Today we have a lovely long-read guest post (just in time for wintry weekend weather across much of the country–enjoy a cuppa, this article, and then a rewatch of all of Poldark!) from Zoe Ystenes.
***Warning! Spoilers abound in this post, for both the TV series AND for Winston Graham’s original series of novels. *** For those of you who are complete Poldark fanatics and have seen the show AND read the books, at least through book 8–there are 12 total–read on.
The fifth season of Poldark has now come to a close, leaving most fans saying, “‘Tedn’t Right, Tedn’t Fair, Tedn’t Proper'” to not have a few more seasons. For my part, I understand the creators’ reasoning that the actors were too young to continue playing their characters. The next season would have started with book 8 (The Stranger from the Sea), in which Ross is 50 and Demelza has just turned 40. I, for one, was still hoping the show would just pause for a few years, and then return when the actors were older. But today I’m here to consider a different issue: which parts of season 5 were true to the original text.
It’s 1783. Ross Poldark has returned from the American Revolution to find that the life he had left behind in Cornwall is a mess. His father is dead, his house is in disrepair, and the love of his life is engaged to his cousin.
The first four series of Poldark were surprisingly faithful adaptations of the books (#1-#7). In both the TV series and the books, the story was as follows:
Ross begins to repair his life. He fixes up his mine, finds someone new to love, and has children (one of whom dies). He makes new friends, reconnects with old friends, and loses friends. He stands up for his miners and the poor, and often clashes with his enemies.
But the focus of Ross’s life (and the books) is often his marriage to the fiery Demelza, a young girl who first enters his household as a servant and eventually becomes his wife. This marriage often struggles, initally due to Ross’s continuing desire for Elizabeth (his first love, who first marries his cousin Francis Poldark, and then after being widowed, marries his nemesis George Warleggan), and later, due to Demelza’s love for a man Ross once rescued.
The TV adaptation did make a few changes to Winston Graham’s story. The most glaring change (to me), was to Demelza’s hair, which is black in the books, but which is a blazing red in the TV series. This was not actually a change that bothered me. I love red hair and thought it was charming that it was Eleanor Tomlinson’s own idea to dye her hair red, as she thought that was more appropriate for the character. (The actress is keeping her hair red because she likes it so much.)
The other two main changes from the books to the TV series concern minor characters. In the books, Ross’s (sometimes drunken) servants Jud and Prudie work for him until they are fired, rehired, and eventually retire to a cottage in Sawle. To be strictly accurate, Jud should have been in all four series, but only appeared in the first two (as the actor who played him, Phil Davis, left to work on other projects). Likewise, George Warleggan’s father was only in series one of the TV show, but was a much longer-lived character in the books, dying in the eleven-year gap between books 7 and 8.
I know I have most likely left out some other small changes, but I share these few minor ones to illustrate how similar the books and the episodes were to each other through the first four seasons. When it came to season 5, however, writer of the TV series Debbie Horsfield had to do a few things differently She talked about the season 5 changes in the Masterpiece Studio podcast “Debbie Horsfield Covers New Ground in Poldark’s Final Season”:
“…We are covering 1800 to 1802… I worked very closely with his [Winston Graham’s] son [Andrew]…. Andrew Graham has agreed that the method his father used was increasingly to set his fiction against real historical events and to include real historical personages, and so I was very conscious that I was in a way trying to follow in his footsteps there.”
We see examples of this in the new characters that feature in the final, fifth season. Winston Graham did put actual history in the books, but in my opinion, he never had historical figures be Ross’s closest friends and enemies as Horsfield has done in season 5. I think Graham’s use of the historical facts and people were used as a way to make the story believable and to sketch a picture of the Georgian and Regency eras for his readers. The TV show’s creators and writer use history in a much more direct plotline way. But: Andrew Graham was okay with it, so I’m not extremely upset about it.
The fifth and final season of Poldark begins in Cornwall, and several new characters are introduced, starting with Kitty Despard, the wife of army colonel Ned Despard, a friend of Ross’s from the American Revolution. Kitty asks Ross for help in getting Ned out of prison, which Ross (of course) provides. None of this or anything relating to it happened in the books. However, Ned and Kitty Despard did actually exist in real life. Yes, Ned was in prison and he was hung for plotting to kill the king. And Kitty had a son.
Considering, though, that Debbie Horsfield stated in the Masterpiece podcast, that she had actually asked Andrew Graham “had his father even been aware of Ned Despard? And Andrew thought he hadn’t, but he certainly agreed that the parallels [between Ned and Ross] were really extraordinary….” Here Horsfield made a choice that I wouldn’t have made if I had been the writer. I wouldn’t have made Ned Despard a character after hearing that Winston Graham hadn’t heard of him.
For ease of reading, further differences between series 5 of the BBC adaptation and Graham’s novels will be set off with headings.
IN THE SHOW: Further events in series 5 of the television show prove just as fantastic. Ross saves King George III at an opera, which helps him get Ned out of prison.
IN THE BOOKS: at some point in his career as an MP, Ross’s Parliament friends begin to suggest that he be an agent because of his “restless personality.” As an agent, he performs many services for the crown, but I don’t think he ever saves the king.
IN THE SHOW: Ross rescues miners from the accident at Wheal Plenty.
IN THE BOOKS: Again, this storyline is not found in the books, although rescuing workers at great personal risk to himself does seem consistent with Ross being Ross.)
IN THE SHOW: A large plotline involves Ross being captured by the French (in episode 7) and being forced to help them.
IN THE BOOKS: This story does not appear in the books, although in Graham’s novels Ross does travel to France in the beginning of his agent work.
IN THE SHOW: Mr. Ralph Hanson and Mr. Joseph Merceron, who give the character of George Warleggan a run for his title of Biggest Jerk Ever, are evil conspirators who basically want to treat people like crap, make a lot of money, and oh yes, torment Ross by being generally reprehensible and dishonest people. Mr. Hanson’s daughter, Cecily Hanson, falls in love with Elizabeth Warleggan’s son (by Francis Poldark) Geoffrey Charles, but their love affair has to end because Ralph Hanson disapproves and shows that disapproval with some ugly tactics, like having Geoffrey Charles severely beaten.
IN THE BOOKS: Although Mr. Merceron existed in real life (see: Joseph Merceron), none of these characters (the Hansons and Merceron) existed in Graham’s stories. Likewise, at this point in the books’ story, Geoffrey Charles wasn’t quite old enough to be roaming around London on his own. This difference between the TV show and the books is one I forgive, because I loved the relationship between Geoffrey Charles and Cecily Hanson and hoped they could have a happy ending. (In the books Geoffrey Charles meets and marries a Spanish girl named Amadora.)
IN THE SHOW: George Warleggan’s story arc finds him losing his sanity in the aftermath of the death of his wife Elizabeth (shortly after the birth of their daughter Ursula).
IN THE BOOKS: George never had a relationship with any woman except Elizabeth until he met Lady Harriet Carter in book 8. I think it’s conceivable that suffering from serious grief over Elizabeth’s death and desperate to have her back, he might have become mentally ill for a short while (although it doesn’t exactly seem like him).
IN THE SHOW: Dwight Enys takes center stage with his views on the symptoms and treatment of mental illness in season 5. Not only does he defend James Hadfield (another character based on a real historical person) for the crime of threatening the king, saying he is of unsound mind, but he also consults on the treatment of George Warleggan and his debilitating depression after losing Elizabeth.
IN THE BOOKS: The Warleggan insanity storyline is not in the books (indeed, in Graham’s novels George never appears to be anything but a calculating villain, his obvious love for Elizabeth in both books and show notwithstanding), so Dwight Enys’s storyline is also different. In both the books and the show, however, it is insinuated that Dwight goes to France to study with Dr. Pinell.
IN THE SHOW: Lots of things happen with Demelza and the mine back in Cornwall. First off, the introduction of a character named Tess. She causes a lot of trouble, sometimes with help from Jacka Hoblyn. Demelza also starts a school for the miners’ children. And, at the last, Demelza lets Ross know that she is expecting another baby.
IN THE BOOKS: There is no Tess, although there was a subplot in which miners did steal tin and sent it to France. I also don’t remember any instances in the books where the miners’ children’s education is discussed or furthered. Demelza and Ross do go on to have two more children, Isabella-Ross and Henry.
IN THE SHOW: And then there’s the Morwenna plot, and her relationship with Demelza’s brother Drake Carne. Morwenna is finally free of her repugnant husband Osborne Whitworth, as he has died. Morwenna has a lot of healing to do, but she marries Drake. She does have a hard time leaving her son by Osborne, John Conan, to the care of his grandmother, and Drake goes so far as to kidnap the boy briefly so he can spend time with Morwenna. However, it is pointed out to him that more contact between Morwenna and John Conan will not be feasible, and the family (due at least partially to Demelza’s advice) returns him to his grandmother. Eventually Drake and Morwenna announce they are expecting a baby of their own.
IN THE BOOKS: This is actually one of the season 5 plotlines that follows fairly closely the events portrayed in the books. Morwenn and Drake marry and after a long time, have a baby girl named Loveday, although the John Conan kidnapping incident never happens in the books. I actually think the show’s depiction of Morwenna’s grief at leaving behind John Conan was better portrayed and handled than it was in Graham’s books.
AND IN THE END?
The fifth season of the BBC’s Poldark was set during the years of 1800-1802, which is a period that was not overtly shown in Winston Graham’s novels. Graham published The Angry Tide in 1977, and that book ended with the events of the year 1799. When he published the eighth book in the series, The Stranger from the Sea, that book started in 1810, meaning there was a gap of eleven years in the story.
Obviously I’ve left some of the differences between the show’s fifth series and the books out in this discussion. But in the end, the larger question I have to ask is, did Debbie Horsfield have to add so many characters and plotlines, rather than just portraying the events that are alluded to in that time period by the books?
On the whole, I’d say she shouldn’t have had to. When reading book eight, even though it took place eleven years after the previous book ended, it is easy to learn that a lot happened to the books’ characters in those eleven years that Horsfield could have adapted in order to stay truer to the books. The books allude to Ross’s activities in France, the Enyses having children, and Drake and Morwenna’s move to take care of Ross’s boat-building company; all of that, combined with drama around Ross’s and Demelza’s marriage (always present, after all), would have provided plenty of storylines for the TV show’s fifth and final series.
But I won’t condemn Horsfield too harshly. The last series of Poldark was very different from the books, but it was still enjoyable on its own merits. For now, let’s just bid farewell to our Cornish friends and enemies and take one last look at the famous cliffs and Nampara beach and a lone figure on horseback quietly receding.
So. What do you think? Should the creators of Poldark have stuck more closely to the source material, or did they do a great job of adding characters and plotlines?
Zoe Ystenes is a music teacher and lives in Wisconsin. She loves British television and all things romance and period dramas.