Themes in the Novel and Movie Adaptation of James Cain’s Mildred Pierce
In contemporary film making, “Hollywood-ization” generally refers to the re-creation of a classic work in a form more vulgar and sexually explicit than the original in an effort to boost movie attendance. After all, sex and violence sell. However, from the mid-1930’s to the 1950’s, “Hollywood-ization” referred to the opposite case where controversial books had to be purified to abide by the Production Code of 1934. This occurred to many of James Cain’s novels as they moved from text to the genre of “film noir.” As has been said about Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, “The property, bought several years ago, was kept in the studio’s archives until now because of [Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s] “inability to clean it up.”” The sanitation of Cain’s novels greatly took from the strong themes of female emotional and financial independence that were rarely addressed at that time as they were adapted for the screen.
James Cain’s Mildred Pierce, published in 1941, explored issues that plagued the domesticated woman amidst the social upheaval caused by the Great Depression of the 1930’s and suffered from the rule of the Production Code. As Mildred Pierce’s first marriage with Bert Pierce disintegrates, she is confronted with the responsibility of supporting her two children while creating opportunities for financial independence despite having no skills or education. She becomes a successful restaurateur through the careful manipulation of the men around her only to become the slave to the desires and whims of her eldest daughter, Veda. According to David Madden, the story of Mildred Pierce is “a powerful and suggestive study of social inequity and opportunity in America. The limited alternatives available to women offered a compelling new angle of the Depression years…”
Mildred Pierce successfully deals with issues that were very progressive for the time. A particularly strong theme that runs through the entire novel is the unusual power that women play over the men in their lives. Rather than simply being passive to the impulses of men, Mildred takes charge of her life and decides which men she will be with and leaves those that she no longer has an affection for. Cain dives into more controversial territory by having Mildred use men for her own sexual satisfaction. Cain also moves women into the role of successful ‘breadwinners’ during a time where men generally held financial power further blurring traditional roles of gender.
However, Mildred does not completely free herself of all familial responsibilities as she is still held captive through her obsession with her daughter Veda. As with many housewives, her sense of self-identity is drawn from her role as a mother and she caters to the desires of her daughter to the point that they are almost self-destructive. It is Veda’s extravagant tastes that drive her mother to work hard and draws...