When James M. Cain's novel "Mildred Pierce" was adapted into a feature film in 1945, the source material was given a classic Hollywood facelift: a noir murder mystery was added as a narrative framing device, key secondary characters were either consolidated or scrapped altogether and the nearly decade-long span of the original was whittled down to four years. Think of the film as a kind of "Extreme Makeover: 'Mildred Pierce' Edition."
HBO's lavish new five-part miniseries, directed by Todd Haynes ("I'm Not There"), is far more faithful to the novel. Not only is there no murder mystery, there's not even a hint of murder. Though, ironically, maybe a little murder could have breathed some much-needed life into the series.
The buzz: "Mildred Pierce" centers around a single mother (Kate Winslet, "Revolutionary Road") struggling to make her way in Los Angeles during the Great Depression, a woman whose world begins to unravel as she strives to earn her daughter's love after her marriage falters and she must begin anew. "Pierce" benefits from a phenomenal cast, led by Winslet in top form and featuring noteworthy performances by Guy Pearce ("The King's Speech") and Evan Rachel Wood as Mildred's talented, though heartless, daughter Veda. (Melissa Leo's there too, as Mildred's neighbor and confidante, but her part leaves the recent Academy Award winner with little to do... except rally for a Best Supporting Golden Globe come awards season, we're guessing.)
The verdict: The production—from the brilliant period sets and costumes, to the haunting score—is HBO-running-on-all-cylinders high, with a Depression-era Southern California recreated in impeccable detail. Ultimately, however, this new "Mildred Pierce" adaptation feels less like the televised version of a gripping novel and more like the kind of light reading best suited for a long, meandering train ride through sleepy 1940s California. While it's exciting to see the newly single Pierce pick herself up by the bootstraps and create a successful empire from scratch in parts one and two, the series increasingly falls back on melodramatic tropes (there's a lot of weeping, and a lot of yelling, and then a bunch more weeping) to keep the momentum going. And as Mildred's daughter Vera ages, she becomes so insolent and callous, it becomes more and more difficult to view poor mother Mildred as anything but a fool, lavishing money and gifts on Little Miss Darth Vader herself.
Did you know? Joan Crawford won an Oscar for her portrayal of Mildred Pierce over a half century ago. We're banking that this new adaptation will bring Ms. Winslet one step closer to EGOT glory.
"Mildred Pierce" premieres Sunday, March 27, at 9 p.m. on HBO.