I watched “Gone With the Wind” when I was thirteen and came out distinctly disappointed at the end of the interminable film. At thirteen, I couldn’t put into words what was so disappointing about it, the costumes had been beautiful, the sets glorious. There was a love story, and the plot was easy to follow. But it left me wanting. As an adult, I know that it was Scarlett who disappointed me. I had never yet in my young life come across a main character so absolutely ruthless and with no redeeming quality. She was a character people loved to hate, and at thirteen, I didn’t want to hate Scarlett. I had wanted to be her, and she had let me down.
In the years since, I’ve often wanted to read the novel, but never quite got around to it. It’s behemoth size and my distaste at the movie kept me reading other things. But what better time than to do a compare/contrast than for CBR bingo! So I read the book and re-watched the movie at the same time.
The movie did this book no justice, and Scarlett a severe disservice. Mitchell is brilliant, her writing touching, descriptive and heart wrenching in its verbosity. I felt more like I was reading a narrative history than a novel. Yes, Scarlett schemes. Yes, there’s the never ceasing love triangle that causes so much strife. But Scarlett is simply the eyes through which we see the rending of the southern aristocracy, the torture and torment endured by the Georgians as Sherman’s army burns through, and the constant despair falling on the old ruling class. The story is timeless in that what happens to Scarlett and her neighbors in the fateful years during and after the Civil War have happened to many elites in different countries and settings throughout history. It’s just that no one ever believes it will happen to them until it’s too late. And Scarlett’s greatest treachery, according to her compatriots, is her inability to graciously accept poverty.
Scarlett is much more than just the ruthless husband-stealer the movie makes her out to be. She is ahead of her time, strong and stalwart with a cunning mind for business and an insatiable need to take care of those she’s responsible for no matter what the cost. In the movie, Scarlett is a selfish, weeping, tantrum-throwing brat who lusts after a married man, and makes self-centered choices that eventually bring her demise, missing the entire arc of her character. She starts out this way in the book’s beginning, caring only how many boys she can attract and what velvet slippers she can wear to the ball. But as the story progresses, her driving need to stave off the poverty that will not only mentally destroy, but physically kill her family and neighbors, forces her to make adult decisions that she has not been taught to handle. But time and again she rises to the occasion, refusing to be the simple-minded woman who leaves things to her men. She is everything her society has worked to suppress in a woman, and the bulk of their hatred for her is her constant success against the odds. Does she make unscrupulous choices? Yes. Does she make her money on the backs of others? Certainly. But as is often brought up through Mitchell’s gorgeous prose, so did everyone else in her class, though she and Rhett are the only ones condemned for it. It’s true that in the end, Scarlett is not a nice person, and her motives can’t be considered pure, but they are understandable, and a woman’s success is still success, even if she’s not ‘nice.’ She steals her sister’s beaux because he has money and can keep Tara, the home where eight people will be destitute and homeless if she loses it the Yankees. She borrows money to buy the mills under her husband’s nose because he’s making no money at his store, and both Tara and her own home are suffering. She banishes all convention to run the mills herself because she knows no one else will do what she can do. She marries Rhett on the surface for his money, but in reality because he’s the only man who will let her keep being unconventional. If Scarlett were a character of the 21st century, she would be lauded as a business woman, a go-getter, and the height of the feminist movement.
The movie goes a step further in not only debasing Scarlett to a brat with no motive, but it turns Melanie Wilkes into a simpering, overly sweet ninny when she is as strong as Scarlett, but in a different (more socially acceptable) way. I was dismayed that several of the important lines Melanie has in the book are given to other characters, making her seem weak and helpless. Many times in the book, her anger is terrifying, all the more because she uses it sparingly, and this side of Melanie is never seen in the film, making her the terribly sweet and useless female cipher against Scarlett’s tumultuous personality. Melanie and Ashley are also seen to be much more in love in the movie than they really are in the book. Melanie obviously loves Ashley throughout the story, but Ashley’s feelings towards his wife never seem to be more than a sense of honor and duty. He really does lust after Scarlett, making the love triangle accurate, where the movie plays out like it’s all in Scarlett’s head.
The movie is a serious product of its time, omitting ninety-percent of the violence and destruction that explains Southern feelings about their Northern oppressors, as well as the desolation and abject poverty of the Southerners. Everyone looks just as lovely dressed and their houses intact as before the war starts, making their desolation and outrage sit tongue-in-cheek instead of the all encompassing disaster Mitchell describes.
One of the reasons this book worked so well (and why the movie didn’t) is that Mitchell takes the macro/micro approach to her craft, going large and encompassing to bring us to the bloody fields and political intrigue before angling her view back to Scarlett and our cast of characters. This way, we have a context for their emotions and reactions. We understand the world they used to live in verses the world they end up in, and even if we can’t agree with their way of life or ideals, we can sympathize with their situation and even understand how we got to where we are today. It’s an intimate, yet national lens she uses to showcase the circular event of people to environment to environment to people. It gives the characters motive, a place to arc to, and a place to grow or to be crushed under the weight of change.
Honestly, I’d love to see someone revive this on the screen as a mini series or TV show. I think it would work much better as multiple episodes would give us the ability to go macro/micro and get the context that is so heavily missing in the movie.
5 stars for the book. 2 for the movie.
Bingo square: The Book was Better