A Small Light Showrunner Explains Trying To Find 'Joy In This Tragedy' Of Miep Gies And Anne Frank's Story Despite Knowing The Ending

Bel Powley as Miep Gies in A Small Light
(Image credit: National Geographic)

A Small Light has arrived on television to tell the story of Miep Gies, known to history from The Diary of Anne Frank. The National Geographic series (also available streaming via Hulu subscription and Disney+ subscription) approaches the historical figures in the diary from a unique angle, as part of what co-showrunner Joan Rater described as a desire to “take the cobwebs [and] the historical artifice off the story.” Rater, who also co-created, executive produced, and wrote for A Small Light, explained to CinemaBlend the challenges of finding joy in an infamously tragic story, despite many viewers likely knowing how it ends for many of the characters. 

Joan Rater came to A Small Light after multi-season runs on shows including Grey’s Anatomy and Madam Secretary, with new series Fire Country going strong after an early renewal on CBS. When she spoke with CinemaBlend at SCAD TVfest in Atlanta earlier this year, I asked what it was like for her to plan a full storyline for the limited series based on a true story as opposed to an ongoing show. Rater explained what inspired her from Anne Frank's diary:

I come from serialized shows that go on for years and years and years, and this one has an end. What was difficult is, we know what happened, right? When I read The Diary of Anne Frank, I get so caught up in Anne's voice and in her and these beautiful people and the story that I end up, every time I read it, thinking, 'Oh, maybe this time it'll be a different ending. It has to be a different ending.' I think that [in] our story, you fall so in love with these people, that the audience is going to get caught up in them and have that same experience of like, 'Please let it be a different ending this time.'

The Diary of Anne Frank has been widely read in the decades since it was published, with many (including myself) having read it for school. Plenty of (if not most) viewers of A Small Light likely know what ultimately happens to Anne and the rest of the Frank family, as well as those hiding in the annex with them. The diary is a powerful collection of writings, and the show seeks to help audiences see the experience more than just the ending. 

Based on the true story, the series opens by covering the years leading up to Miep Gies helping the Franks go into hiding along with her husband Jan and other allies during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Joan Rater previously shared that six years of research went into creating A Small Light, including recruiting a researcher who translated Miep Gies’ interviews that had only been available in Dutch, as well as using government records and genealogies as sources. 

The co-showrunner continued, explaining the benefits of having new information about Miep when creating this show along with husband, A Small Light co-creator and co-showrunner, and fellow Council of Dads executive producer Tony Phelan:  

While we know the end, we have new stuff that no one knows, and so we have to keep the story going and we wanted to end on some kind of hopeful note. Within the story, we wanted to find humanity and moments of joy in this tragedy, because they were up in the annex for two years, and they had to have found moments of happiness and joy. We wanted to show that as well, to really show the full sort of range of who these people were.

Part of how A Small Light has shown a range within the story has been by starting years earlier than when Miep Gies first hid the Franks in the annex, giving viewers not only pieces of her origin story, but the origins of her relationships with husband Jan and boss Otto Frank. The limited series will run for a total of eight episodes, with two premiering each Monday night at 9 p.m. ET on National Geographic through May 22. 

Fortunately for those who may not be able to watch live on National Geographic on Monday nights, the episodes will also stream next day on both Hulu and Disney+. Joan Rater and the A Small Light team had to fill in some blanks for situations when exact details about these people’s lives were not available even after six years of research, so be sure to keep tuning in. 

Laura Hurley
Senior Content Producer

Laura turned a lifelong love of television into a valid reason to write and think about TV on a daily basis. She's not a doctor, lawyer, or detective, but watches a lot of them in primetime. CinemaBlend's resident expert and interviewer for One Chicago, the galaxy far, far away, and a variety of other primetime television. Will not time travel and can cite multiple TV shows to explain why. She does, however, want to believe that she can sneak references to The X-Files into daily conversation (and author bios).