How Cheryl Strayed and Liz Tigelaar turned ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ into big Hulu hit

Written by Anna Buss, produced by Joshua Farnham

“Tiny Beautiful Things” Official Trailer. Courtesy of Hulu

With many writer-producers declining to promote shows due to the ongoing strike, The Business notes that Liz Tigelaar and Cheryl Strayed participated in this interview before the work stoppage began.

Author Cheryl Strayed describes the year 2012 as “a hurricane” in her life, a whirlwind culmination of her career in which she published two New York Times best selling novels within months of each other. 

That spring, at a Boston bookstore event for her freshly-minted memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” she learned from her editor that the work had debuted at number seven on the New York Times bestseller list. 

“I remember hanging up the phone and crying with joy and looking out the window and thinking, “Here I am. I'm on the mountaintop like this,” she affirms. “Now I have exceeded any dream I had for myself as a writer.” 

Strayed, whose 2012 essay collection “Tiny Beautiful Things” was released as a limited series on Hulu last month, didn’t know she had hardly begun to summit. By the time “Wild” hit the Best Sellers list, Reese Witherspoon’s production company Hello Sunshine had already optioned the book for film.

“I just remember feeling so grateful and so wowed, and I thought that that was as big as it was going to get,” Strayed says. “And then things got bigger.”

“Wild” caught Oprah Winfrey’s attention, becoming the first selection for Oprah's Book Club 2.0 that year. By the summer, the book ascended to number one on the New York Times bestseller list, and Strayed landed an interview with Oprah herself. 

What the Pacific Crest Trail Taught Cheryl Strayed on SuperSoul Sunday. Credit: Oprah Winfrey Network on Hulu [START VIDEO AT :17]

Four months after “Wild” came out, Strayed’s third book, “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar,” came out, and she hit the road for her second book tour that year. 

“[2012] was actually a cyclone meets a hurricane, meets a tornado, meets a typhoon, a tsunami – all the other weather [events],” Strayed clarifies.  

Two years later, “Wild” became a motion picture starring Witherspoon in its lead role. The adventure film – depicting Strayed’s redemptive, grueling, soul-searching solo 1,100-mile hike on the United States Pacific Crest Trail – received two Academy Awards nods in 2015, including a Best Actress performance by Witherspoon.

A “Wild” connection 

Meanwhile, as Strayed made the rounds on her 2012 book tour, writer and producer Liz Tigelaar was busy working on television shows like AMC’s music-drama series “Nashville” and ABC’s mystery-drama “Revenge.”   

“Cheryl was very much on my radar,” Tigelaar confesses. “I loved her as a writer.”

Tigelaar read “Wild” as soon as it came out, followed by Strayed’s debut novel “Torch,” and then was given a copy of “Tiny Beautiful Things.” So when Lauren Neustadter, Hello Sunshine’s president of film and TV, asked Tigelaar if she knew Cheryl Strayed, the producer responded, “Very well”. 

Tigelaar “knew” Strayed so well that she drew inspiration from the Mary Oliver epigraph in “Wild” to name her son, Wilder. 

“It's pretty cool,” Strayed says. “I had the opportunity to share with [Wilder] some stories from the Pacific Crest Trail, and now — he doesn't know it yet — but I have a plan: In about a decade, we’ll go hike the Pacific Crest Trail together, at least some of it. I would love to do that with [him].” 

“Wild” Official HD Trailer. Credit SearchlightPictures on Hulu

Adapting “Tiny Beautiful Things” into TV, theater things

As “Wild” the book became “Wild” the feature film, Strayed and her husband — documentary filmmaker Brian Lindstrom — became good friends with Witherspoon and Laura Dern, both actors in the film. After production wrapped, they came together to discuss making “Tiny Beautiful Things” into a TV series.

“I always had a sense that this book could be a TV show, and there are so many directions, of course, you can go with that,” Strayed explains. 

Strayed and Lindstrom wrote a script, but found “less enthusiasm” for it, so they decided to think more about the concept. And while Strayed had written a couple feature-length scripts, she didn’t want to move to LA to become a showrunner. Witherspoon realized they needed to find somebody “who knew a lot about television writing” to lead the project. 

“Reese just has incredible instincts, and she knows me, of course. She knows the kind of person I would love, and she knew Liz [Tigelaar] and I would get on swimmingly,” Strayed remarks. 

Over the years, Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine established a track record for adapting chart-topping novels into box-office and must-see TV gold, from films like “Gone Girl,” “Where the Crawdads Sing,” and the latest, “Your Place or Mine,” to acclaimed TV shows like “The Morning Show,” “Little Fires Everywhere,” “Big Little Lies,” “Daisy Jones and the Six,” and “The Last Thing He Told Me.”

More: Scott Neustadter finds dream job in ‘Daisy Jones + The Six’

Tigelaar, now an established Sunshine collaborator as showrunner on “Little Fires” and co-executive producer on “The Morning Show,” was the natural fit to give “Tiny Beautiful Things” the series treatment the team envisioned. Witherspoon pitched her to Strayed as showrunner, the pair met, and, Strayed says, “instinctually from the beginning” got to work on a “drama-free, seamless, loving collaboration.” 

“Liz was very much the leader and the creator and the visionary, and yet, she always included me, and we always had great conversations,” Sprayed recalls. “I just feel I wouldn't do anything differently. I feel really lucky that I got to collaborate with Liz. It all went really well.”

“Tiny Beautiful Things,” Family Dynamics Featurette. Credit Hulu on YouTube

In Hulu's limited series, the life of lead character Clare Pierce echoes that of Strayed. Before becoming a well-known writer, Pierce (played by Kathryn Hahn) took a job as an anonymous advice columnist called “Dear Sugar” from an old colleague — just as Strayed did in real life for the online literary magazine “The Rumpus” in 2010. Meanwhile, Pierce’s own life is falling apart. A struggling wife and mother, her marriage to husband Danny (Quentin Plair) barely limps along while her teenage daughter, Rae (Tanzyn Crawford), pushes her away.

Around the time the team was trying to sell the rights of “Tiny Beautiful Things” as a television show, Strayed got an email from Tony-winning “Hamilton” director Thomas Kail proposing to adapt the book into a play, with Oscar-nominated actress-producer Nia Vardalos as playwright and star. The theatrical adaptation premiered in 2016, with Vardalos debuting in the role of “Sugar” and Kail directing it at the Public Theater in New York. The play is now in stages all over the world. 

At home with the “Hulugans” 

“Tiny Beautiful Things” was ordered to series in 2022 by Hulu, which Tigelaar says “was like a red cup party” when she first began working there.  

“I love Hulu. I hope it stays right where it is because I love it where it is,” she says, referring to the streamer’s uncertain future with majority owner Disney. “It's been one of my very favorite places to work for so long, and I hope to continue being there.”

More: Is Disney ready to dump Hulu? 

While the streamer has evolved and programming has changed over time, Strayed says the people collaborating with her are family, with “a real sense of community and pride.” 

“They're kind of closet nerds. They call themselves ‘Hulugans.’ They do ‘Hulluween,’” she notes. “There's a little Hulu culture that's super campy, and dorky and sweet, and I think it's so awesome.”




Kim Masters


Joshua Farnham