North and South: Adapting a classic to modern film, um, standards

I recently saw a BBC production of Elizabeth Gaskell’s romance, North & South. Do not confuse this with the John Jakes story of the same title about the US Civil War. This is an English book from 1855 (read it here) about a young woman uprooted from a lovely cultured life in Southern England to a smoky, congested, money-obsessed northern town called Milton (thinly disguised Manchester). In the course of the story, she finds Milton is not so awful; she gets an education on the brutality of both mill working conditions and strikes; she loses one loved one after another; and eventually she falls in love.

I adored the story, the cast (Daniela Denby-Ashe, Richard Armitage, SinĂ©ad Cusack…) and the look of the film, but there were bits that didn’t quite make sense and scenes that felt like non-sequiturs. And it was like they ran out of time somewhere toward the end and rushed through a bunch of stuff to a rather goofy ending. The deleted scenes didn’t help.

In short, it had all the hallmarks of a less-than-successful film adaptation. So I read the book and saw just where the filmmakers had, in my opinion, gone off the mark. Why they felt the need to rewrite a 150+ year old classic, I can’t imagine, but they made some depressingly “Hollywood” choices, particularly in regards to the love story and the characters involved.

Spoilers below the cut:

1. How they met.

Book: Margaret Hale makes a good impression on Mr. Thornton. He comes to the Hale’s home to visit Margaret’s father. But Mr. Hale isn’t in, so Margaret goes to play hostess until her father arrives. Mr. Thornton is immediately taken in by her self-composure, confidence and looks – in that order.

Movie: Mr. Thornton makes a GAH! impression on Margaret. In a misplaced nod to 1990’s Grrl Power, Margaret goes house-hunting without her father and, at the slightest hint that girls can’t negotiate leases, huffs off to the mill to see Mr. Thornton (who’s not the lease holder, so huh??). There she finds him beating the living crap out of an employee for smoking on the mill floor. This scene really doesn’t jive with the rest of his characterization, and nothing remotely like it happened in the book.

2. Oops, Gaskell forgot the love triangle – filmmakers to the rescue!

Book: Two is company. Margaret remains utterly oblivious to her brewing feelings for Thornton, even after he proposes to her, until almost the end of the book – at which point it hits her like a revelation. Thornton, who was never seriously interested in any woman before Margaret, continues to be devoted to her even after she has turned down his proposal. Corny? Perhaps (see my remarks at the end) but at least it’s not a trite convention relied upon to give the audience a “sense of urgency” that good writing ought to be able to deliver all by itself.

Movie: Three is crap. The movie creates a new character (Miss Latimer) who’s moving in on John Thornton, because you know, no one ever figures out they care for another person without their being some competition on the horizon! And we can’t let John be an exception to the rule which says if men can’t get the milk from one cow, they’re off to squeeze the next one! Gosh, no, what was Gaskell thinking?!

(If you look under your keyboard, you’ll find a sick bucket for your convenience. If you don’t need it yet, save it for #5.)

3. Girly gossip.

Book: He’s not that great a catch. Thornton’s mother mentions once that young ladies have “made plans” on her son’s heart before. When another character compares Thornton to a bulldog on its hind legs in a coat and pants, Margaret laughs and says he’s “plain enough, but he’s not like a bulldog” in looks. This is the extent of commentary on Thornton’s desirability to the young female public.

Movie: He is now that he’s a romantic movie lead, baby. Thornton’s mother claims every young woman in Milton is after her son. Margaret’s line is altered to “He’s certainly better-looking than a bulldog.” And there are references throughout the story from various characters about what a great catch he is. But the clincher comes when Margaret is telling her friend Bessy about Mrs. Thornton implying Margaret was after John: Bessy coyly says, “Don’t act like you haven’t thought about it.” I guess the filmmakers think we aren’t sophisticated enough to grasp on our own that this is a romance and therefore the two leads are meant to be. Wow, that is hard to wrap your mind around, having only seen it in 8,004,651 movies before!

Sad: that all these hints muddied Margaret’s obliviousness to her feelings, which endeared her to me because I can relate – and endeared Thornton to me because he braves it so well.

Sadder: that they completely lost the bittersweet closeness between Margaret and the slowly dying Bessy. Gone is the bleak scene where Bessy’s sister informs Margaret that Bessy has died and one of her last wishes was to be buried with some little item of Margaret’s, whom she loved dearly. It’s replaced with giggly talk of boys that could’ve been lifted from an episode of Friends.

4. Margaret’s indiscretion.

Book: Thornton loves her anyway. Margaret has a brother, Frederick, who led a mutiny against an insane Navy captain and is now exiled from England by threat of hanging. Frederick sneaks home to see their mother before she dies, then Margaret takes him to the train station in the evening. Here, Thornton happens by in time to see her with an attractive young man whom she obviously loves. So do some other people, and gossip flies, and Thornton’s mother thinks Margaret’s up to something naughty, being out with a man after dark. While Thornton does believe the man to be a suitor who succeeded where he failed, he doesn’t believe Margaret would willfully do anything improper, and asks his mother to give her womanly guidance just in case she’s in danger of being led astray. And he continues to love her.

Movie: He’s so over her! All of the above happens, but that’s when he starts seeing the invented-for-the-movie Miss Latimer. Ah, revenge dating – always an improvement for any story. /sarcasm

5. Er, should we call you Uncle Hubby?

Book: Awww. Mr. Bell, Margaret’s middle-aged godfather, makes plans to take care of her after her parents die. He entertains a notion of her coming to live with him like a daughter in his impending old age.

Movie: Ewww! Mr. Bell proposes to Margaret. Why? Why? WHY? It’s apropos of nothing, it’s awkward, and even Margaret’s expression suggests she finds the idea vaguely incestuous. WTF, movie? Two men have already proposed, and the actress is gorgeous. We get that she’s desirable, thanks!

6. How they finally get together.

Book: Ah, old-time romance! Margaret invites Thornton to London to discuss a business proposition by which he can save his failing business from ruin and make money for her. Her financial adviser – Henry, who once proposed to her and is hoping to do so again – is supposed to be at the meeting, but doesn’t show up (presumably because he understands her real motive for doing this – love). Thornton recognizes – or hopes he recognizes – the real motive, too, and in a goose-bump-inducing trembling passionate whisper calls her “Margaret” for the first time and declares she must send him away immediately or he will “claim” her as his own “in some strange presumptuous way.” She doesn’t. We melt, even without a kiss.

Movie: Modern love. Margaret goes with Henry to Milton to deliver her business proposal to Thornton, but wouldn’t ya know, Thornton’s gone off to Margaret’s old hometown to mope around and pick flowers! But as luck would have it, on the way back they run into each other at the train station while traveling in different directions! Of all the luck! She delivers her business proposal to him on a bench at the station until he interrupts her by taking her hand and then kissing her at length. Poor Henry watches from the train. We’d like to melt, but it’s only warm enough for a light sweat.

Despite all this, I recommend the mini-series, especially if you don’t care to read the book. Even slightly damaged, the story is just too good to miss completely. Margaret is an ordinary young woman doing extraordinary things, and this comes through in the movie. There’s a great scene where she puts herself between an angry mob and Thornton and gets hit by a rock – not because she’s in love with him (yet; at least, not consciously) as the town grapevine maintains, of course, but because she thinks it the right thing to do. She socializes with people from both the working class and the upper class. She has strong opinions and issues them. When she has her own wealth and can do what she likes, she chooses to reach out to the man she loves, not knowing how he’ll respond – a total gender role reversal. And for a bonus, John’s mother is an unusually strong, intimidating and hard woman for a film character.

But as for the changes listed above, the major end result is to distort Thornton’s unique character and less devotion to Margaret. In the book, he’s a man who’s worked hard since childhood (when his father killed himself). He’s raised his family out of poverty and made a success of himself, and he’s never had time for romance. He’s shy and awkward, lacking social graces. He believes no woman of quality can love him. Falling for Margaret comes out of left field and hits him so squarely that even her refusals can’t stop him loving her from afar. It sounds overly noble and romantic, but it’s simply that he approaches love the same way he approached his road to success: with single-minded will, self-discipline and purity of purpose. For first love? It doesn’t sound that extreme to me, even by cynical modern standards.

Perhaps the filmmakers thought that sort of love was wimpy, and they needed to make him more of a “man” – so we see him beating people up, being wanted by all the girls and then dating one in revenge. Yep, that’s a real man! Thank goodness the filmmakers managed to take this fascinating man – a fitting match for Margaret – and make him conform a little better to the modern day “threatened boy” image of manhood.


  1. Heqit says

    Awesome post — thanks for deconstructing the adaptation. Why can’t they leave really good already alone?

    Have you seen the BBC adaptation of Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters? It’s wonderful on its own, although I haven’t read the book (yet!).

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