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Saturday, August 18, 2012

Book to Reel: Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind


“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were…”

I can’t even begin to guess how many times I have read those words, the opening line to Gone With the Wind, my favorite book, by Margaret Mitchell. I read it for the first time when I was in the fifth grade. This was a real rite of passage in my household, one made up of three daughters with a mother who loved this book and this movie. We did not own a VCR until I was at least twelve--I know, I am showing my age here--and it was a major event when Gone With the Wind came on TV. I have seen it countless times; there is not a frame that is unfamiliar to me. Over the years, I became just as familiar with the book, but because I began reading it at such a young age, it is difficult to say when I crossed the line into a more adult understanding of the emotions, actions, and motivations of my most beloved characters. It is also difficult to say when the glamour of the movie began to fade, just a little. Yes, it is still one of my favorites and I will always love it, but it pales in comparison to the richness of the book. I know many people reading this article have seen the movie, but I am guessing a few haven’t read the book. My desire in comparing them is to encourage you to not be intimidated by its size (over 1,000 pages) and to discover what author James Michener described in his review as its “extraordinary readability.” Let’s look at two major points: casting and what was left out of the film.

Casting: Vivien Leigh portrayed Scarlett O’Hara, and she put her entire heart and soul into the role. She reportedly carried a copy of the book with her on set at all times, whipping it out and referring to it when the script deviated from Mitchell’s work. Her devotion paid off, winning her the Academy Award for Best Actress, and thrilling the author. Mitchell reportedly whispered to a friend during her first viewing of the movie, “She’s my Scarlett!”

Conversely, Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes was simply awful. At forty-six years old, Howard was utterly ridiculous portraying a young man in his mid-twenties, and even though Ashley had recently returned from a Grand Tour of Europe, he certainly wouldn’t have had a strong British accent! Howard didn’t want the part and it showed. I didn’t understand for years why Scarlett was attracted to Ashley, and it wasn’t until I could read the book and purposefully push Leslie Howard out of my mind that I appreciated her infatuation.

Olivia de Havilland is good as Melanie, but the major difference between the book and film version is self-confidence. The Melanie Wilkes of the novel was an extremely shy, humble young woman, and I think de Havilland plays her with a bit too much self-assurance.

Clark Gable is very disappointing when compared with the Rhett of the book, a fear that Gable himself entertained. The book was wildly popular, and he was “scared stiff” that he wouldn’t be able to live up the public’s idea of who Rhett Butler was. In my opinion, he didn’t begin to tap the depth of the character, but it wasn’t all Gable’s fault. The script’s treatment of the character left him mostly one-dimensional, except for the scene in which Rhett cries into Melanie’s lap over Scarlett’s miscarriage--a scene, interestingly enough, that Gable was extremely reluctant to do. He was very concerned that it would reflect badly on his masculinity and taint the public’s view of him. He was persuaded to go ahead and shoot the scene, but personally I don’t think he plays it very convincingly. I think his star shines the brightest in two scenes: when he comforts Scarlett after her nightmare, and when he is holding his infant daughter and cooing to her in baby talk. Both of those moments reveal a sweet tenderness that Scarlett herself perceived in Rhett; Gable is remarkably natural and seems at ease in these scenes.

What was left out: I would have to write pages and pages to describe everything that was left out of the movie. I am not criticizing, as the film would simply have been too long, but this is why devotees of the film should really read the book. You are missing out on two of Scarlett’s children, the fascinating back story of her parents’ younger lives, a myriad of rules and regulations of Southern decorum that contribute to the overall atmosphere of the entire story, several minor characters that contribute in major ways, etc., etc. But the biggest missing ingredient is Mitchell’s voice and her gorgeous prose. Here is a description of Scarlett realizing that her father is forever lost to her after her mother’s death:

“He would never be any different and now Scarlett realized the truth and accepted it without emotion--that until he died Gerald would always be waiting for Ellen, always listening for her. He was in some dim borderline country where time was standing still and Ellen was always in the next room. The mainspring of his existence was taken away when she died and with it had gone his bounding assurance, his impudence and his restless vitality. Ellen was the audience before which the blustering drama of Gerald O’Hara had been played. Now the curtain had been rung down forever, the footlights dimmed and the audience suddenly vanished, while the stunned old actor remained on his empty stage, waiting for his cues.”

That is some beautiful writing, and only a snippet of what is waiting for you between the covers of this beautiful book. Keep watching the movie, by all means, but take the time to read the words that inspired the film. You won’t regret it.

POSTED BY:  L.R. Blizzard

Did you know that Margaret Mitchell cited author Mary Johnston as one of her inspirations? She said, “I hesitate to write about the South after reading Mary Johnston.” But she did, thank goodness! We chose Mary Johnston's To Have and to Hold as one of the inaugural offerings of the Legacy Vintage Collection. Check out L.R. Blizzard's article on Mary Johnston, and check out our enhanced ebook edition of her bestselling novel of 1900!

To Have and to Hold by Mary Johnston
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