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“It baffles me, this world. I don’t want to leave it yet.” – Olive Kitteridge

A common complaint I hear about some of my favorite books, films, and TV shows is that the characters aren’t “likable” enough. I’m not sure what goes on the in hearts and internal worlds of those who make these likability judgements, but I personally love complicated and difficult characters the most.

Often, I identify with them in some way, but even when I don’t I like being sunk down in the mire of the human heart via raw and unapologetic storytelling. Encountering difficult characters in art that we don’t relate to at all, or who behave in a way we don’t approve or can even conceive us, can help us understand people like them we encounter in real life. It can teach us something about compassion that is a bit harder to pick up in the seemingly solid world of “now.” To be human is to be constantly floating on a ocean with the waves only sometimes hinting at the depth of drama and struggle below. Somehow it’s strange for us to conceive that even the people closest to us are churning with intricate furies of pain, dreams and desires similar to our own. Reading literature, especially, helps find empathy for other people and their baffling behaviors. Stories can offer a temporary salve for that incurable wound of why, they are a way for us to explain and share.

Olive Kitteridge is one of best examples of the “difficult” person in modern literature, and she’s been expertly channeled for the screen by Frances McDormand. She is brisk and brittle, dark and uncompromising, and offers little warmth to her husband and child, much less anyone else. She wields honesty when others turn to pleasantries, the perfume of social grace is a stench to her.

Jane Anderson, who adapted OK from Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, had this to say about the grumpy Olive:

She’s a terrible lady! She’s difficult, she refuses to discuss, she’s cranky but she’s infinitely decent and that’s what I love about Olive. And she never feels sorry for herself and what was important to Fran was that she not worry about whether the audience likes her or not. That’s part of the brilliance of her performance. There were moments where she could have cried and therefore would make us sympathize with her more but Fran is a brilliant enough actress and someone with a great sense of what’s right. She knew that she had to keep as Olive as Olive and not worry about what people thought of her. Those are the characters that we can’t help but watch.

Frances was incredibly drawn to the book, and, with incredible timing, actually optioned it just one week before it won the Pulitzer.I’d never heard of Olive Kitteridge until I encountered the two-part series on HBO, and was blown away by the sweeping intricacy of it. The story itself could be stuffed in a thousand page novel, but it comes in a less than 300. I hungrily ordered it after plowing through the miniseries, and a few days later, a ravenous dog at the mailbox, was surprised to find in my mail a rather thin book. But it’s not too thin, each sentence is a charm, perfectly rendered.

The reality of the the characters and how they interacted with each other: the subtext playing on their faces, and their strange and terrible words, has led others who haven’t heard of it to wonder if this work based on a real person, if it is a “true” story. When you get into the trenches of writing and storytelling, however, the question isn’t quite that simple to answer.

This is a work of fiction, of course, Olive Kitteridge never lived, but the line between fiction and nonfiction is more blurred than we think. We use masks and mirrors to reveal truths about ourselves and others when we write and act. Art is a matter of recapturing our world, and filtering it through grit of our dirty lenses. The places where it goes slightly aslant or rough are where light and sludge humming under the surface of our words and images can creep out and take shape. Art that rings true makes us forget for a moment that it is art.

  • Donna Everhart

    I completely agree with you on Olive Kitteridge. After seeing the mini-series, of course now I want to read it, but my TBR pile is stacked high enough. The one thing I kept thinking (that never happened) was she was actually going to become sick. To be sure there had to be a reason for all that burping and belching? Uh, no. That was just her, this is me, who I am and if you don’t like it too bad, sort of persona. “Brisk and brittle.” Bingo.

    I guess this means I should find comfort in being told my characters were miserable. 🙂