Bringing new life to "Mildred Pierce"

How did Jon Raymond, who adapted noir classic "Mildred Pierce" for HBO's new miniseries, get past the memory of Joan Crawford's iconic 1945 performance?

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    The 1945 film version of "Mildred Pierce" featured Ann Blyth and Joan Crawford in one of the most famous slap scenes in the history of Hollywood.
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You'd think the shoulder-padded specter of Joan Crawford would haunt anyone who tried to adapt the 1941 novel "Mildred Pierce," which inspired one of film noir's most memorable performances. Crawford's Oscar-winning turn as a sexy, selfless, and vulnerable mother is still moving and powerful, and not just because it features a slapping scene for the ages.

Oregon screenwriter Jon Raymond, who adapted the book for the HBO miniseries that debuts this weekend, managed to avoid the Crawford connection entirely. He watched the first few moments of the 1945 movie, hated its structure (it foreshadows its ending in the first scene, unlike the novel) and turned it off. He never even got to the scenes that earned still-living actress Ann Blyth an Oscar nomination for her performance as Veda, Mildred's viciously ungrateful daughter.

This actually sounds like a perfect way to adapt a book that had previously been made into a film: skip the movie and focus entirely on the printed page. HBO's miniseries, starring Kate Winslet, does the latter and more. With the benefit of five parts, it delves deeper into the James M. Cain novel than the Crawford film and even includes loads of verbatim snappy dialogue from the book.

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In an interview this week, I asked Raymond – best known for writing the 2008 indie film "Wendy and Lucy" – about adapting a novel whose story of strength, heartache, and betrayal is remarkably contemporary.

Q. What did you like most about the book, by the same author who wrote the "Double Indemnity" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice," which also became classic noir films?

I really fell in love with his language. I'd been expecting that very terse Cain voice, that very noirish tight-lipped kind of thing, but instead I found these really limber sentences and a real gusto for American language of high and low forms. It still feels really clean. He had such a musical ear for how people talk.

Q. Why does this story still hold up today?

The economic subplot has gigantic relevance today, the setting in this post-boom Depression when the middle class is really having to reimagine its expectations of itself. That's painfully relevant. And for me the relationships are so naturally drawn that they continue to be relatable.

Q: Mildred Pierce is a strong and vivid character, a woman who abandons her adulterous husband and starts her own business. Do you think this is a feminist book?

In the simplest sense, it treats women like human beings, very profoundly so. It's a rich and complicated portrait of a woman. It not only places her in the center but gives her a complicated and not entirely flattering portrait, but a human one.

Q: Was there anything in the book that doesn't quite translate to our era?

Cain was very proud of his creation of Veda, who's just a very flamboyant and colorful figure. But I found that in the writing of it, she was in some ways the flattest of the characters. In the book, as charismatic as she can be, she can be two-dimensional at certain moments.

One of the major alterations, although it's not in a major way, was that we wanted to round out her character and take some of the edges off of her to make her remotely relatable, to maintain some sense of depth for that character.

Q. Do you like the character of Mildred Pierce?

Yeah, I think I do. I like her. I don't know what we'd have to talk about, but I empathize with her, and I find her struggles totally relatable.

Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor to the Monitor's book section.

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