It’s very rare indeed that the adaptation proves itself better than the source material, but I think it must be the case with North and South the miniseries adaptation, and I am mystified as to why so few people seem to know about it. Watching Thornton be heartbroken through most of it is almost unbearable, and if I wasn’t already in love with Richard Armitage this certainly would have been enough. First of all, they have got the casting absolutely right (and I don’t mean just him). Margaret Hale is described as handsome but not a conventional beauty; Daniela Derby-Ashe, while pretty and possessing an expressive face, is not an artificial beauty. The sweetness and genuineness that she conveys make Margaret’s initial haughtiness and pride seem believable. Sinéad Cusack is perfect as Mrs Thornton, conveying all the dignity as well as the harshness of this strong woman (and her scenes with her son are superbly realized). They really highlight the differences between soft, southern Mrs Hale and practical, industrialist Mrs Thornton. I must still be getting used to this British idea of class association through accent, as, with American naiveté, I expected her to sound just as posh as the southerners and was surprised—even though intellectually I knew she was northern—to hear that very thick northern accent come out when she opened her mouth. Fanny Thornton looks like a Blanche Ingram but sounds like someone from Coronation Street. Frederick Hale is quite cute so no wonder Thornton was jealous.
There have been alterations, of course, but those are to be expected and in general, add much to the story. The exposition whips along from the beginning, seeing Margaret already on the train to Milton by the time she gives the backstory in flashback. Therefore there isn’t much time spent on her season in London, her life at Helstone, or Henry Lennox. This is fortunate because that would all probably be tiresome, especially Lennox as he comes off much less charming and much more odious in this version. There really is no comparison with Thornton. If it were possible to make Thornton any more sympathetic and wonderful, they did it. His first meeting with Margaret makes a much darker impression on her than in the book: she rushes to the mill to meet this “tradesman” who has dared to interfere with her father’s and her arrangements when they arrive in Milton, only to find him beating a worker on the mill floor.
North and South the novel is surely a book with a social conscience, but with the benefit of hindsight, the film can present even more of the working conditions than even Elizabeth Gaskell would have known. Everything that is filmed in the city (I assume it’s Manchester) is done beautifully and with attention to historical detail, but it’s no rosy vision of Victoriana: the twilight tones put Milton in perpetual winter, indoors and out, and especially evocative are the many scenes set in the mill, with pieces of cotton floating like a giant snow globe. This becomes even more powerful when Thornton watches Margaret leave Milton after the death of her father and it actually is snowing.
Margaret meets Bessy Higgins in a very different circumstance to the book: she works at Thornton’s mill. All idea of religious uncertainty has been removed from Bessy’s character and in general she is more noticeably sympathetic; she’s being played by the actress who plays Cassandra Austen in Becoming Jane. Higgins is cast a lot younger than I pictured him, reading the book, and is a less harsh man. He rescues Margaret from mean-spirited factory workers who basically do the happy-slappy on her. He’s also a big union man, and Boucher, too, has a much larger role. Mr Bell is brought into the narrative a lot earlier than he was in the book, which is better, all things considered (though to be fair to Gaskell, she was writing on a serialized basis). That he thinks of marrying Margaret himself is an idea I wondered about reading the book, but fortunately the film doesn’t turn him into an old lech, either. Edith and Aunt Shaw have smaller roles, but writing letters to Edith becomes a wonderful device of summarizing action and showing the gap between what Margaret wants Edith to hear and reality (as well as the things she can’t tell Edith, like Frederick’s visit and Thornton’s proposal).
For all the power of the love story in North and South, the filmmakers realize the responsibility of telling its historical and political aspects, from which they never shirk. I think the impressive thing about North and South is that it does try to tell both sides of the story, the masters and the men, and also communicates how easily position can be lost—both Thornton’s and Margaret’s social statuses seem to be dependent on the unthinking actions of others, or something as fickle as the free market. As in Little Dorrit, the man is saved by the woman’s newfound financial status (an unlikely development in real life but possible). The depictions of working conditions, the intricacies of the unions and striking (Boucher, at least, is seen by Margaret as having a worthwhile opinion when doesn’t want to strike in the first place), are all faithful to the book plus add a bit more drama. One thing I really didn’t expect to see was Margaret going to London to see the Crystal Palace Exhibition. It was a small scene; they couldn’t very well show the entire Exhibition. But it did so many things perfectly. Margaret defended the north and industry to Lennox; Thornton saw Margaret on Lennox’s arm and assumed the worst, long before he had seen Frederick; and Margaret got a chance to be jealous, too.
In addition to the wonderful filmic shots and the absolutely haunting musical score, the costumes are very impressive. Margaret’s wardrobe is perfectly aligned with her character and the gowns of the early 1850s. Her gown at the dinner party is very flattering. All the other costumes are wonderfully in period, and Thornton’s costumes . . . well . . . swoon. Actually, everything about Thornton=swoon. If you recall the first time I really heard a northern accent was Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor, you’ll understand how nice it is to hear it coming from Richard Armitage! I was really impressed at the way simple shots could say the volumes that the book expressed in several sentences. For example, Thornton obsessing with Margaret’s hands the first time he met her is done in simple shot of her handing the tea cup to him, but their fingers brush and they both know it. Don’t laugh, but I think Richard Armitage’s great skill as an actor is his expressiveness. It really is necessary for the way they’ve written Thornton, as most of his more passionate speeches are taken away from him and we’re not privy to his thoughts. He can’t give the “Oh, Margaret, my Margaret” speech when she’s struck by the stone, but has to convey the intensity of his feelings in his looks. To understand the importance of her shaking hands with him at the dinner party, you have to rely on the gesture. Of course, when he does get speeches, they really pack a punch. After Margaret’s rejection, he tells his mother, “I knew I was not good enough for her. No one loves me.”
The proposal is a big favorite on YouTube, and again I make the Pride and Prejudice comparison. Margaret is at first insulted because she believes he is offering her marriage in order to save her reputation (which I didn’t really get from the book). “I don’t want to possess you, I wish to marry you because I love you!” It’s a great ending for part two, and part three seamlessly reminds you of the deep pain Margaret has caused Thornton as he walks through Milton absolutely rebuffed. Film can show lots of little moments like these, sometimes more effectively than prose can, and there are enough of them that your heart aches throughout the third and fourth episodes for Thornton (well, at least mine does). The film does end almost as abruptly as the book does, but it’s definitely going for the romantic jugular. On her way to tell Thornton that she is willing to lend Marlborough Mills the money to start up again, Margaret finds he has left Milton. She meets him by chance at a train crossing. He has just come from Helstone where he found roses. He puts his hand over hers, and she kisses it! There is a very sweet kiss before they leave for Milton together on the train. Unfortunately this made me yearn very much for such a happy ending, but such is life. I’m surprised there isn’t more North and South fan fiction out there!
The final, and slightly uncanny thing is, back when I got the inspiration to write The Mesmerist, I had heard of North and South, but I didn’t know anything about it. I had some vague idea of a northern industrial heiress with a certain independent manner, an orphan. I couldn’t know that The Mesmerist would end up being set in the same year as North and South, nor that the film at least would have a seen at the Crystal Palace (where a good deal of The Mesmerist is set). Finally, when I drew my graphic novel version of The Mesmerist in the fall, I had a certain image in my mind of the cemetery where Dorinda’s husband was buried, and it’s really the same one as the cemetery in Milton in the film. Where did that come from?
Anyway, I’m on a campaign to spread the gospel of North and South everywhere. It’s wonderful!