BY ELLA G.
Storylines that have an ability to transcend time all contain a secret ingredient. It doesn’t matter what a character’s name is, where the story is located, or how many pages it is. What matters is the connection a reader feels in immersing themselves in the pages. Does it hold the same power over them that it did to others who have read the tale before? Is it just as applicable and thought-provoking as the day it was published? If it takes place in a bygone era, does the story still send a message for the current time instead of something antiquated and irrelevant? Gone with the Wind’s setting is from the days of the Antebellum South, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, but the novel was not published until 1936. Judging by appearances, it does not seem as if the two periods in history have anything in common, but nothing could be further from the truth.
The Great Depression was in full force in 1936. Unemployment rates were high and millions of people lived in a home where there wasn’t any steady income coming in. Because banks were going under, many families lost their homes and were reduced to living in “Hoovervilles” (towns of cardboard boxes). Soup kitchen lines were crowded with men, women, and children since that might be the only meal they had that day. Some took to living the life of a hobo by riding the rails from town to town in the hope of employment, whether it be for a day or a week, enough to feed their bellies that day and provide shelter for the night. Jobs were so scarce many took whatever work they could find; it was common to see men on street corners selling apples or morning papers. It wasn’t much but if that is what you could find as a job, you took it and were grateful for it.
The early 1930’s were much worse than when Margaret Mitchell first wrote her novel. There was a period of a few years in which the economy seemed to be improving and the country was finally getting on its feet again. It would only be a year before the United States would plunge into a second recession, causing citizens to again struggle and feel like they could not get their head above water. In certain places it seemed as if they couldn’t catch a break—huge dust storms ravaged the Midwest, leaving the farmland barren and unable to be cultivated with crops. Many families packed what little they had and traveled West in the hope that California and the Pacific would open a new way of life. Whatever had to be done to survive and keep the family afloat was done.
Back in the 1860’s, the setting was very much the same. The South was tired of being controlled by the Northern government; they felt they were losing their identity. Several states were of the opinion that forming their own country, known as the Confederacy, was the only way in which to preserve their way of life. For the North, it was a matter of pride. To them, it didn’t matter so much about the states separately but about them collectively. It would not do to see their nation ripped apart, even if they did disagree on a few topics such as states’ rights and slavery. And for the slaves, they desired something about which they could only dream and hope. They were tired of the mistreatment, living conditions, and the horrors that many of them experienced. It was clearly a messed up world.
October 24, 1929 was the beginning of the dark days during Margaret Mitchell’s time. April 12, 1861 was the day it all changed for her heroine, Katie Scarlett O’Hara. Financial devastation is vastly different than war, yet the human spirit has to rally in the same way. Margaret Mitchell said, “if Gone With the Wind has a theme it is that of survival. What makes some people come through catastrophes and others, apparently just as able, strong, and brave, go under? It happens in every upheaval. Some people survive; others don’t. What qualities are in those who fight their way through triumphantly that are lacking in those that go under? I only know that survivors used to call that quality ‘gumption.’ So I wrote about people who had gumption and people who didn’t.” Challenges either make or break you. They either turn you into a better human being for having gone through them or they cause you to break under the pressure. There were those in both troubled times that buckled under the strain, yet far and away there were those who stood up, dusted themselves off, and approached each new challenge with strength. They knew they had made it through once before; they could do it for as long as they needed.
Perhaps that is why Gone with the Wind sold over a million copies in the first six months. Readers had the ability to go back in time to another place and recall moments of a bygone era they had read about in history books. They could escape the dreary present day with just a few turns of the page. Yet maybe there was a deeper connection to the novel, something that made it come alive in an even greater way than fiction already does. Here was a heroine that seemed a lot like themselves. Yes, she lived in the Civil War, had three husbands and buried two of them, bore four children and lost two
—if a woman reading this was not in that stage of life, it could have seemed totally inapplicable. But Scarlett was a woman of strength, one who struggled to save her home and have enough food on the table. She and indeed all of the other characters suffered through their ordeals and let them shape their lives. Some times it was for good, others it destroyed. The same could be said for those of the Great Depression and it was a book that brought the two worlds together. It was a novel that brought hope and encouragement: here were several characters who rose from the ashes of the Civil War, who refused to let famine, finances, and wars get them down.
The novel would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize and sell countless copies. Yet in 1939, David Selznick would make Gone With the Wind come alive in an even greater way by making the fictional story into a film that decades later the American Film Institute would consider the fourth greatest movie ever made. It would be a movie that remains untouched to this day; no one has ever come close to even attempting a remake. Some things are better left original; this is one of them.
Most will end up seeing this classic at least once in their lives. For the time in which it was made, it is a cinematic triumph. The vivid characters of Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, Ashley Wilkes, and Melanie Hamilton are some of the most difficult to portray, as they have been duly etched in fiction history. Yet the strong cast (Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, and Olivia de Havilland) not only met the match, they made the roles their own. One cannot picture anyone else in these parts, nor can they read the book without picturing those actors in the title roles. Rumors of Bette Davis and Gary Cooper to initially have those parts are interesting at first yet one cannot think of GWTW without Vivien Leigh’s perfect portrayal of a complex woman or Clark Gable uttering some of the most iconic lines. They literally make well-known characters come alive in a way that only film can do. Vivien would go on to win Best Actress and the debate about how Clark Gable should have won Best Actor continues to this day. They were just that good.
With all books and movies there are bound to be differences between the two. Books can go on forever; movies have to be condensed for time. Where Margaret Mitchell gave Scarlett four children, Selznick gave her only two. Parts at the beautiful Tara plantation are shortened or removed altogether (like the marriage of Scarlett’s sister Sue Ellen). Any bad language or sensuality in the novel had to be left out of the film, for there was a code by which movies had to follow. The film never appears to be over the top; it feels authentic and true to its time. You feel as if you have truly stepped into the Old South, complete with its horse drawn carriages, hoop skirts, and antebellum mansions. Dramatic license is used in some scenes yet in the three hour and forty-four minute time frame the viewer does not mind. The general message and hope in the story comes across. This time, it is given a face and audible lines.
Money was tight in the Great Depression era but all ages parted with their money willingly to step back in time, to relax and be encouraged at the same time. A powerful story can still accomplish the same thing today by reminding people they are not alone, even if it is initially in a writer’s mind. If they are writing what they know, as all writers should, they are drawing from their own experiences. They are just not using their name.
Margaret Mitchell was using Scarlett O’Hara as a model of herself and future generations as well. ■