The 2004 film adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South is a masterpiece. I have only a few criticisms, one of them being that it was too short! There was time for more — an hour more in this world would have been wonderful.
As a lover of the book, I can’t help bemoaning the absence of a few of my favorite moments.
Here are some of the scenes that I wished this cast and crew could have filmed for me:
1 - Mrs. Hale running into her husband’s arms.
Although Aunt Shaw tells us that Richard and Maria Hale married for love, we never really see this affection played out. Mrs. Hale’s rather tentative and polite smile as she takes her husband’s hand in the adaptation isn’t terribly convincing. There’s a poignant moment in the book, though, where we catch a glimpse of the affectionate bond between them. It’s when Mr. Hale returns home after Margaret had been given the dirty work of telling her mother of her father’s decision to quit the clergy and move to Milton.
….he opened the room-door, and stood there uncertain whether to come in. His face was gray and pale; he had a timid, fearful look in his eyes; something almost pitiful to see in a man’s face; but that look of despondent uncertainty, of mental and bodily languor, touched his wife’s heart. She went to him, and threw herself on his breast, crying out: -
“Oh! Richard, Richard, you should have told me sooner!”
2 - Margaret sadly roaming the garden the night before she leaves her childhood home
The adaptation skips over so much of the beginning of the book, the viewer doesn’t truly get a full sense of how much strength it took for Margaret to come to Milton without crying for a week. I would have loved for the film to show Margaret busy packing crates of belongings while her mother languished in despair and her father busied himself in sorting his books — all this to give the viewer a sense that Margaret was the one who took over all the hard responsibility of moving.
But what would have been truly beautiful and poignant was if the film had showed Margaret walking through the property at twilight as she says her final goodbyes to the landscape she loves so well. Gaskell’s description of it in the book is very moving.
3 - Thornton carrying an unconscious Margaret up the stairs of his home
Ok, so Gaskell doesn’t exactly describe how he feels as he carries Margaret up to his drawing-room, but can you imagine the powerful emotions pulsing through Thornton as he carries a lifeless Margaret up the stairs?! This has got to be one of the most dramatic scenes you could make from this film!
Seeing her injured and holding her body close to his is shattering all the remaining emotional barricades he has tried to form around his heart. As he climbs the stairs, powerful feelings must be compounding — and it all explodes into this:
He bore her into the dining-room, and laid her on the sofa there; laid her down softly, and looking on the pure white face, the sense of what she was to him came upon him so keenly that he spoke it out in his pain:
“Oh, my Margaret—my Margaret! no one can tell what you are to me! Dead — cold as you lie there, you are the only woman I ever loved! Oh, Margaret—Margaret!”
4 - Margaret pacing and crying in her room as she realizes she’s in love.
After Mrs. Thornton’s famous visit to give Margaret a tongue-lashing, Margaret runs upstairs to her room to sort out all the strong feelings rushing through her after the encounter. She realizes for the first time that Thornton thinks she’s in love with someone else—and she’s mightily distressed that he knows her to be a liar on top of it all! And so she finds herself crying as she gets ready to go out. Maybe in the film, she could whisper a few of her desperate thoughts to herself, to let the viewer know what turmoil is going on inside.
“I dare say, there’s many a woman makes as sad a mistake as I have done, and only finds it out too late. And how proudly and impertinently I spoke to him that day! But I did not know then. It has come upon me little by little, and I don’t know where it began….”
5 - Thornton being a comfort to Mr. Hale
The relationship between Mr. Hale and his would-be son-in-law is so beautifully portrayed in the book, I wanted to see more depth to this sweet bond shown in the film version. John is the only one Mr. Hale can really talk to during his great grief and these two men become very dear friends to each other. I would have loved to see just one brief scene in which Margaret sees her father clasp John’s hand as he is about to leave while Mr. Hale mentions how immeasurably better he feels after talking with him. Margaret’s awareness of how much her father loves and respects John, must be another binding reason for loving John.
“It was curious how the presence of Mr. Thornton had power over Mr. Hale to make him unlock the secret thoughts which he kept shut up even from Margaret…..Mr. Thornton said very little; but every sentence he uttered added to Mr. Hale’s reliance and regard for him. Was it that he paused in the expression of some remembered agony, Mr. Thornton’s two or three words would complete the sentence, and show how deeply its meaning was entered into….Man of action as he was, busy in the world’s great battle, there was a deeper religion binding him to God in his heart, in spite of his strong willfulness, through all his mistakes, than Mr. Hale had ever dreamed.”
6 - Thornton coming to dinner at Aunt Shaw’s house
This is the scene I long most to see on film! When Thornton comes to dinner in London, he and Margaret have not seen each other for over a year. The emotional tension is incredible as each of them strives to act as though this meeting again isn’t causing tremors of pent-up anguish within them. But alas, the internal agony slips into view for a brief moment from John. And Gaskell captures the moment so well, it’s just gut-wrenching. THIS is a moment Richard Armitage would have absolutely nailed. It would have been so brilliant to see this scene performed by the 2004 cast.
“…Margaret was watching Mr. Thornton’s face. He never looked at her; so she might study him unobserved, and note the changes which even this short time had wrought in him. Only at some unexpected mot of Mr. Lennox’s, his face flashed out into the old look of intense enjoyment; the merry brightness returned to his eyes, the lips just parted to suggest the brilliant smile of former days; and for an instant, his glance instinctively sought hers, as if he wanted her sympathy. But when their eyes met, his whole countenance changed; he was grave and anxious once more; and he resolutely avoided even looking near her again during dinner.”
7 - The kiss in Aunt Shaw’s back drawing-room.
I cannot criticize the final scene of the adaptation. It’s romantic film history. The symbolism and the drama is perfect. Do I care that it’s a public display of affection and would never have happened? No, it’s too romantically perfect to condemn. And I never shall.
However, if all my dreams were fulfilled, I’d love to see an alternate ending that follows that London dinner scene — the book’s more intimate ending, where the wall of misunderstanding crumbles down in private, without Henry’s peering glare!
What I miss most is the playful teasing between these two serious souls that turns into that toe-tingling tender-passionate first kiss that we all have watched a hundred times from the film. I’m imagining that very same kiss as Gaskell’s “delicious silence” — but in that elegant, private sphere where no one interrupts them. Although I can imagine that without that train whistle to interrupt things, it might be very hard to stop indeed!
What favorite moments from the book do you wish were included in the film version?