Poldark: In Print and On Screen

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I have Aprilynne to thank for introducing me to Poldark, the PBS/BBC program based on the Winston Graham novels of the same name. At first I was skeptical, figuring it was just eye candy for the ladies. (Again, that’s on Aprilynne. This was the first thing I remember her sharing:

So yeah.)

But then a bunch of my other friends got into it, and I did a little homework, and with Aprilynne giving me the final nudge, I decided to try it out back in November. After the first episode, I was hooked.

Poldark is about a fictional man, Ross Poldark, from Cornwall, England. It takes place in the late 1700s, right at the close of the American Revolution. Ross was a soldier for England, having joined up to avoid prison after the law caught up with him back home. When he returned to Cornwall three years later, he finds his father dead, his estate in ruins, and his One True Love engaged to his fop of a cousin.

So things aren’t going great for Ross.

In 8 short episodes, the show covers a span of about 4 years, so things move pretty dang fast. In episode 1, Ross (Aidan Turner, you might remember him as The Dwarf Who Loved The Hot Elf Chick In The Hobbit And Died in the Third Movie) is rescuing a scum-class street urchin woman, Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) from a band of hooligans, hiring her to be his kitchen maid, and then beating up her father when he comes looking for her. By episode 3, he’s marrying her.

As all of this is going on, he’s trying to get his family mines back in business, engage in a cloak-and-dagger battle with the local banker (a complete bastard by the name of George Warleggan, played to bastardly perfection by Jack Farthing), deal with the marriage of Elizabeth (Heida Reed) to Francis (Kyle Soller), and try to take care of the poor broke peasants who work for him all at the same time. (For any number of reasons, be it starvation or greed or shortsighted idiocy, lots of these twits can’t seem to stay out of trouble.)

There are a number of things that impressed me about the show, which caused me to blitz it in a week (half of which happened all in one night as I had to camp out on a job site in town.) In no particular order, here they are:

Period Piece

Winston Graham is said to have meticulously researched the time period when he wrote these books. ROSS POLDARK was published in the 1940s, some 160 years removed from its setting, and yet nothing about the book (or the show) feels like a present-day story that just happens to be set in the past. There are details here and there, whether they are geographical considerations, character behaviors, or habits of everyday life, that pop up all over the place to remind you that you don’t know everything about this time or setting…but the characters do, and you need to pay attention to what they’re doing and why.

Clashing Characters

This isn’t just Ross’s tale. Everyone has their motivations, and you’re either rooting hard for a character to succeed, or else crossing your fingers and hoping they get horse-kicked in the mouth. Ross wants to do well by his inheritance, and the people that depends on his mines for survival; Demelza wants to fit in with the upper-class folk, and is eager to please those few in her new ranks that are kind to her; Francis is dissatisfied with his dwindling wealth and the lack of ease in his life after his father passes away; George is a greedy bastard who greeds, and has a silent, calm, still way of taking people apart and profiting from their misery; Verity lives a life of love and service to everyone, and her one chance at romance is smashed apart by her horrible family.

Immense Intrigue

In fact, it is the combination of Verity and Demelza, perhaps more than any two other characters, that drives the culminating conflict at the end of the first season. For six or seven episodes I thought I was just watching interesting characters do interesting things, hoping their individual storylines might neatly resolve themselves somehow in the 8th episode. Then, in one simple scene, you realize that you’ve been watching a crazed man set up a line of dominoes, and his finger quivers as he flicks the first one in line, watching with the zeal of a three-year-old as they all come falling down.

No Punches Pulled

I was mistaken to think any aspect of this show would wrap up with a clean, happy ending. It’s a little more true to life, without being nihilistic or cynical.

Again, this comes back to Winston Graham getting the period right. Whether I know anything about Cornwall or not, this production feels like an accurate representation of life in a time and place that had to have been hard for living. England in the late 18th century was a broken empire, crumbling at the edges with increasing momentum, broke from the effort of so many far-flung wars, taxed beyond all hope of relief and with no end in sight, and these stories take you right to the ground level of what it must have been like for the people who were left to bear it on their backs.

And not just the financial hardships, or the hunger, but the dying cries of the rich and fat, who ferociously resisted the waning of their power and comfort, and oftentimes took their frustrations out on those who couldn’t fight back.

As always, there were plenty of differences between the book and the show. I missed the second season as it aired, and despite really liking the show, I don’t want to cough up $20 to watch it on Amazon when it will be free on Prime next summer, so I gave the first book a listen on Audible. It yielded even more insights into the time period, the characters’ motivations, and the nature of their relationships. The changes between the show and the book were pretty self-explanatory, and while both media were good, I elected not to read the next book until I’ve watched the next season. I enjoyed the show so much and I know I wouldn’t like it if I watched it with foreknowledge of the story’s developments.

Long story short, I highly recommend watching it if you get a chance, and give the books a try when you’re done. I’m glad someone suggested I try it out, and I’m looking forward to more.

 

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