Binge-Watching Olive Kitteridge on HBO


HBO has released a brilliant rendition of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. Years ago, The Best Food Ever Book Club chose Strout’s novel as our February selection. The discussion was varied and intense. While this is not unusual, the character of Olive was argued over through most of the dinner. The novel, structured on a collection of short stories, is a character driven book. It is not without drama and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. Set in the small town of Crosby, Maine, it would classify as a place driven story. Yet, it is the characters who really make up the narrative, and the way Olive is drawn first by Strout, and then played brilliantly by Frances McDormand is amazing. How do I love seeing a great adaptation of a story I could imagine as well as if I were in the room.
Olive is a math teacher. Her role as a wife, mother and teacher gives her a sense of authority that is at best a bad habit, and at worst a distinct flaw. Her blunt, sharp-tongued, and caustic responses wound everyone¬† around her. I know she can’t help it. How do I know this? There have been people just like her in my midst. Olive is also nurturing; she is an avid gardener, and she cares for those if she knows who are suffering from mental illness. She spots a young man, one of her former students, on the verge of suicide. We learn her father died by his own hand. She is tough and hard-boiled, but not all the way down to her core and that is where the story keeps emerging. When we see her disapproving and judgmental expressions, we know she will let fly. Sometimes her acidity takes us by surprise. You are always on your guard around people like her. They keep you on edge. It seems that the minute you start to get comfortable, or are gaining confidence they will cut you off at the pass. It is complacency she fears the most.
Henry, her husband, played fantastically by Richard Jenkins, is the kindest and most genteel of men. How does he put up with her we wonder? We grow to learn that when the chips are down, and I mean flat down to the bottom, Olive will be in your corner. She is like the tough old nurse all the young ones fear, but when you are in a pickle, she will pull you through. There is humor in how Olive negotiates through the town, and through the years.
The costumes, scenery and sets are just as I pictured them. Weathered shingles, porches done in a dark green stain, plaid shirts on women and men, a family dining at a wooden table in the kitchen. If I were ever teaching a creative writing class in creating characters, or an acting class in depicting characters, this book, Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout would be an excellent place to start. HBO has produced an outstanding adaptation, and this character driven story will be an American classic.
It was dreary here on Windy Bay today. A back strain restricted my activities. Binge-watching the show through the afternoon turned into a rare delight.