Frankly, my dear . . .
Every single year I watch “Gone With the Wind” again, and every single year I thrill to the burning of Atlanta and Rhett’s impassioned kiss as he goes off to join the army and I weep at the sight of hundreds of wounded men lying untended in the railroad yard. This year I decided to re-read Margaret Mitchell’s book, which I haven’t done since I was 16, and I must admit I learned a great deal about writing.
First, it’s very, very difficult to read heavy dialect such as Uncle Peter’s and Mammy’s. Mitchell grew up in Atlanta, a Southerner through and through. She began working on the book in 1926 and understood instinctively that simplifying the dialect of the 1860s would not have been authentic. Consequently, I ploughed through passages like “Dis Miss Scarlett, ain’ it? Dis’ hyah Peter, Miss Pitty’s coachman. Doan step down in dat mud … “You is as bad as Miss Pitty an’ she lak a chile ‘bout gittin’ her feets wet. Lemme cahy you.”
I now understand why my editor says “go easy on using dialect.”
Second, Mitchell has pages and pages of inner thought for Scarlett, and as fascinating a character as she is, after a while the reader tires of such extensive ruminating. Today’s readers (as today’s editors understand) have much shorter attention spans; hence, passages of inner-thinking are more limited.
Third, I see why the screenwriters limited the number of characters. In the film, Scarlett’s first child, Beau, conceived with Charles Hamilton, is omitted entirely. In the book, Scarlett’s treatment of Beau as an encumbrance and an annoyance shows her selfishness, but in the film these qualities are shown through her actions, her speech, and her facial expressions. Consequently, Beau is not really needed.
I take this to heart as a writer who tends to sprinkle secondary characters here and there simply because they are interesting to me. They may add background color, but they don’t augment the plot.
Fourth, I note that the scene choices made by the screenwriters are limited to the most memorable, most character-revealing, most action-oriented ones: Ashley and Scarlett in the library at Twelve Oaks; Melanie’s birth scene; Scarlett’s discovery of her mother’s body when she returns to Tara and her oath after eating the radish; Big Sam and the “Hoss, make tracks!” line; Rhett’s proposal after Frank Kennedy’s funeral; Bonnie’s death. And of course, Melanie’s death, which for the past 25 years has left me sobbing.
As a writer I learned from the film’s screenwriters to make my scenes full of action, visually memorable, and emotionally moving.
Finally, as to the epic scope of a novel: In the book there are long, long passages of war strategy and the ups and downs of particular battles. As a history buff I thoroughly enjoyed these episodes, but as a writer I realize most readers won’t. The screenwriters limited such exposition to written summaries scrolling across the screen and a few “telling” scenes of wounded soldiers, ragged refugee, and Twelve Oaks burned out to a single staircase.
Of great interest to me as a writer is Mitchell’s method: she jotted down bits and pieces on the backs of notebooks, working from the last page to the front (I thought I was the only one who did that). She began work on the manuscript in 1926 and wrote until poor health made her stop. She forgot about it until 1935, when Macmillan Company first read it and immediately decided to publish it. Three weeks after publication in 1936, the book had sold 176,000 copies; after one year, 1,383,000 copies had been printed. In 1937 Mitchell won the Putlitzer Prize and in 1939 the motion picture version was released.
Over 20,000,000 readers have read the work; 26 foreign language editions have been printed, and it has appeared in both Braille and Talking Book forms for the blind.
To the question, “Did Scarlett get Rhett back?” Mitchell consistently said she didn’t know. To her, the book ended where it ended. In 1949, Margaret Mitchell died in Atlanta.
Each time I see “Gone With the Wind,” I note something new that a writer such as myself should pay attention to. Now I await next year’s screening . . . .