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Lost in Translation: The Remains Of Scarlett O’Hara
By Kathryne Starzec
As I read Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind for the third or fourth time I am realizing that it sets out to make an important point that is absolutely missed in it's translation to the screen. Yes, both the film and the book depict a narrow-minded, narcissistic anti-heroine who must overcome unrequited love, the horrors of war, the death of her child etc. And of course both are saturated with the kind of racist imagery that is enough to make most contemporary audiences' stomachs turn. But the book is still something of a liberal statement, at least about women and some of the traditions of the Old South.
David O. Selznick opens his version with a pompous title card celebrating the "land of chivalry," "of master and slave," and honoring its demise. When I was younger I thought this pseudo-word-of-god moment was an actual excerpt from the novel. I'm relieved to know now that it is merely an obtuse interpretation of Mitchell's title. By contrast, her book begins with a line I've accidentally committed to memory: "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were." In many ways, Scarlett is a metaphor for the Old South and it's evolution during and after the Civil War. Mitchell lets you know right away that people can be enormously attractive without proper or obvious justification. In other words, things are not what they seem. Plantation life in the late 1850s was wonderful from a very select perspective and the book just so happens to expose and explain it from within that context.
Vivian Leigh, on the other hand, was inarguably beautiful. Even Clark Gable, who so perfectly characterizes Mitchell's Rhett Butler, appears unworthy as a leading man to Leigh. It is only the fact of Scarlett's bratty, childish antics that lowers her to his league. Really, the movie reverses some of the book's central ideas. It opens with a scene that would hypothetically read as follows: "Scarlett O'Hara was beautiful and men tolerated her most obnoxious qualities because of it." This is censorship in its most subtle form. By changing small but important details, Selznick, Howard, Fleming and the powers that be were able to alter the story's objective to fit their sensibilities. Perhaps at the time, the idea of a woman with an unusual or idiosyncratic face and an extraordinarily charismatic personality was threatening to male inclinations. And if so, probably because it suggests that woman's agency transcends her aesthetics.
Then there are more overt examples of censorship. For instance, we are to believe that Scarlett's first couple of marriages were sexless. For one thing it would have been shocking to certain audiences had Scarlett been "intimate" with so many men in her lifetime. But also, I think Selznick wanted to avoid the controversy that would have doubtlessly coincided with the notion of a mother who hates her own child. Mitchell explains that Scarlett "felt little affection" for Wade, that she "had not wanted him and she resented his coming," (132). This undeniable challenge to conventional definitions of motherhood might have rendered Scarlett ultimately inaccessible to conservative minded, middle American viewers. Further, Scarlett realizes in part by the time she bears Wade that much of what she had been prepped for was a sham. She was supposed be fragile, ladylike, and attractive. And she was supposed to marry, have children, and be totally fulfilled. But as a mother and wife, her "boredom was acute and ever present," (133). We understand that she is bored in the movie as well but assume that she was never really married because the relationship was never consummated. In Mitchell's version, though short-lived, their marriage is real, dull, and cumbersome.
As scandalous as it may have been to audiences that Scarlett wasn't the least bit grief-stricken by her first husband's death, it was a bit nastier in the book. After all, had Charles lived he'd have been a loyal husband and loving father. But at the same time, any woman with an imagination can appreciate her disdain for the whole situation. After all, patriarchy has been an ugly reality for women and the idea of a stifling, unsatisfying heterosexual relationship is not particularly far-fetched. Moreover it isn't difficult to believe that a woman with so little power would obsess over superficial details and act irrationally to attempt to exert whatever control she has. Mitchell does well to illustrate this. Selznick doesn't much care to develop realistic and sympathetic conditions for Scarlett but rather uses Rhett to demonstrate an essentialist ideology in his assertions that he and Scarlett are just alike, that they were simply born unique. While it serves the romance to establish this soul mate connection, it fails to delve into the root of Scarlett's temperament. Selznick shies away from Mitchell's assertion that Scarlett was raised with values that undermined her power and her inherent autonomy. In the film, we see her as selfish and rebellious ("and you, Miss, are no lady") without cause.
The war is definitely the most pivotal era for Scarlett in both versions of the story in that she comes to see that she was sheltered, privileged, and altogether unprepared for reality. Her mother's death is synonymous with the death of her life before the war. She is hurt by this in the film and bitterly determined to survive because of it. But she does not apprehend her situation quite so clearly as she does in the novel. At one point she says to herself, "nothing, no nothing, she taught me is of any help to me! What good will kindness do me now? What value is gentleness? Better that I'd learned to plow or chop cotton like a darky. Oh, Mother, you were wrong," (434). Again, the concept of a progressively enlightened or self-aware woman may have been too threatening to explicitly characterize. So Hollywood toned her down. Her reaction is more emotional than cerebral and she becomes jaded without understanding why.
Apparently, rape is another of the major themes in the story. Given that the book was written by a woman, the preoccupation is natural. It seems that even her first two husbands were rapists, if not out of malice than dumbness and convention. Southern gentlemen were under the impression than Southern ladies were flighty, frail, and afraid of sex. Therefore, it was right for them to cry and refuse to make love on their wedding nights. However, in reality Scarlett was more disgusted by her husbands than by sex. Still, she used their allegiances to idealistic concepts of femininity to her advantage and by the time of her marriage to Frank Kennedy she is perfectly conscious of her ruse. Of course Frank is quietly suspicious of her, but only after she cons him into the marriage: "he felt the usual masculine indignation at the duplicity of women. Added to it was the usual masculine disillusionment in discovering that a woman has a brain," (616).
The main difference between the film and the book during the marriage to Frank is the level to which Scarlett allows her true ambitions to be known. In the film he is entirely emasculated, while Mitchell allows him to wishfully maintain his dignity. After all his marriage to Scarlett "would be a happy one," (617) in that she lives up to her end of the deal and perpetuates the facade. In the film she coldly responds to Frank as if he is one of her slaves. This implies that once married, she felt absolutely no need to live up to the image that was promised. We can assume that because their relationship harbors none of the earmarks of an actual marriage that theirs too was not consummated. But the literary Scarlett takes on an entirely false tone in order to pacify her husband. This, along with her second pregnancy, makes clear her role as his wife even if she is just playing a part in order to take over her husband's business and rescue Tara.
But to return to the subject of rape, not including Charles or Frank, Scarlett is attacked by four men throughout the novel: the Yankee soldier, the shantytown bums on the road, and most infamously Rhett. This theme is not redundant but believable given the context of the time and the status of women as commodities. Selznick softens this a great deal by leaving the intentions of the soldier and the bandits somewhat ambiguous. In the movie we get the impression that Scarlett's "virtue" is in danger by the perverse expressions on the attackers' faces. Obviously it wouldn't fly past the censors to have the soldier approach Scarlett unbuckling his belt or for the thieves to actually tear Vivien Leigh's dress off.
I think the idea of rape being acceptable in marriage is more a male point of view and therefore more Selznick's than Mitchell's. After all in the movie, Scarlett's first two husbands are lacking in the masculine energy that characterizes Rhett. They never force themselves on her because as they say, they are gentlemen. But according to the movie, the word "gentleman" is equivalent to "weakness." Ashley, after all is the ultimate Southern gentleman. And he was too subdued to even consider a woman like Scarlett for marriage. Rhett is dynamic and powerful. Selznick presents him as the only one having the gumption to claim his wife in such a way. Mitchell simply presents rape as an inevitable fact of life for women that generally results in an unwanted pregnancy and is more inconvenient than devastating. The author's attitude is obviously a testament to the attitude of the times, without being an indictment or an endorsement. And it functions as a vehicle for Rhett's failure to connect with Scarlett and the revelation of Scarlett's true feelings for him. Of course Hollywood simplifies this and uses it to punish Scarlett and vindicate Rhett. It also sets out to show that women secretly enjoy being dominated and that a healthy marriage is one with an uncompromising, aggressive, man in charge.
So basically, Hollywood adapted the Gone With The Wind with the intention of reshaping some of Mitchell's fundamental themes. Aside from cutting away at the sexuality of the story, Selznick took anything socially or politically audacious out. Scarlett is an imperfect character. In the book she is a work in progress though, who learns little by little, from her experience (and still has a very long way to go in the end). And some of the most important lessons are undermined in favor of a more bankable, traditionalist credo. For instance, Scarlett originally learns that the Old South was a fallible myth, whereas onscreen it is simply stated to be a functional utopia, pillaged by the rich, evil Yankees. Gone With the Wind became a tragedy of fallen ideals rather than of the destruction of an impossible fantasy. I feel that the censorship of Gone With the Wind was not simply about watering down scenes unfit for children. It was also made into a black and white, objective avowal of the Old South. And in this, the realism captured in the novel is diminished.
Mitchelle, Margaret. Gone with the Wind. Macmilla Publishing Company. New York, NY; 1936.
Selnick, David O. Gone with the Wind. Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Brothers. 1939.
- Quote paper
- Kathryne Starzec (Author), 2005, Lost in Translation: The Remains of Scarlett O'Hara, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/110147
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