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'Olive Kitteridge' takes center stage on HBO

Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins shine in a smart miniseries adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning book.

* OLIVE KITTERIDGE. 9 p.m. Sunday and Monday, HBO.

IT'S A RARE adaptation that doesn't make an audience choose between the source material and its offspring. The first playacting around a fire was probably greeted by at least one critic's claim that the cave-paintings were better and another's argument that they'd been just daubs on a wall until actors brought them to life.

HBO's "Olive Kitteridge" doesn't brook such nonsense.

In a two-night miniseries premiering Sunday, Frances McDormand takes the difficult title character from Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer-winning collection of short stories out for a slightly different spin, but the result is less a challenge to Strout's vision than a broadening of it.

It's true that McDormand now owns Olive, just as she will always own Marge Gunderson, the Oscar-winning "Fargo" character that FX's TV adaptation wasn't foolish enough to touch, and also in a more literal sense, in that she optioned the rights to "Olive Kitteridge" several years ago in the hopes of playing her.

Her deft, marvelously matter-of-fact performance suggests she knew just what she was about.

But two nights with McDormand's Olive - a prickly Maine schoolteacher with unexpectedly deep wells of empathy and even flashes of humor - shouldn't spoil you for Strout's, who still waits to be discovered, and rediscovered.

Adapted by Jane Anderson ("Normal") and directed by Lisa Cholodenko ("The Kids Are All Right"), the HBO miniseries necessarily places Olive, a peripheral character in some of Strout's small-town stories, at the center of the action.

What's lost: a number of memorable but now minor characters.

What's gained: a more straightforward chronology.

Anderson's taken other liberties, most of them small, one of them quite large, for added drama. I'm not crazy about the opening, in which an older Olive makes preparations to shoot herself, but maybe Anderson saw something in Olive that I didn't. Or maybe she just needed to make sure we'd stick around for the second night.

Depression, and its legacy, is undeniably a large part of "Olive Kitteridge," but it's also the story of a woman who is loved, perhaps more than she deserves, but also no less than we need her to be.

Richard Jenkins ("Six Feet Under," "The Visitor") is every bit as good as his co-star as Henry, Olive's pharmacist husband, who loves his wife without completely understanding her and whose innocent crush on a young assistant (Zoe Kazan) only shows his longing to be needed and to have that need acknowledged.

Bill Murray shines in a small but significant role that I'm glad made the cut.

Olive, inclined to value brains over kindness until it's possibly too late, reserves much of her own kindness for like-minded strangers while forging a difficult relationship with her only son, Christopher (Wilmington's John Gallagher Jr., "The Newsroom"), whose issues with women won't end with his mother.

On his wedding day, Olive overhears her new daughter-in-law speak disparagingly of her in a way that inspires her to take a petty, childish, utterly perfect revenge.

And if you don't love Olive Kitteridge then, you probably never will.

Phone: 215-854-5950

On Twitter: @elgray