"All books are either dreams or swords,/You can cut, or you can drug, with words." - Amy Lowell, 'Sword Blades and Poppy Seed'

Friday, June 17, 2011

Film Friday: Gone with the Wind

Mitchell, Margaret. Gone with the Wind. New York: Pocket Books, 1964. 1448 pages.

"Many novels have been written about the Civil War and its aftermath. None take us into the burning fields and cities of the American South as Gone with the Wind does, creating haunting scenes and thrilling portraits of characters so vivid that we remember their words and feel their fear and hunger for the rest of our lives. In the inimitable Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler, Margaret Mitchell not only conveyed a timeless story of survival under the harshest of circumstances, she also created the two most famous lovers in the English-speaking world since Romeo and Juliet" (description from book cover)

Overall Review: **** (our of five)

  • Writing.  Everything else aside, Margaret Mitchell is a damn fine writer.  She's not afraid of using complicated words and language (unlike some modern authors I could mention) and her descriptions are vivid and lasting.
  • History. While her view is undoubtedly biased, Mitchell's descriptions of life during the Civil War and Reconstruction are painful and haunting, and (from my limited knowledge) fairly accurate.
  • Racism. The attitude of white Southerns towards blacks is patronizing and paternalistic, the Klu Klux Klan is a fine upstanding organization, and Northerners are crazy for thinking the Southerners mistreat their slaves.  But these sorts of items are few and far between, and are indicative of both the setting of the book and the time when Mitchell was writing.

As someone who had seen Gone with the Wind plenty of times, I can't say I was expecting to love the book the way other people who recommended it to me did.  Now, however, I believe that this novel is historical fiction at its absolute best.  It is easy enough to have good history with a weak story, or a good story with dubious history, but Mitchell blends a chilling portrait of the Civil War and Reconstruction with a compelling story.  It is difficult to like Scarlett: she's selfish, thoughtless, and a monumental waste of intelligence.  But she is a born survivor, and getting her inner thoughts as we don't in the movie makes her character much more sympathetic.

While some aspects of Reconstruction as described may be exaggerated, there is no question that this era, and the war the preceded it were bleak moments in our history that showed some of the worst aspects of the character of this country's people.  The description of the siege of Atlanta is particularly harrowing.  The slow decline in the comfort of life as the battles come closer and wounded poor into the city is devastating.  Unfortunately, that's war.  Reconstruction, on the other hand, seems very much like the treatment of Germany after WWI: keep the land downtrodden so they cannot pull themselves together and fight again.

According to a blurb in the book, Margaret Mitchell said that the book was meant to be about the kind of people that survive catastrophes.  I could not help but think (and please forgive the comparison), but if the Civil War was replaced with a nuclear disaster, or an alien invasion, or some such thing, Gone with the Wind could easily be a post-apocalyptic narrative.  I realized this when Ashely and Rhett commented about how their world had ended.  That's what post-apocalyptic literature is about, after.  Surviving the end of the world and rebuilding after.  Except we have Reconstruction instead of a nuclear winter.

The Movie:
I love the movie.  It is wonderful and beautiful and epic.  But the book is much, much better.  First of all, the book has much more insight into life during the war, and we get much more detail than we do in the movie.  I also prefer that the book is much less love story than the movie is.  I want to say that Scarlett's life with Rhett takes up about the last third of the movie, which would be about 500 pages of the book.  In reality, it's about half that.  I also prefer Scarlett in the book to Scarlett in the movie.  Her inner thoughts (such as they are) go a long way toward helping the reader understand her, even if it is still difficult to like her.  Melanie also seems like less of a perfect saint in the book, and her strength is highlighted.

The plot of the movie sticks fairly clearly to the book.  Sure, Scarlett's first two children are not in the movie, but anything that has been cut out, while still interesting, would only drag down the pace and plot of the movie.  The adaptation is faithful without being dogmatic.

The movie is a classic, and I personally think everyone should see it.  I would probably recommend seeing the movie before reading the book, if only because the book is better and the movie may be a letdown after (though I wouldn't know, since that isn't how I did it).  So, I guess here's a question for all of you: do you believe in reading books before seeing the movie?  In the case of Gone with the Wind, if you read the book before seeing the movie, was the movie a disappointment or not?

1 comment:

  1. I watched the movie before reading the book. I loved both. I think that it is better to watch a movie before reading the book, simply because it is very disappointing when scenes are cut or a character is different. I love that you have gone back and visited an older book/movie. It has made me want to break mine out for another session of Scarlett love! (found you from book blog, and following for sure!)