Beverly Hills, Calif. — In Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Olive Kitteridge, the title character slips in and out of the various chapters. Jane Anderson, the Emmy-winning writer tasked with adapting the story into an HBO miniseries, wanted Olive to be the main character even though Frances McDormand wanted her role to be as a side character.
“She didn’t want to be the star of her own series,” Anderson said Thursday at the Summer TCA Press Tour panel.
Of course McDormand, who worked on the project for five years, ended up as the star, but the Oscar winner initially did not even see Olive Kitteridge as something that could be adapted to screen after first reading the novel.
“A 90-minute time frame is not long enough to tell a good female story,” McDormand said, so a movie was out of the picture. It was too good of a role to resist, however, so she optioned it — she originally brought it to HBO as a regular drama series (after all, the novel was broken into 13 short stories) but it was eventually condensed to six hours, and then four, to become the four-part miniseries that will debut in November.
It’s a character piece, set in New England and spanning 25 years. “For me, it’s about a marriage and how a marriage survives depression ... and how a town survives it,” McDormand said.
In the first hour of the story, McDormand said, the marriage of Olive and her husband Henry, played by Richard Jenkins, is in crisis. “You see how that crisis reverberates and ripples throughout rest of marriage, how it affects not only their son but the community they live in.
Director Lisa Cholodenko said that the heartbreaking, traumatic tone attracted her to the project, calling it a “traumedy.” She explained her part in telling what McDormand called a “familiar” story about marriage as follows: “My job as director was to be observant, be quiet, give modest and succinct adjustments and get out of their way,” Cholodenko said.
“It’s the same thing when you’re handed a great piece of literature,” Anderson said. “You look at the essence of this fabulous book; there’s no dramatic narrative whatsoever. It was the hardest assignment I ever had.
“The greater the piece of literature, the harder it is to adapt to television.”
Other highlights from the panel included:
• McDormand was inevitably asked about Fargo, the TV adaptation of the film that garnered her an Academy Award years earlier. “I’ll take a question,” she said, “but I won’t do the accent.” She said she hasn’t seen the show. “I’m waiting for the novel to come out,” she added.
• Cholodenko said it was “a little byzantine” getting Bill Murray onto the project. “One thing that dazzled me about him, he has this innate ability to move between drama, sadness and his comedic brilliance,” she said. “It was astonishing to direct him and witness it up close and personal.”