With Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain wrote two classic hard-boiled novels that Hollywood turned into two of the best films noir ever made. After Paramount and MGM snatched up the rights to those two, it left Warners scrambling for whatever Cain adaptation they could lay they hands on. Turning to another Cain bestseller, they might have been told: But there’s no crime story, there’s no murder in Mildred Pierce. To which screenwriters Ranald MacDougall, Catherine Turney and William Faulkner (!) might have replied: Don’t worry. We’ll fix that.
While the film added a tidy flashback structure, murder and mystery, the screen version of Mildred Pierce lost the background setting, social conscience and scathing cultural implications. The Great Depression and prohibition are gone from the film, and the movie had to sanitize the substantial sexuality of the novel. Todd Haynes 5-hour miniseries goes back to the source and restores all that juice. The novel was scandalous at the time of its publication, but as a psychological snapshot of the culture’s stickier moral questions of the early 20th century, it has much more in common Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy than with anything written by Hammett or Chandler.
The most important difference you’ll find is between the two interpretations of Mildred’s ungrateful daughter Veda. The movie turned Veda into a finishing school femme fatale debutante. In the book she’s a Bad Seed to the core. As bad as they come. Lolita with fangs and claws. All this is meant to reassure the doubters who wonder what’s the point of remaking a classic. This isn’t a remake of the Joan Crawford movie, because the 1946 noir is nowhere near as psychosexually intense as the HBO film will be. To call it a twisted slant on Electra complex is not far off, and a handy way to hint at how much the original story resembles Greek Tragedy.