Editor’s Choice May 2011

The Great Los Angeles Novel

HBO’s Mildred Pierce is based on James M. Cain’s book that has to go down as one of the great failures of American fiction.

Those who know Mildred Pierce only from Joan Crawford’s over-the-top star turn in the glossy 1945 Warner Bros. adaptation will be puzzled by the opening of HBO’s remarkably faithful adaptation of Cain’s novel, directed by Todd Haynes (Safe, Far From Heaven) and starring Kate Winslet. Rather than a murder (which didn’t happen in the book), and Crawford’s giant mid-’40s shoulder pads, we see a woman’s expert hands making pies in the kitchen of a Spanish-style bungalow in 1931, while a man finishes his yard work outside. Haynes efficiently captures the domestic commonplaceness and the reverberations of a momentous decade that lie at the center of Cain’s book.

In writing Mildred Pierce, Cain had two problems. He failed abjectly with one—a satisfactory plot resolution, about which more later—but succeeded with the other. Cain knew vaguely that he wanted to write a novel about a woman. But over the years he made false starts in which his protagonist was first a stewardess and then a beauty contestant. Finally, he hit upon an ordinary but fertile character and situation: a middle-class Los Angeles housewife who, at the beginning of the Depression, finds that she has become (as her neighbor puts it) “the great American institution that never gets mentioned on the Fourth of July—a grass widow with two small children to support.” Cain recognized that the indifference of men and society to this common plight was “a great social injustice.” And few novels have given a more contemptuous picture of male fecklessness (one made all the more damning by the book’s tone of tolerant resignation); with a cold eye, Cain dissected the ways the economic collapse had altered relations between the sexes. But ultimately these weren’t his concerns, for he recognized that “a good-looking girl in an awful spot” was “the surest formula” for a story, and this story allowed Cain to explore themes he had discerned since his move to L.A.

Whereas Cain had concentrated the action of Postman and Double Indemnity into a narrow time frame, Mildred Pierce stretches across the Great Depression (both the book and Haynes’s production open in 1931, the eve of its bleakest year); and whereas Cain had kept those previous novels spare, here with cumulative detail he created a panorama of petit bourgeois Los Angeles. Cain set his novel in unglamorous Glendale, perhaps the quintessential L.A. community (which McWilliams nicely defined in 1946 as “lily-white and white-collar, made up of middle-class and lower-middle-class elements”). His ruthlessly unsentimental tale of the Depression’s impact on Mildred and of her efforts to build a restaurant business made vivid the twin pillars of Los Angeles life, the self-owned free-standing house (L.A. had more of them than any other American city) and the small entrepreneur. The progress of Mildred’s married life is tied inextricably to the home-owning instinct, the defining force behind L.A.’s development and character. Both the novel and HBO’s production lavishly detail the cynosures of the L.A. house, the kitchen and the bathroom, which were “built with the best of skill, and polished with the utmost care,” as Cain pointed out in “Paradise,” largely because cleanliness, functionality, and convenience were prized by L.A.’s unusually servant-less middle class (the most Anglo-Saxon major city, Los Angeles had a relatively tiny population of immigrants to draw on for domestic work).

Moreover, in Mildred Pierce, Cain wrote the greatest work of American fiction about small business. He made compelling the intricacies of real-estate deals and cash flow, of business planning and bank loans, and of relations with suppliers and customers. (“She had a talent for quiet flirtation,” as Cain explained Mildred’s technique, “but found that this didn’t pay. Serving a man food, apparently, was in itself an ancient intimacy; going beyond it made him uncomfortable, and sounded a trivial note in what was essentially a solemn relationship.”) He rendered the plodding method and the fundamental gamble of small-time commerce—the foundation of Los Angeles’s service-oriented economy—not just absorbing but romantic.

In Mildred, Cain created a great character who was, as he wrote in the novel, “a credit to the curious world that had produced her, Southern California.” He later told his biographer, Roy Hoopes, “I never could make up my mind if she had any brains”—but that’s the point: here was a protagonist defined not by intelligence or attractiveness but by character and temperament. Her most appealing feature is her squint, a feature that “was anything but alluring, that betrayed a rather appalling literal-mindedness,” yet convinced her admirers that there was “something to her.”

Cain didn’t condescend to Mildred—she’s tough, not plucky—but nor would he grant her any distinction (he can’t resist needling her—see his almost parodic explanation of her daughters’ astrologically derived names). Comparisons of Winslet’s performance with Crawford’s are inevitable, and all are settled in Winslet’s favor. Crawford’s—brittle, histrionic—is all Joan Crawford. Winslet’s—with a slightly slouching stance and flat-footed trudge, animated movements graceless in their doggedness, and a shrewd but charmless affect—is all Mildred.

Winslet delivers a faithful performance in what is a consistently faithful adaptation. And this is too bad, for Mildred Pierce is one of the great failures of American fiction. Cain wrote four drafts of the novel, and each time, he recalled, almost on cue, on page 254, the book “fell apart right in front of my eyes.” That was where Mildred’s snobbishly monstrous daughter, Veda, came to the fore. Cain had created a vivid, unconventional heroine, put her in a situation all but untreated in contemporary fiction, and set his novel in a rich milieu that he grasped with unique perspicacity. But when the action starts revolving around Veda and her implausible emergence as a preternaturally gifted coloratura soprano (!), the novel lurches into lurid melodrama—a disastrous turn that was surely rooted in Cain’s thwarted musical ambitions. The sad upshot: an exquisitely produced, impeccably cast miniseries that renders with great fidelity a novel that squandered its enormous strengths.

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Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic’s literary editor and national editor.

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