Sunday, June 4, 2017

1939: Gone with the Wind

Screenplay by Sidney Howard
Adapted from the novel Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

This Civil War/Reconstruction-era story is centered around Scarlett O'Hara, who grew up on a plantation in Georgia. Despite having all the young men in the area wrapped around her finger, Scarlett has eyes only for Ashley Wilkes, who seems to feel the same way about her but nevertheless marries his cousin Melanie, as their family expects. Resourceful and determined, Scarlett makes it through the war and reconstruction better than most of her neighbors, but even though she marries three different men and makes a small fortune for herself, she never stops longing for Ashley. Consequently, she stubbornly refuses to see what is plain to the rest of the world: she is clearly much better suited for her third husband, the roguish, practical Rhett Butler, than the honorable, daydreaming Ashley Wilkes.

This is exactly what I was talking about in my intro post when I said, "a great adaptation should capture the spirit of the original story without feeling confined by it." Given that the novel is 1,037 pages long, it's amazing to me how faithful the film is to the original story. Almost all of the major plot points remain, and the novel and the film unquestionably have the same heart. I think a lot of credit belongs to the acting, particularly Vivien Leigh's incredible Oscar-winning performance as Scarlett, which I blogged about here. In a one-second glance, Leigh conveys multi-paragraph descriptions of Scarlett's thoughts and feelings. Of course, this only goes so far, so it was still necessary to make a few cuts. In my opinion, they made the right ones.

In general, I think the changes can be divided into two categories. The first is changes to minor characters. The novel goes into significant detail about all the O'Haras' neighbors and several Atlanta families and how the war and reconstruction affected them. The film includes some of these, but often multiple characters were combined into one, and some were eliminated altogether. To be honest, I got most of them mixed up when I was reading the book, so this is no significant loss. There are enough minor county people and townspeople to further the main characters' stories and convey the widespread affects of historical events without bogging down the story too much, so the film unquestionably succeeded there. Slightly more controversial is the elimination of Scarlett's first two children. Scarlett doesn't really pay very much attention to them, so they're not crucial to the story, but there are a couple of plot points that aren't quite the same without them. In the book, Scarlett has a son before helping Melanie give birth, which means two things: Scarlett actually had some knowledge of childbirth to help her in the book, unlike in the movie in which she literally has no clue what she's doing; and there was much more urgency for Scarlett to leave Atlanta in the book, with her own child's safety to think about, which explains not only Melanie's intense gratitude that Scarlett doesn't abandon her, but also how much weight a promise to Ashley carries with Scarlett. The movie is slightly lacking without these, but it still pretty much works. Scarlett's second child really only matters in the book when she's pregnant with her, which is when she's building up her mills (in the book she has two mills, in the movie only one, but that's immaterial). In both versions, the town is scandalized that a woman, particularly one with a husband to support her, is working outside the home. In the book the scandal is heightened by the fact that she is appearing in public while obviously pregnant, which was not done at the time. This pregnancy is also what convinces Ashley to help her at the mill and is another example of Rhett going out of his way to be nice to her, but the movie is fine without this. The final minor character change is the elimination of two ragged ex-soldiers who help Scarlett after the war: one at Tara and the other in Atlanta. The movie does a good job of modifying the plot so that their characters become unnecessary, but they do have a couple of lines that were just too good to not include, and the film gives those to other characters. Interestingly, most of these lines are given to Mammy, whose shrewdness is very similar to theirs, so it works remarkably well. Mammy also absorbs the purpose of a couple of other slave characters from the book who didn't make it into the movie, so she's more important in the film than in the novel, which is definitely not a bad thing because she's one of the best characters.

The second category of changes are those that make the movie a lot cleaner than the book. Several conversations in the novel, particularly between Rhett and Scarlett, are fairly sexually explicit, if not by today's standards, at least by 1939 Hollywood's standards; thus they were unsurprisingly removed or modified. The film actually has more sexual content than one might expect for that time, but significantly less than the book. I think the biggest impact this has on the story is in the movie Rhett tells Scarlett that he loves her several times early on, so it seems kind of odd that Scarlett doesn't think that he loves her. By contrast, in the book, he doesn't say he loves her until towards the end, but he repeatedly says that he "wants" her. I guess that's what film Scarlett infers when he says "love," but it's interesting to me that they felt the need to change the word anyway. There are a few other instances of sexual content being toned down or eliminated, but the most significant cleaning up the movie does is in regards to racism. People who have only seen the film without reading the book might be surprised to know that the movie is drastically less racist than the book, since the movie is plenty racist. I think any story about the American Civil War from the perspective of the South has to be inherently racist to some degree, but it's fascinating the way the filmmakers toned it down. For instance, the book uses the N-word many times, although most of the more proper characters discourage its use, but the film doesn't use it at all. The KKK features prominently in the book, and it's portrayed as the only method of law and order protecting the women of Atlanta; the movie never mentions it by name, although it had to kind of keep it to explain how Scarlett's second husband died, but it makes that sound like a one-time raid on Shantytown rather than an organized group. The book goes on and on about how bad freedom was for the slaves who were dependent on their owners; the movie shows a couple shots of loafing black men on the streets of Atlanta, but that's about it. Overall, the movie is a lot more focused on the main characters' stories than the turmoil of the South as its society was overthrown, so it stands to reason that it would eliminate some of the long passages glorifying the South's traditions. In this way, it seems like the film had enough racism to satisfy racists, while cutting back enough to satisfy non-racist fans of the story, thereby satisfying everyone, which could partly explain the film's immense success. But that's pure speculation on my part.

At the core of both the novel and the film is a story about different types of people and how they react when their world is turned upside-down. Margaret Mitchell created a rich story full of complex and realistic characters that had the potential to transfer perfectly from the page to the screen if placed in the proper hands, and luckily, that's precisely what happened.

Stay tuned for my very favorite movie of all time, The Philadelphia Story, based on the play by Philip Barry.

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