History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

16 December 2011

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 . . . .

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Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I must admit I've never read it, and I've only seen the film once. I clearly remember wishing Melanie would run Scarlet over with her carriage. I'd say your observations are very apt though. Styles and tastes have changed very much when it comes to popular fiction.

11:32 AM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

My brother and his wife adore the film. The sneak preview was held in their hometown and the film's 60th (50th?) anniversary celebration featured a reenactment of that premiere. After months of pre-planning, they managed to earn a seat for the screening itself, thanks to their very accurate costumes.

For myself, I'm always amazed by how every detail in the film conveys character. Rhett's love for his little daughter always wrenches my heart.

8:08 PM  
Blogger Satia said...

Dr Zhivago is another movie that you may appreciate in the same way. David Lean and his writers made some interesting choices in how they tell the story, dropping characters and changing other details.

Actually, come to think of it, Jaws is another movie that consciously chose to remove content from the book that made up nearly 1/3 of the novel. In doing so, the dramatic tension is maintained, characters developed along different lines, etc.

I recently reread Gone With the Wind and found it a very distasteful experience. I then watched the movie again and felt sad about some things that never bothered me before. I've little doubt that over time the love affair I've long had with the film will return. But I doubt I'll ever read the novel again.

And I'm glad that Margaret Mitchell never said definitively whether Rhett returned to Scarlett or not. There's something far more interesting in giving readers a chance to define things for themselves. It shows a trust in the audience that one rarely sees in literature or on the screen anymore.

3:03 AM  
Blogger Landra said...

I've read Gone with the Wind, and noticed the differences you mentioned. I enjoyed the movie but also always wondered if Scarlett got Rhett back.

The book was a little long winded at times but that didn't stop me. I was happy they cut Beau out to as I already had serious reserves towards Scarlett, and her treatment of Beau would have increased my animosity.

I love the movie, but have a profound appreciation for the book. I also read the sequel written by Alexandra Ripley, which was not as good as the original but did give the pair an HEA.

8:19 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

It has been YEARS since I read the book. After reading your observations, I might want to read it again. I think those observations are excellent points for any writer to ponder. And the film has much to teach us about keeping a reader or viewer's attention.

12:25 PM  
Blogger Rose Lerner said...

I tried to read the book in high school and didn't make it past the birth of Scarlett's first child, simply because it was so LONG. I've only seen the second half of the movie, and while I wouldn't ever criticize anyone for liking it (I love plenty of offensive stuff myself), I personally didn't find enough to love to make up for the rapiness or the racism (thinking about that actor who had to deliver "a mule?!!" still makes me cringe).

I always find myself needing to cut at least two or three minor characters in revisions--like you, I add them because they're interesting, and later realize they just aren't integral to the story.

11:12 PM  

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