The HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge, featuring the Oscar-winning actress Frances McDormand delivering what may be one of the greatest performances ever recorded, is nothing short of a masterpiece. We have come to expect work at this level from HBO, but it’s still interesting to contemplate the cultural changes represented by the fact that Olive Kitteridge—an adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s novel-in-stories, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009—was made for the small screen.
Olive Kitteridge tells the story of a person of no particular significance, a small-town math teacher married to a local pharmacist with whom she has one sullen son. Strout’s book is a full-bodied portrait of the Maine town in which Olive has lived all her life. The miniseries zeroes in on Olive specifically over the course of 25 years. We first see her as an old woman on the verge of suicide. The questions director Lisa Cholodenko and screenwriter Jane Anderson ask are these: What has brought Olive to this pass? Why has she fallen into such despair?
The four hours that follow send us and Olive back and forth through a quarter-century to explain. We learn that Olive was and is a profoundly difficult woman, intelligent and no-nonsense and bereft of warmth—especially in contrast to her amiable husband Henry (Richard Jenkins), whose love for Olive seems to baffle them both. And though they are surrounded by the great beauty of the Maine coastline, and though Olive revels in the flowers she cultivates carefully throughout her life, the characters are constantly being made aware of the way in which life can suddenly descend into ugliness and menace, and how, in the lives of every person they meet, there are painful secrets, shameful tragedies, and impossible heartbreaks.
This sense of fragility is brilliantly rendered by Cholodenko, who can turn an ordinary evening drive through town into a nerve-wracking journey through the Dark Forest. Olive refers to herself as a “witch,” and so do the children with whom she interacts throughout; but in her cruelty there is always wisdom, and her pinched worldview features uncommon perception and notes of remarkable grace. Olive Kitteridge is an achingly beautiful film that is, unexpectedly, as riveting as a thriller.
In the 1980s or ’90s, Olive Kitteridge would have been a feature film released by a major studio in time for awards season. A literary adaptation based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was prestige Hollywood’s stock-in-trade in those years. But in 2014, studios make very few intimate family dramas of this sort, and even fewer literary adaptations. Their prestige book-based fare is far more likely to be adapted from bestselling nonfiction. The Oscar race for 2014 is looking like a fight between Unbroken (based on the Laura Hillenbrand retelling of the amazing life of Louis Zamperini), American Sniper (based on Chris Kyle’s memoir of his time in Iraq), The Theory of Everything (about Stephen Hawking), The Imitation Game (about the tormented British codebreaker Alan Turing), and Big Eyes (about the painters Walter and Margaret Keane).
Truth to tell, most of Hollywood’s high-end literary adaptations have fallen flat, even though they were designed to make their studios proud and win Oscars. It may be that the need to compress their plots to fit a two-hour running time usually makes the stories seem sketchy and incomplete in comparison to what had been on the page. Hollywood has always done a wonderful job of raising fictional junk (like The Godfather) to empyrean heights; it has never been anywhere near as successful doing justice to literarily ambitious novels. Olive Kitteridge follows the British model of televised literary adaptation. It runs twice as long as it could have run in a theater and, by setting the right pace and tone, captures the essence of Strout’s rich book.
The subject matter of Olive Kitteridge is also anathema to today’s studios. Intimate family dramas of this sort are now almost exclusively consigned to the realm of the “independent film.” Cholodenko, who made the much-garlanded lesbian-mom film The Kids Are All Right a few years ago, happens to be a master of the grainy, hand-held, artisanal approach that characterizes most indies. But Olive Kitteridge wouldn’t have worked had it been filmed in that manner; it required a classical cinematic gloss, in which formal camera-work and pristine cinematography serve as an analogue to a novelist’s lyrical prose.