It has always been a problem for filmmakers, condensing a much-loved, 10,000-page novel into a two-hour multiplex experience. In most cases, supporting players have to be cut, whole subplots and explanations have to be jettisoned and, pretty soon, the very thing that made the book so rich can make the film seem pretty damn poor.
"I think that's part of the reason that television is being embraced so strongly by serious filmmakers now," nods Kate Winslet, star of HBO's critically-acclaimed Mildred Pierce, based on the 1941 novel by James M Cain, and heading to our screens this weekend as it kicks off on Sky Atlantic.
"You have room to include so much more when a series stretches over a few hours -- as opposed to trying to squeeze a life story into a mere two. Some stories only need two hours, of course, but Mildred Pierce isn't one of them . . ."
Which is why, perhaps, the 1945 film adaptation that won leading lady Joan Crawford an Oscar hasn't stood the test of time so well.
The story centres on the eponymous, long-suffering mother (Winslet) and her spoilt, narcisstic daughter, Veda (Evan Rachel Wood), the latter determined to become a singing sensation. No matter what the cost. And that includes the happiness of the woman who bore her. Mildred, having recently separated from her husband and opened up a restaurant, falls in love with another man (Guy Pearce).
"There's a richness in James M Cain's original novel that we wanted to capture," says Winslet. "And I don't think we could have remained true to such a grim tale if we were trying to sell this as a movie. There aren't many teenagers out there who would want to see the complex relationship between a mother and daughter set during the Great Depression. We'd have to include a few robots, and lasers, and a vampire."
Thankfully, director Todd Haynes (I'm Not Here, Far From Heaven) has ejected the murder subplot added for that 1945 big-screen adaptation, realising that Cain's wonderful dialogue was far more exciting than any homicide.
Haynes' involvement behind the camera reflects the calibre of director TV is attracting these days. Martin Scorsese most likely has a shelf ready and waiting for all the awards his Boardwalk Empire is about to be showered with, while other notable filmmakers currently succumbing to the little black box in the corner include Michael Mann (shooting a new series, Luck, for HBO, with Dustin Hoffman), Gus Van Sant (who just wrapped his TV debut, Boss, starring Kelsey Grammer), and our own Neil Jordan (finally getting his long-gestating pet project, The Borgias, greenlit by Showtime as a TV series).
Even the young guns are getting in on the act. Greg Mottola (Superbad, Paul) has helmed the pilot for HBO's More As The Story Develops, a cable newsroom series from Aaron Sorkin (a TV veteran who this year won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for The Social Network).
"I think the line that used to exist between television and cinema has been blurred completely now," smiles Winslet. "There's no big brother, little brother scenario at play any more. When you have someone as established and respected as Scorsese signing up, you know times have changed."
Ironically, the one criticism Mildred Pierce has received in the US -- where it debuted in March -- is that it's a tad long. Still, there's little doubt that television has changed over the past decade, allowing for bigger, bolder work, and that change has largely been brought about by the US cable TV network HBO. Formed in 1972, in the past two decades they've gone from delivering critics faves such as The Larry Sanders Show to commercial juggernauts such as Sex & The City and The Sopranos. A project like Mildred Pierce was a perfect fit.
"From the first time I spoke with Todd [Haynes the director}, I had a feeling that this was all going to fit together," says Winslet. "And HBO was a big part of that. Not having commercial breaks can make a huge difference to a piece of work. You don't need cliffhangers every 12 minutes, and then a recap for those who have just strolled into the room. And the story fascinated me too, of course . . ."
When it came to writing Mildred Pierce, John M. Cain had much of his work done by real life.
The author who also gave us The Postman Always Rings Twice was friends with Kate Cummings, the single mother of actress Constance Cummings (Blithe Spirit, Movie Crazy) -- and he believed their relationship was a deeply unhealthy if fascinating one. Kate Cummings had sacrificed her own career, and happiness, to ensure her daughter became a star.
"I have two kids of my own," Winslet states, "and, like any parent, you're always worried about spoiling them, about giving them too much love almost. "Your instinct is to make them happy, and that can mean giving them what they want, but there's a dark side to such relationships, and that's where Mildred Pierce dares to go."
Not that the series is all doom and gloom. When Mildred takes on a lover, all her frustrations are played out. Vigorously. Something Winslet and Guy Pearce were keen to capture.
"Those scenes are pretty intense," says Winslet, "and we wanted them to jump out, to allow Mildred this other world, where she could express herself fully," she says. "The first love scene we have, on the beach, is quite beautiful, and they become raunchier. But this is an important part of where Mildred is at, and it allows her to break free of all ideas of class structure for a while. The rest of her life is spent worrying about such things, purely because she wants her daughter to be proud, and happy, and rich."
It's these sex scenes that inspired Winslet to email the director Todd Haynes after their first meeting and ask why he hadn't bothered to request a look at her legs. In the book, Mildred's legs are noted as her finest assets.
"Well, I just wanted to stay true to the book," laughs Winslet. "I'm that kind of actress. The small details are important to me ... "
Mildred Pierce debuts on Saturday evening on Sky Atlantic at 9pm