The way I normally discover books is through films. I like a film, discover that it was adapted from a novel, and read it. Then I usually try to watch the film noting the discrepancies and the possible reasons for them. Most of the time, I feel that the novel enhances my film viewing experience. Other times I am left wondering why the director and/or the screenwriter decided to veer off from the novel. And some books are better adapted as a miniseries than as a feature film. I have argued the case for my favorite novel Jane Eyre over at my sister Jessica’s blog. For this entry, I will examine the 1945 feature film adaptation and the 2011 HBO miniseries adaptation of the James M. Cain novel, Mildred Pierce.
I had seen the 1945 film starring Joan Crawford on Turner Classic Movies a few times. I was not aware that it was a novel until I heard about the HBO miniseries starring Kate Winslet. Since James M. Cain was known for his hard-boiled crime novels like The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, I figured Mildred Pierce would have the same story as the 1945 film. Mildred Pierce’s loafing husband, Monty Beragon, is murdered and the police try to figure out the identity of the murderer. Mildred recounts her life story to the police of being a single mother who became a waitress and later a successful restaurant owner to support her snobby, spoiled, and ungrateful daughter Veda’s upper class lifestyle aspirations. Once Mildred gives Veda the kind of life that Veda has always wanted, Veda repays her by having an affair with Monty. However, Monty does not love Veda and Veda kills him. Mildred tries to cover up Veda’s crime to alleviate the guilt of creating the vicious Veda but Veda ends up in jail.
But I was wrong. In fact, there is no murder in the original novel. Well, I can argue there is a murder of a mother’s love. Mildred Pierce is a character study of a mother who obsessively loves her snobby, spoiled, and vicious daughter Veda. Like the 1945 film, Mildred becomes a waitress and later on a restaurant owner to give Veda to have the upper class life that Mildred had always wanted. And yet Veda scorns her mother’s working class success. When Veda becomes a successful coloratura soprano, how does she thank her mother for all the years of love, devotion, and sacrifice? By sleeping with her mother’s husband, Monty, of course. And Veda does not pay. She deceives Mildred one last time and goes her merry way to New York. Mildred makes a vow to never let Veda into her life again.
One of the factors that works in the miniseries’ favor is time. The first element of time is the year. The 1945 film had to deal with the Production Code which outlawed explicit mentions and depictions of infidelity and sexuality which permeate the novel. The murder was created so that those who were deemed immoral (Monty and Veda) would be punished for their affair and Mildred gets all the admiration for maintaining her dignity. In the scene where Mildred (Joan Crawford) catches Monty (Zachary Scott) with Veda (Ann Blyth), Mildred looks briefly at Veda as Veda says that she is glad that Mildred now knows. We see Mildred’s shock over the discovery fighting back tears. However, Mildred’s anger is more focused on Monty than Veda. Mildred tries to pull the gun on Monty but Monty convinces her to drop it. So Mildred scurries in tears.
In the novel, Mildred is not completely dignified when she discovers Monty and Veda’s affair. The 2011 miniseries allows the scene where Mildred discovers Monty and Veda together to play out in its naked (pun intended) agony. As Mildred (Kate Winslet) watches Veda (Evan Rachel Wood) strut across the room mocking her mother with her naked body, Mildred sees her idealized self that she poured her sweat and tears into creating and the thankless daughter who betrayed her. Mildred strangles Veda trying to destroy the creature that she helped to create because the ideal version of Mildred that she wanted Veda to be would never do something like this.
The second element of time is length. Would a faithful adaptation of the novel work in a feature film format? Perhaps. But then again, the characters would have to be oversimplified in order to fit in a two hour time frame. We would not see Mildred as a capable business woman who was incapable of seeing the snake-like monster that she created in Veda, for some of the scenes concerning Mildred’s restaurants would have been cut. We would see Monty as simply a willing loaf as opposed a loaf who wanted to be loved by Mildred and not for what he can do for her. We would only see Veda as rotten to her core instead of questioning whether she was a product of her mother’s smothering love or not. With a novel like this, the length of time is important to explore the toxic mother/daughter relationship that Mildred and Veda have and to feel Mildred’s despair every time she thinks she has Veda’s love only to have Veda take it away from her.
Because I had started reading the novel after the first two episodes aired and finished it before the last two episodes, I had more of an open mind than I do with Jane Eyre. My one disappointment in the miniseries adaptation is the ending. The original ending gave you the idea that Mildred finally understood the viciousness of her daughter and she was truly, completely done with Veda. However, the ending that the miniseries chose seems to suggest that even though Mildred says she’s done with Veda, if Veda were to come back, Mildred would take her back in a heartbeat.
Next Wednesday, April 27, 2011, at 8:00 P.M. I will be hosting up a twitter chat (#filmchat) via my Twitter @sherryrose80 about film vs. miniseries adaptations. The following questions will be discussed:
Have you read the book before you saw the film?
Have you seen a film, read the book, and then see a film again?
If so, did reading the book change your view of the film?
How do you feel when the film changes the ending from the book?
Would all books benefit from a miniseries format or are there any books that it would be impossible to do so?
I hope you can come and chat. I look forward to hearing from you.