Hello Dear Readers,
I know you all love North and South, but do you love the book, the BBC adaptation or both?
Have you ever wondered about their differences?
Today I’m receiving a very special guest at From Pemberley to Milton to explain some of the differences between Elizabeth Gaskell’s book and the BBC adaptation.
Trudy Brasure has become a specialist in North and South and written 2 fan fiction books about it, one of them, In Consequence, is a favourite of mine and I will post the review in the upcoming weeks.
I hope you like her post 🙂
I fell in love with the BBC’s adaptation of North and South first. And then, I slowly fell in love with Elizabeth Gaskell’s book as well. I’m a firm believer that you can love both, despite the inevitable discrepancies between the two forms of art. Here are some of the main differences I see between the film and the book from my perspective as one who reaches for her book when needing a dose of Thornton.
#1 The first meeting between John and Margaret
Hands down, this is the most dramatic and damaging alteration the screenwriter makes from the original source. A stormy confrontation in a frenetic setting completely upends the book’s version in which an outwardly calm exchange takes place between the newly arrived Southern girl and the Milton master in a sitting room of a hotel.
The damage? It paints Thornton as a volatile man, which is very far from the man of great self-control and self-discipline that Gaskell takes pains to describe in the book. (I’ve written about Thornton’s ‘temper’ here)
But I understand the reasons the film needed something more drastic to make Margaret’s disdain for Thornton more understandable for the modern audience. Margaret’s Victorian prejudice against a workingman like Thornton is too subtle for film. And the setting of a quiet room is not very exciting. However, I cringe at the violence we witness from Thornton. I’m convinced just grabbing Stephens and unceremoniously throwing him out of the mill would have been violent enough to shock Margaret’s sensibilities.
#2 Missing history of Margaret’s life in Helstone
In order to get the story rolling in Milton, the mini-series largely skips over the first 6 chapters of the book – chapters that let us get to know Margaret. Left on the cutting room floor is a significant part of what happened to our young heroine on a beautiful day in October when her entire world imploded.
On the very same day Henry proposes – the day that marks the end of her childhood as she had known it — her father drops the bombshell of his decision to leave his position and move to Milton, which shatters all the comfort and security Margaret clings to in her concept of home. The emotional anguish Margaret endures and the responsibility she shoulders during her remaining days in Helstone is only hinted at in the film.
And by the way, Mrs. Hale wasn’t happy in Helstone. Milton is just another reason to keep complaining – aided and abetted by the loyal Dixon.
#3 Henry and the Great Exhibition showdown
Although the lethal glares and verbal sparring between Henry and John at the Great Exhibition makes exquisite drama on film, such an exchange between the two suitors never took place in the book. The scene is a brilliant invention by the screenwriter, allowing the viewer to see the vivid contrast between Southern arrogance and sophistication and the Northern practical, earnest pride. Not only that, but the scene also works as a great device for showing us Margaret’s growing admiration for John and her new home — Milton. Throw in the historical setting of the Great Exhibition of 1851 — one of the England’s proudest moments, and this particular scene ranks as my favorite screenplay invention.
#4 Dinner party argument
The book has Margaret arguing with Thornton several times in the privacy of the Hales’ home. She isn’t so brazen as to chew out the host of an elegant dinner party in front of his own guests. But the public scorching does make good film drama, doesn’t it? Ann Latimer’s finishing school training would never have allowed her to do such an atrocious thing.
#5 Ann Latimer, the silent contender
And speaking of Ann…. There is no Ann Latimer in Gaskell’s book. Maybe this is why she doesn’t speak a word in the film. The mute but comely Ann serves her purpose well. She’s living proof that Hannah isn’t kidding when she boasts that her son is the catch of the town. Whenever Ann appears, we see Margaret’s uncomfortable reaction.
And the viewer is also expected to notice that John has no real interest Ann Latimer, even though she is finishing-school-perfect and mother-approved.
#6 Hannah in the mill
Nowhere does the book ever mention Hannah going to the mill. She wasn’t a dragon overseer of the business at all. It wasn’t her place to be physically involved in such work, although we know she was avidly interested in her son’s business and dealings.
Margaret never steps foot in the mill either. As a matter of fact, there aren’t really any scenes in the book that take place in the clanking, noisy cotton factory.
Adding mill scenes was essential in the film adaptation. The viewer absolutely needed to see the vivid reality of the world John lived in day in and day out. The moment Margaret slides that door open to enter his realm is unforgettable filmmaking magic.
#7 The sly and sprightly Mr Bell
You’ll be relieved to know that Mr. Bell doesn’t suggest matrimony to Margaret in the book. He does mention, however, that he would love to have Margaret as his caretaker or his charge. Mr. Bell’s character is used much the same in the book as in the film, he is perceptive of both Margaret’s value as a unique and strong woman and the mutual “something” going on between John and Margaret.
Unfortunately, the wealthy godfather doesn’t sail off to sunny Argentina in the book. He dies. Of gout. Yes, he’s described as portly in the book. But portly or lithe, I love Mr. Bell for his wit, his keen eye, and his appreciation for Margaret and Thornton.
#8 The bond between Mr Hale and Thornton
The relationship between John and the man who should have been his father-in-law is especially endearing as described in the book. The film only hints at this special friendship that developed between teacher and pupil. We don’t see anything of how John is a rock of spiritual strength to Mr. Hale in his grief after Mrs. Hale dies. (Margaret notices this gentle and profound side of Mr. Thornton’s character.) I miss this deeper aspect of the relationship between the two most important men in Margaret’s life.
#9 Bessy and religion
Gaskell was a compassionate Unitarian, married to a Unitarian minister. She put Christian morality into all her books. Bessy speaks a lot about God and looks forward to a happier afterlife. Margaret reads from the Bible to Bessy. Mr. Hale and Higgins talk of God in their exchange. Margaret is a devout follower of the Church of England who worries about her father’s breach with the church, and her brother’s marriage to a Catholic. The Thorntons do not attend the Church of England.
The harmonizing undertones of bringing characters of varying Christian faith together is mostly lost in the film. Glossing over the religious stuff is probably the modern way, but we lose something of the Victorian reality in skipping it.
#10 The train station ending
The ending of the BBC’s North and South is legendary. And rightfully so. If there were a hall of fame for screen kisses, then Richard Armitage would be venerated there for decades. I don’t think there’s anything to beat The Kiss. It’s pure romantic heaven to watch the tension and misunderstandings of 4 episodes melt into the blissful, tender connection on that station bench.
But, as most people know, Margaret and John don’t meet at the train station in the book, and they certainly don’t seal their final understanding of each other’s feelings by a kiss in public – scandalous behavior! Gaskell’s ending has Thornton come to London, and the final pages place the lovers in a back drawing room – without Henry’s disapproving eyes on them!
Yes, the film ending is breath-taking and brilliant. The range of emotions shown in a matter of moments, the symbolism of finding each other at a half-way point, the open-collar of a man usually tied and bound by his routine, the drama of making a final choice at the sound of the whistle – it all makes the scene exquisite and rich with meaning. And I haven’t even taken into account the acting! I could never condemn the ending, it’s a gift to the world of romantic period drama. It’s a vision etched in the mind and hearts of those fortunate enough to have watched it.
Yet, I love the book ending, too. Line by line, it’s packed with more trembling passion than the film’s final scene. And then there is Thornton on his knees, a silent body-to-body embrace, a brief mutual apology, and some sweet playfulness that leads to a private kiss of unspecified duration. Sigh.
Trudy Brasure is the author of A Heart for Milton, one of the most well-loved continuation stories based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s work. She is known throughout the worldwide community of avid North and South fans for her knowledge of and insights on Gaskell’s story and characters. She has spent the past six years actively discussing and studying North and South and other Victorian literature.
As a hopeless romantic and an fervent enthusiast for humanity’s progress, she loves almost nothing more than to engage in discussion about North and South.
You can find out more about Trudy and her work at:
If you are curious about her books, you can find them at Amazon on the links below:
A Heart for Milton: A Tale from North and South
In Consequence: A Retelling of North and South
And if you still do not own a copy of the BBC adaptation, you can always find it here: