By Jill Serjeant
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Joan Crawford won her only Oscar for playing iron-willed, single mother Mildred Pierce on screen in 1945.
But Kate Winslet, the British actress who has an Oscar of her own, felt that watching the classic film noir was the worst kind of preparation for stepping into Crawford's shoes in the HBO TV miniseries version of "Mildred Pierce".
"I saw the first five minutes of the film, and then I thought, I shouldn't see it," Winslet told reporters.
"I knew I had to honor the original book and to be true to the Mildred Pierce in that brilliant novel...What I was working toward with (director) Todd Haynes was something different."
HBO's five-part miniseries, starting on Sunday, is not so much a departure from the black-and-white Crawford movie, as a return to its roots in the 1941 novel of the same name by James M. Cain.
"Mildred Pierce" is the tale of a woman who finds herself newly-divorced during the Great Depression and struggling to carve out an independent life for herself and her family, while also earning the love of her cold and calculating daughter.
Most notably, the book lacks the murder plot that was invented for the film and focuses on the tortured, sometimes melodramatic, relationship between Pierce and her daughter Veda, played by Evan Rachel Wood.
But what most attracted Haynes to the story of the determined single mother in 1930s, Depression-era California was its resonance with today's tough economic times.
"The crises it explores are those of middle class privilege -- issues of pride and status and the struggle first to regain one's standing, and then to persevere through hard work and ingenuity," Haynes said.
Haynes was a big fan of the film but did not read the book until 2008, just as financial markets were tumbling and venerable banks were collapsing overnight.
"This (book) feels very much like the particular struggles of our current economic crisis, coming out of period of unbridled consumption," he added.
Haynes, the writer and director of the stylish 1950s period drama "Far From Heaven" and the 2007 Bob Dylan-inspired movie "I'm Not There", also found one of his favorite themes -- social constraints on women and how they overcome them.
Winslet, 35, best known for "Titanic" and her Oscar-winning performance as an ex-Nazi guard in "The Reader", was the first and only actress Haynes considered for his TV version.
"I had never met Kate. I hadn't worked with her before. And I could not get her out of my mind while I was reading...This was the only actress I could see playing the part," he said.
Winslet's performance has won rave reviews and is expected to get an Emmy nomination later this year. But TV critics have had mixed reactions overall to the HBO series.
The Hollywood Reporter thought the central mother-daughter relationship lacked believability, while others found that at five and a-half hours, the series was meandering, or in the words of thriller writer Stephen King "too damn long."
(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)