Reward of Virtue: Adaptation in The Inheritance



As in the other arts, aptitude and enthusiasm for writing tends to manifest itself early. Precociousness marks out some of the authors who have left their legacy of words with us, and the earliest works of these writers can simultaneously impress and demonstrate the growth of their ability in their later works. Louisa May Alcott was only 17 when she wrote The Inheritance and it is a case in point. The plot owes a lot to fairy tales but the entertainment of reading it can not be denied. The same can be said of it’s film version. The adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s The Inheritance is a interesting mixture of invention, faithfulness, and modernization, but the most important theme of the book retains it’s clearness in film form: virtue is rewarded.

The Inheritance is less well known than Little Women, so a brief plot synopsis here seems necessary. In Victorian England, the wealthy Hamilton family employs Edith Adelon, an orphan they have sheltered since she was a child, as companion to their daughter Amy. A cousin of the family, Lady Ida, arrives to stay with them, with the intention of making a match for herself. One other visitor to the estate, Lord Percy, stands out but his attraction to Edith (which is reciprocated) quickly makes itself clear. Struggles between the heart and circumstances, as well as the deceitful machinations of others, conspire to ruin Edith’s life but destiny has in store for her a surprise. She is actually the daughter of the present Lord Hamilton’s late older brother. Since Lord Hamilton is deceased before the story opens, Edith is a titled and landed woman, free to love whom she chooses.

A television film was adapted from it in 2004, and stars Cari Shayne as Edith, Thomas Gibson as Percy, and Meredith Baxter as Lady Hamilton. Despite the lack of royalty, the classic fairy-tale aspects of the plot fit the story comfortably into the period drama genre. The adaptation of a work like this necessitates some changes and the film version has differences both big and small.

Let’s start with the setting. In keeping with the association between Alcott and the New England region, the film shifts the estate from England to Massachusetts. The estate is even given a name—Evenswood. This means the characters’ titles are gone but the emphasis on social class remains as the time period hasn’t been changed. Some viewers might welcome the lack of any kind of accent this change of place entails!

Differences in the plot are less significant. The central premise of Edith’s birthright is the same, as are most of the details. There is a tense moment when Amy nearly falls off a precipice and Edith is integral to rescuing her—present in both book and film. A subplot about theft in the house and Lady Ida’s spiteful and conniving accusation of Edith is also featured in both. Happily, the romance between Edith and Percy is also fully developed, perhaps even more so than in the book. For example, a brief meeting between them before they are formally introduced shows their connection. What is different in the film is the addition of a local annual horse race, the Greens Cup, as the impetus for all the visitors to the estate. It also provides some exciting racing footage.

The biggest difference of all ties to plot and character. In the film, Lord Hamilton is alive. Having been angered at his brother on his death he simply put away his brother’s papers when he took over the estate. He happens upon them one day, though, shortly before a fatal heart attack fells him and that is how Edith learns her identity. In the book, an old servant of her father reveals all to her. The way everyone else finds out is the same in both book and film—it’s a nice resolution, and I’ll let viewers enjoy it for themselves. Another minor but necessary character change is the fact that the Hamiltons have a son in the book, Arthur, but he doesn’t exist in the film—which leaves Edith free to inherit. (In the book the wealth is simply hers as the heir’s oldest child.)

Edith is where this topic of adaptation gets truly interesting. The novel’s heroine seems too good to be true, beautiful and good to an almost saintly degree. She forbears all malicious behavior towards her and selflessly tries to hide her true birth to benefit the Hamiltons. Modern readers may begin to wince at the saccharine sweetness of Edith on the page. On film, she is more palatable. Shayne, though very pretty, isn’t perfect looking, thankfully, and while Edith is still a thoroughly good person in the adaptation, she is also clearly dealing with the confines of a woman’s place in that time. One invented scene which deepens her romance with Percy has Edith confessing that “Everything else is such a struggle of etiquette and propriety.” She is referring to riding, a pursuit the novel Edith doesn’t enjoy. The film goes so far as to have Edith actually ride her uncle’s entry in the horse race, even—gasp!—riding astride. (She wins.) This is a change that can only smooth the way for today’s viewers to relate to Edith.

Empathy from the audience is essential since Edith is the embodiment of the theme of the novel: that virtue and goodness are rewarded. Edith’s saintly example in print becomes a strong morality and self-respect on screen, which allows the viewer to root for her. We want to see Edith obtain not only her rightful inheritance but also Percy’s love, even if it’s by overcoming obstacles she sets in place herself by not crossing class boundaries to be with him. Like the fairy tales we all know and love, Alcott was ahead of her time in suggesting that true worth comes not from money and birth but from a person’s character. Edith is favored with a happy ending that hands her the affluence she needs to attain the social position that mirrors the kind of person she is. Alcott had to operate within the conventions of the time to give her heroine that ending, but today, as Prince William and Kate Middleton have proven, happily ever after comes with only one convention…

It must be real. ■


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Rachel Sexton is from Ohio and has a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Arts. She loves her parents and her dog Lily. But what you really need to know is that she has to have acting, film, reading, and dance in her life and her favorite fandoms are Star Wars, Harry Potter, Jane Austen, and Once Upon a Time. Plus, she is most described as quiet and her biggest vice is cupcakes. Oh, and her main hobby is editing fan videos.


2 thoughts on “Reward of Virtue: Adaptation in The Inheritance”

  1. I adore Miss Alcott’s writings, but haven’t read The Inheritance yet — shame on me! I was glad to read over your thoughts on the book though, and look forward to reading it myself. Actually, I am currently reading An Old-Fashioned Girl (and greatly enjoying it!). I’m hosting a Louisa May Alcott reading challenge (on my blog) this month, if you’re interested in joining us?

    Great blog! I’m off to some more of your posts now. This is my first time here, but I feel we have common literary tastes. 🙂


    1. (I’m the mod for the blog, which has multiple contributors.)

      I’m happy you enjoyed the article. I’ll pass this comment and information along to Rachel. 🙂

      If you ever feel like contributing to one of our future issues, please let me know!


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