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On Mildred Pierce: A Conversation with Laura Lippman

Both Laura Lippman and myself are ardent, perhaps obsessive fans of the James M. Cain novel, Mildred Pierce. For just that reason, we both had been avoiding watching the HBO miniseries starring Kate Winslet and Guy Pearce and directed by Todd Haynes. Finally, with the series now on DVD, I surrendered and watched it, as did Laura. Below, expanded from an attenuated Facebook thread, are our thoughts on the experience, which ultimately led to the question, as Laura poses it on her blog: what happens when someone has a “deep, mad love for a book”? Is any adaptation of it doomed?


LL:  In the final episode of the five-hour plus adaptation of Mildred Pierce, I began to wonder if it just might be quicker to read the audiobook. Not quite, not at all—it’s 10 hours. But whatever happened to pictures being worth 1,000 words? Stranger still, the last two episodes seemed rushed. It was almost as if someone at HBO said, ‘Oh my god, we authorized how many hours? Pull the plug!’ (Full disclosure, I know and admire/like Cary Antholis, who oversees miniseries there, so I know this couldn’t be the case.)

I know the book so well that I wasn’t sure I could give the miniseries a fair shake. But two things strike me. First, James M. Cain, as a former newspaperman, knows how to write very tight compressed scenes. He violates the principle of ‘show, not tell’ over and over again—and the book is better for it. Take, for example, the scene of Mildred and Monty’s jaunty banter, en route to Lake Arrowhead. It zips by in the novel, written indirectly.

“Going through Pasadena, they decided it was time to tell names, and when he heard hers, he asked if she was related to Pierce Homes. When she said she was ‘married to them for a while,’ he professed to be delighted, saying they were they worst homes ever built, as all the roofs leaked. She said that was nothing compared to how they treasury leaked, and they both laughed gaily. His name, Beragon, he had to spell for her before she got it straight, and as he put the accent on the last syllable she asked: ‘Is it French?’’’

Put in straight-forward dialogue, this exchange loses so much of its charm and breeziness.

The second problem is that it’s a very internal novel. Mildred can’t express her feelings and she often doesn’t understand them. All credit to Kate Winslet for trying to play this literal, humorless character. I think she was miscast. I think almost everyone is miscast, except for Guy Pearce, who made me see Monty’s charm at last; Mare Winningham; Melissa Leo; and maybe young Veda.

I will say I’m convinced that Todd Haynes loves the novel.

MA:  I think you’re right on in terms of compression of scenes. Cain uses dialogue in a completely different way than movie dialogue. When he *does* employ it tends to be to show something other than what the characters are saying (which is frequently very bland things, e.g., ‘Say, that meringue looks two inches thick.’).

You have mentioned, and I was always think of it, that Raymond Chandler famously said that Cain’s dialogue worked on the page but didn’t work for film. I don’t think he sees dialogue as a way to express but rather to fail to express, to conceal or even to highlight the chasm between his character’s inner lives and the words that come out of their mouth. It’s often spare, purposely bland, as in ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Ida, what’s yours?’ ‘Mildred.’ Or, in this exchange when Mildred tells her daughter Veda her business plan.

‘There’s money in a restaurant, if it’s run right, and—’

‘You mean we’ll be rich?’

‘Many people have got rich that way.

That did it.

I’m not sure the miniseries knows what do in the place of moments like this, where so much is happening (this moment of portent, this power exchange between Mildred and Veda that will rule much of the book) without the words said. And I think this goes directly to your idea of it being an internal novel. Mildred isn’t someone who articulates her feelings and we rely on Cain’s narration to give us what she won’t. But what do you do with that on film? for instance, Cain’s narrator tells us Mildred is vain about her beautiful legs. In the miniseries, this idea is replaced by Monty referring several times to her lovely legs and at one point he says that she is vain about them. The problem is that we don’t believe him. And this is because we have only Monty to go on.

And it’s also because of the larger problem: the Mildred of the miniseries does not seem vain about anything. She is a different animal. Because we get tiny dollhouse windows into Mildred’s rich strangenesses in the book, she becomes richer (and helps overcome what is quite true: that humorlessness). In the miniseries, she’s not strange at all. Is a kind of classier Stella Dallas noble mother. This makes the humorlessness stand out more baldly, especially alongside the wry deliciousness of Guy Pearce’s Monty. the closest we get to expressing Mildred’s deepest weirdness—her quite physical and almost unbearably intense love of her daughter Veda—is a lingering bedtime kiss.

To me a fundamental moment in the novel is when Mildred admits to herself (or the narrator does it for us) that when her daughter Ray dies she feels a ‘guilty, leaping joy that had been the other child who was taken from her, and not Veda.’ Beyond the sentiment itself, consider the harshness of that phrase ‘the other child’ rather than saying Ray’s name. The closest the miniseries comes to acknowledging this is having her crawl into bed with Veda after Ray dies, holding onto her and saying, ‘Thank god.’ Unless you know the book, you’d miss the import of that entirely. Or maybe the miniseries doesn’t want us to feel that side of Mildred, truly.

What do you think of the way Haynes handles the Mildred-Veda relationship?

LL: I couldn’t decide, watching the miniseries, if that moment you reference above—which is a seminal moment in the book, key to the shock of the confrontation with Veda at the end—is impossible to convey in film, or if no one wanted to convey it. It is a very ugly truth, a Sophie’s Choice. Cain knew how ugly it was. Mildred knows. It is one of her few truly self-aware moments.

In the book, Mildred’s relationship to Veda is almost like a chum and not just any chum, but the toadying sycophant, the happy-to-be-bullied girl who follows around a mean girl, convinced that she’s somehow better. She doesn’t quite disagree with Veda’s assessment of her, even though she knows what a poor prize Bert was, how little his good family/name was worth when bad things happened. It’s a masochistic relationship, not a noble one.

In the book, Mildred’s relationship to Veda is almost like a chum and not just any chum, but the toadying sycophant, the happy-to-be-bullied girl who follows around a mean girl, convinced that she’s somehow better. She doesn’t quite disagree with Veda’s assessment of her, even though she knows what a poor prize Bert was, how little his good family/name was worth when bad things happened. It’s a masochistic relationship, not a noble one.

But, again, without access to Mildred’s internal life, it’s so hard to make sense of things and it just putters along, a story about a well-intentioned woman and her spoiled child. In the miniseries, her decision to pursue Monty seems accidental, spur of the moment. In the book, it is absolutely ruthless. At the climax, it’s hard to feel true sympathy for Mildred as a result. I experience her shock, but I also see how she created this problem. In the miniseries, I watched Mildred trying to absorb the news—again, Cain’s novel is a model of compression here, with Monty’s speech rendered as paraphrase—and waited to see if Veda would be naked when she got out of bed.

Which leads me to a small note: I will Veda had been more voluptuous. I always felt the early emergence of the Dairy—the breasts she sprouted at a very young age—helped to undermine the creep factor with Monty. Veda has been a woman all her life; Monty says as much. Now there’s a little whiff of ‘ewwww’ that isn’t helpful.

What about the look of the miniseries? Wasn’t it filmed on the East Coast? Could I possibly be remembering that correctly? It seems to me that Southern California is a major character in Mildred Pierce and I don’t feel it was present, not really. Was that a concern to you at all?

MA: The dairy—I’d forgotten! I agree on all counts. In the book, it’s so much clearer than Veda is Mildred’s creation, is the result not just of spoiling Veda but in fact smothering her, hoisting all her own desires, disappointments, shame and ambition onto her. That Veda’s cruel hustles are just distorted echoes of Mildred’s own. In the scene when Mildred discovers Veda and Monty’s betrayal (and emerges naked from the bed), there seemed to be a strong attempt to draw a visual parallel between the elfin, doll-like Evan Rachel Wood (the anti-’Dairy’) and that famous Munch painting that we know as ‘The Vampire.’ But it’s Mildred, in many ways, who’s the blood sucker and in the book we see, as monstrous as Veda is, that she is trying to escape Mildred’s parasitic qualities. It’s a haunting

The location, though, was a problem for me. The interiors were pitch-perfect and showed Haynes’s fetishistic attention to period detail, which I appreciate. But the exteriors didn’t look remotely Southern Californian to me. I watched the DVD commentary (because that’s the kind of geek I am) to confirm and most of it was shot in Long Island, some of it even here in Forest Hills, Queens, near where I live (the faux Tudors Monty decries in ‘Pasadena’). I absolutely sympathize with their budgetary demands, but the book is so much about the physical space of Southern California in that era—the expanses, the new developments, the immense stretches between communities—that it felt disconcerting watching so much visually crowded, East Coast scenery. It is, after all, fundamentally a book about real estate development.

Further, so much of the book, in fact, is Mildred in her car, driving. The exhilaration she feels pushing her foot onto the gas pedal. That American freedom, the freedom, traditionally, of the (white) American male:

‘She gave the car the gun, exactly watching the needle swing past 30, 40, 50…The car was pumping something into her veins, something of pride, of arrogance, of restrained self-respect that no talk, no liquor, no love could possibly give.’

I missed that in the miniseries. What I thought they did well, though, was the restaurant business elements. The move Mildred makes from waitress/pie-maker to restaurateur. I always think of what you wrote in your piece on the book in Slate, that the book doubles as a ‘solid little primer on how to run a chicken-and-waffle joint.’ What did you think of the miniseries rendering of that?

LL: The location problem is a shame. It’s probably difficult, if not impossible, to replicate the Southern California of the 1930s eight years later. But the first time I saw the ocean, I was dubious. And the lighting of the outdoor scenes seemed wrong to me. But you’re right about the interiors.

The miniseries opens with shots of Mildred making the elaborate cake for the newsboy and it was beautifully done. (I wondered if Kate Winslet had a hand double.) And, yes, overall, I thought the business information was depicted very well, even when it got tricky and complicated. I was unbearably excited at the moment when Wally turned on the lights in the display case, knowing what he was about to show Mildred. I found myself brooding over the brief, meteor-like life of Baltimore’s only chicken-and-waffle place. Mildred had a good idea.

And, yes, the car culture was lost, as were some of the lovely details about clothing. That was one place where I wished for utter fidelity—the not-quite-right costume that Mildred wears on New Year’s Eve, the bizarre uniform she designs for herself when she opens the restaurant. She is, by Cain’s telling, a little dowdy and dumpy by the time of the final showdown with Veda. Kate Winslet is brilliant, but she can’t do dowdy.

I now believe, having watched this, that it’s possible to love a book too well. I happen to be a big fan of Adaptation, the Charlie Kaufman non-adaptation of The Orchid Thief. I have no desire to adapt my own work and, so far, I have been blessed with two extraordinary writers: Nicole Holofcener (Every Secret Thing) and Jay Cocks (the Tess Monaghan adaptation currently under contract to TNT). I also just re-read The Devil’s Candy recently, which I appreciate much more now that I know quite a bit more about the film business. Love and passion can be quite ruinous. Fidelity in and of itself is not a bad thing; I think the Coen brothers did really well by True Grit and while I understand that others prefer the first version, what they like is at odds with the book. (The traditional look of the first one, for example. True Grit takes place in an area that does NOT look like a John Ford film. And I like the fact that the charismatic gang leader, Ned Pepper, isn’t handsome in the Coen brothers version.) But Out of Sight wouldn’t have worked as well if it did if Soderbergh had kept the original ending, even though it’s what made the book brilliant.

Mildred Pierce is a very, very dark view of parenthood. (I say parenthood, not motherhood, because I think Cain would have been equally adept at telling a story about a warped father-son relationship.) I know that Cain always said it was a story about a woman using men to achieve her ends, but he chose such an interesting end—not money or fame, but a woman’s attempt to create, in her daughter, her own superego. Yes, all parents hope their children will have better lives, but Mildred pushes her daughter to greater heights, encouraging her snobbery, even as it punishes her. It’s just so damn weird and masochistic, which I think is its charm. Let me put it this way: I wouldn’t have done better by it. I feel like I should be in a support group with Todd Haynes: People Who Love Mildred Pierce Too Much.

MA: Yes, exactly. In the end, the books we love—well, we’ve fused with them. Or maybe more accurately we swallow them whole. We transform them into the aspects of them that touch us the most. I think that Haynes made Mildred Pierce into a melodrama because he loves melodrama. But, for me (as a fellow lover of melodrama, mind you), Mildred Pierce is not remotely a melodrama. As you say, it is not about sacrificial maternal love, which almost all melodramas are, but about the classic Cain theme of unwholesome desires, the opening of the forbidden box. And precisely as you say: a kind of terrifying egoism at the root of a particular kind of parenthood (and I think you’re right: Cain could dissect a father just as masterfully, but he sure takes advantage of the mother convention: e.g., ‘how could a mother ever love too much?’ ‘What could ever be wrong about a mother’s embrace?’).

Love and passion can be ruinous indeed. I don’t know if anyone could ever really adapt any book we love because if we knew why we loved it, if we had to look at it, it might collapse under the hard gaze. It’s an emotional thing, when there needs to be some distance, don’t you think?

It’s telling to me that I love the Joan Crawford version because it isn’t really an adaptation at all. So I can view it as a separate thing. Haynes’s love for Mildred, though, feels genuine, ardent, as you say. And he comes, in some ways, so close to the things I love about it, which makes me harder on him. With book we love hopelessly, we are like those vampires in some way, sucking it dry and not wanting anyone else to feed on it. And when our child turns into this thing we don’t recognize (a Veda?), it’s too horrible to bear. And it feels like a betrayal. As beautiful as it looks, as talented as it is, it’s not what I want it to be. Still, I don’t know who could do better, who could show their love more.

And there is Guy Pearce, pitch perfect, and Mare Winningham and Melissa Leo, both of whom seem to have slipped seamlessly from a pre-Code gem. And there’s a whole lovely golden wonder to it that kept me entranced (and when the soft gold turns to hard Deco silver as time passes, as everyone hardens—well, nicely done). And the thing I’m most grateful for? Keeping the last line of the book, even as think the delivery is all wrong, the tone of it is all wrong. But it’s there:

“Let’s get stinko.”

LL: I literally held my breath, willing for the line to be there.

Speaking of which . . . ?

See also Megan’s blog post on the book and Laura’s Slate essay.