[1945] Mildred Pierce

This post is my first in two months and I’m sorry if the language is hyper-academic and proseworthy for the Journal of the American Filmbloggers Association. 

Medium is essential. I talk about how we know what we know in the same breath as what we know. The ontological argument distinguishing book from movie is in how we as humans learn or retain information.  Literary novelists were awarded more (not much more) freedom in their written word under the assumption that many more people would see a film rather than read a book. For example, James M. Cain’s 1941 novel, Mildred Pierce, is a bleak roman noir, set in 1930s Southern California and Michael Curitz’s screen adaptation à la film noir might be the watered-down version offered but not necessarily deserved.That said, The Hays code that stifled filmmaking for nearly four decades hung its lowly rules on the head of Mildred Pierce‘s pièce, somewhat dramatically altering the tone and motifs from the book to the screen. It circumstantially and unnecessarily took a censorship beat to the film that would see Joan Crawford as a star and painted Ann Blyth as a different character between mediums. Does it matter that the medium, so essential, produced wildly different works of art based on the same basic information?

First, the case against: no it does not matter. Broad strokes paint the same picture, and though at different resolutions, we can understand the basic assumptions and arguments of a story regardless of the medium. It is impossible and boring, anyway, to include the same level of detail from a 400 page book to a 2 hour film. The book’s Mildred has the same basic relationships as the films: there exists her ex-husband, daughters, lovers, friends, business partners. That Hays dramatically altered Mildred’s daughter, Veda, is inconsequential to the outcome in both scenarios. That Hays altered how the story moved from exposition to dénouement produces a different story does not change the basic framework of Mildred Pierce, the movie and the book, but the woman, Mildred Pierce. We are required as viewers to determine, after having imbibed all the relevant information whether we care about. If, at the end of each medium, we leave with the same sense of understanding of the story, does it matter?

Or, the case for: the devil, as they say, is in the details and it matters how we learn what we know. That Hays turned Veda from a selfish, rapacious, adulterous woman to a suggestion of all three is highly significant to how we understand the life of the turbulent women and their relationship. That Mildred never physically harms her daughter and that all the anguish existed in the minds of the players dramatically altered how Veda and Mildred related to the men – Monty, Wally, Bert – in their lives. The moral veil behind which Hays developed his code developed from a rational reflection of the past: 1930s film, 1940s film supposed a strict standard against which media should personate the specific ideas and themes presupposed by mores of decades past. It matters that Hays altered Cain’s vision because if one hasn’t read the book, one has a different experience; the details of each both enhance and reflect the other.

Adaptation is inherent in media – the medium is essential, too. Cases for and against the severity to which it matters are relatively obvious. Mildred Pierce as a study is relatively robust, too – first as a roman noir, then as a film noir, and now as a television noir – three cases in medium and epistemology and how we read Mildred Pierce as a book, as a film or as a television mini-series. The 2011 remake starring Kate Winslet and Evan Rachel Wood is a filmed update – stretched to 5 hours over 5 weeks – demands from us a level of attention heretofore ignored in favor of leisure (roman) or concision (film). While more Mildred and more Veda gives us a deeper look into the psyche of each, I am unsure if noir demands deep character introspection of this magnitude. While noir of the story demands that we examine it through a specific lens, the mood changes from dark to darker with each adaptation and the lifting of the Hays code. We care about how we learn only to inform future generations of what worked and what didn’t in terms of information dissemination, and 5 filmed hours changes our ability to process the sharp bleakness noir demands.

In the second year after The Academy whittled its nominees list down from 10 to 5 (thankfully for this poor blogger), Mildred Pierce lost to The Lost Weekend among others (Anchors AweighThe Bells of St. Mary’s and Spellbound), representing a wide range of storytelling technique amidst a wide deviation from Hays median. The lighter-hearted works – Anchors and St. Mary’s – would have nullified one another and Hitchcock’s, not yet solidified Hollywood’s affirmed, Spellbound too much offset the psychology of Mildred Pierce, though demanding different emotional responses from each’s audience. In a meta-narrative about how we disseminate, we must also expand horizontally to see that not only is medium essential, it also is not everything.

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