn?

I was watching somebody inhabit a character at the highest level; every ad lib, every way, she did it a little differently. This was a part that was ambitious with a lot to navigate, and to see somebody giving such a gutsy performance and being so unafraid was such a joy. I mean, when she lays on the ground in a scene, and she’s just like, “I am not OK” in a way only she can — I mean, I think every woman gets that.

You’re telling a version of Cheryl Strayed’s story, but you’ve named the protagonist Clare Pierce. What prompted that decision?

We talked a lot about that. In “Wild,” Reese Witherspoon played Cheryl Strayed. [Witherspoon, who worked with Tigelaar on “Little Fires Everywhere,” is an executive producer on the series.] And we really wanted the freedom. Cheryl is Clare’s age living a version of Clare’s life. So am I. We didn’t want to imply that this was autobiographical. We’re depicting Cheryl’s marriage now, Cheryl’s children now. I named her Clare and we started to think of the version of her. It was like: This is Cheryl had she not hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, this is Cheryl had she not become that writer that she and her mother believed that she could be. And it was funny because after I named her Clare, Cheryl said, “I was Claire in ‘Torch.’” “Torch” was a fictionalized version of Cheryl without the PCT. I read it right after “Wild.” I had not remembered that she was Claire. But I love that she was Claire there and Clare here.

Nia Vardalos adapted the book for the stage and she said that the material was life-changing for her. Did it feed something in you at the right time?

I’ve basically spent a year not only doing something that was, to me — especially for a half-hour series — a very narratively ambitious story and a very structurally ambitious story. And not knowing, like, are people going to get it? Are people going to like it? Or is it too ambitious with all of these things? But to do this huge creative endeavor for this person who I love, whose stories have saved me, and to do it beside that person encouraging you the whole time? Who could be in better hands?

Tell me more about that. In addition to having the book as a resource, what was the collaboration like with Cheryl?

In the very beginning, she said, “Could I come into the writers room? Can I be a part of it?” And I was like, “Absolutely!” And at first I told the writers, “Cheryl Strayed is going to be in the writers room.” And I think some people were a little bit trepidatious, like, “The author is going to be there, are we going to be able to really dissect it?” And it was not like that. She has these rich stories and then she has these rich stories within those stories. We optioned an essay of hers called “The Love of My Life,” which was the foundation of Episode 5, this flashback story of how she and her mom went to college together and her mom died on spring break their senior year. So we mined so much of her writing and experience as a writer.

It’s not quite the same as the “Dear Sugar” community and others like it, but I do find myself pulled into a specific corner of social media, drawn to people being vulnerable and sharing aspects of their lives and the conundrums they face. It’s a weird thing to be invested in people you’ve never met and want to see how they’ve moved through a similar experience you’re going through. What has this process illuminated for you about the human desire to have a path lit in some way?

Do you ever listen to “We Can Do Hard Things”? It’s the Glennon Doyle podcast that she hosts with her wife, Abby Wambach [the soccer player], and her sister, Amanda Doyle. It’s my “Dear Sugar” replacement right now. Glennon and Cheryl are very different, but they have similarities, which is that they don’t act as if they’re on a pedestal above you doling out wisdom. You feel their struggle, and that they’re grappling and that they are trying to make sense of the world that we all inhabit and are trying to make sense of, so there’s this huge commonality. It’s so comforting having this deep wisdom and perspective on the world that we have to navigate, and how to kind of feel our way through it. There’s more access to get windows into things. When I was younger, you didn’t have a window into it. I think what Cheryl does so well is that she, she says to people, “I’m not telling you anything you don’t know; I’m just validating the answer that’s already inside of you that you know, but maybe wish you didn’t know.”

How did you decide which questions to include in the show to drive the narrative?

That was hard because there were so many good ones. I knew “Tiny Beautiful Things” had to be the first one. I knew “Like an Iron Bell” was the finale because I was pretty sure I wanted to tell the beginning, the middle and the end of her mother’s life. And then I knew I wanted to jump around and not be quite so linear. I tried to hold to the idea that it was OK to not know exactly where you were in the timeline, and that what you just needed to experience was the story of that episode and how it related to the letter in the present. But I think there were just iconic letters — “The Ghost Ship That Didn’t Carry Us” was a for-sure, the woman who writes in about her daughter in the pediatric NICU, and this question of faith felt so important. We tried to really hit those iconic ones.

One of the more striking sequences of the series comes near the end. It’s this harrowing moment where you transition from Clare and Lucas [Nick Stahl] arguing about their childhood home in the present day to flashbacks of them arguing about his absence in the aftermath of their mother’s fatal diagnosis. What did you want out of that sequence?

I love this idea of how all our selves live inside of us. So, no matter what age we are, I’m not just 47; I’m 46 and 45 and 44 and 43 — every age is still within me. In any moment, you can be jostled back to that age. And when you’re fighting with somebody, when you’re fighting with your younger brother, you’re suddenly the age of these very primal wounds. I wanted to show that it wasn’t just these two adults fighting over this childhood home, and their dad’s intrusion, that it was two vulnerable teenagers who were trying to hold something that they did not want to let go. And how we could move around and feel that. It’s probably the scene that scared me the most. But I wanted all the flashbacks that had preceded it to build toward that and especially in that final episode. The backstory was completely Cheryl’s life and experience.

What did Cheryl think of the ending? We get this dreamlike sequence of Clare and her mother.

I think she loved it because she was right there with us crafting it. I think it was hard to be on set and watch the most painful moments of her life acted out. It’s part of a journey of healing and catharsis. To see how far she’s come from that 22-year-old and how much she has had to find her way — and how she wasn’t Clare; she became something different.

A white woman in a dress and a Black woman in jeans stand inside a nice home

Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington in a scene from “Little Fires Everywhere.”


You’ve now adapted several works. In addition to this one, there’s Celeste Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere,” there will be Judy Blume’s “Summer Sisters.” What have you come to appreciate about the process of adapting other people’s work that maybe you struggled with in the beginning?

I feel so fortunate to be at a point in my career where I can work on the things that I’m a fan of. I mean, Judy Blume‘s “Summer Sisters” — I wrote her a letter when I was 22. I told her why I should adapt it even though I was a writer’s assistant on “Dawson’s Creek.” I love collaborating with authors because I love their stories, and I want them to have an amazing experience in the adaptation process. I want them to see something that they love brought to light in this different medium. One thing I’ve learned is that not every author wants the same thing. Celeste wanted to visit the room — she didn’t necessarily want to be in it — but we had really extensive creative conversations up top so she knew exactly what I was doing, and then she could give notes on scripts as we went through. Cheryl wanted to be in the room. And that was perfect too.

You’re also set to adapt “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” into a feature film for Netflix. Where are you at in that process? And how would you describe that collaboration with Taylor Jenkins Reid?

I finished the script right before “Tiny Beautiful Things,” actually. And that was incredible. That was the same experience where I read the book, I talked to Taylor and I couldn’t believe that it was somehow coming my way. It felt so resonant for me, that story, in terms of my own marriage and relationship and understanding that on just a really deep level. I just thought the story was epic. Once I was done with my draft, she came in and did her pass, which was awesome. We wanted to make sure that the screenplay felt like Taylor, that it felt like the voice of the book. And it did. She’s so artful and she has such a gentle touch, but I felt that kind of elevated the script to that level. I think they’re in director stages now.

BookTok has many opinions on who should be cast.

I’m always tagged in stuff that’s pushing Jessica Chastain — she’s probably like, “Who the f— is Liz Tigelaar?” Also, Brittany Snow. I love that people love it. They should. The book is incredible.

I want to pivot to another project of yours. I read your recent interview in the Hollywood Reporter, and in it you mentioned a passion project of yours, which was a Tonya Harding limited series that got scrapped. And all I could think was: What have I been denied?

Something great. You have been denied, the world has been denied.

Is there no way to revive this project? Can you tell me more about it, the tone it had — something?

First of all, this was Amy Talkington’s. She had written a feature called “The Ice Queens” and right as she finished it, “I, Tonya” got set up. And so Larry Salz, our mutual agent at UTA, was like, “What about making it a limited series?” And so I met with Amy. This was her genius that I got to come onto. We basically set it up as a six-episode limited series. We wrote all the episodes with another writer, Rosa Handelman, who I wrote with on “Casual” and “Little Fires Everywhere.” It was Tonya Harding as feminist icon. It was a lot about how violence begets violence. It really examined the whole story from Tonya Harding’s perspective, not in any way making Tonya Harding the butt of the joke. It was more like: Put yourself in the heart and mind of her and now look at everything from her perspective — and how does the story change? Why has it not been set up? I don’t know. There’s six perfect scripts. I’ve never had so much fun.

When you said in that interview that one episode opened with Connie Chung and Maury Povich having sex, I was just like, “Wait, what?

Oh, yeah. Each episode had a unique teaser that would set the time, and one of our episodes opens with a sex scene between them. Maury Povich is hands-down the most likable man in the entire series. You’re like, “Maury Povich is our male North Star?” It’s amazing. It’s such a pop culture examination. I’m like: Hulu, this is gold on a silver platter, let’s go! FX, come on!

It will go down as my favorite thing I’ve ever worked on. I felt like I should have been paying someone to do it because that’s how much joy it brought me. Believe me, I’m willing to shoot it myself. If I have to put on skates and play Tonya Harding myself, I’ll do it. I wanted Kieran Culkin to be Jeff Gillooly [Harding’s ex-husband].

Unrelated to Tonya Harding, but a callback nonetheless: How did you land on Nelly’s “Ride Wit Me” for the the opening episode of “Tiny Beautiful Things”?

That’s so funny. I mean, it’s the only Nelly song I know. I feel like whenever you’d roll into Vegas or something, when you do that four-hour drive, you’d be cranking it up. I don’t know, that song always stuck with me. We actually wanted to have Ingrid Michaelson cover it. And then we looked at the lyrics and we were like, “She can’t cover this. This is a terribly, terribly misogynistic song.” So, instead, we had her cover “Closer to Fine” by the Indigo Girls, which is amazing and where my heart lies. And it was perfect.

‘Tiny Beautiful Things’

Where: Hulu

When: Any time, starting Friday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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