Is there any story so good that you can read twelve books of the source material, enjoy two different television adaptations of it, and still think there’s room for future reboots? There is—and that story’s title is Poldark.
Author Winston Graham published the first book of the Poldark series way back in 1945 (he wasn’t only writing about momentous historical times, he was living in them; 1945 is also the year that saw the conclusion of World War II). He introduced his readers to eighteenth-century Cornwall and a cast of characters and their associated storylines that would rival the most modern of soap operas. At the heart of his story is Ross Poldark, a veteran on the losing side in the War in the States—also known as the Revolutionary War. He returns home to find his father dead, his inherited estate and mining business a shambles, and his former love set to marry his cousin. Although various relatives and even his banker think he would be wiser to try his fortunes elsewhere, he decides to stay and resurrect his lands and mines. In these tasks, he is assisted by Demelza, a young woman who he rescues from abuse at a village market, and to whom he gives employment as a kitchen maid.
Graham’s series of books would eventually grow to be twelve titles long, and were published over an astonishingly long time frame; the first book appeared in 1945 and the final book, Bella Poldark, was published in 2002. (Fans of George R. R. Martin and his not-yet-completed Song of Ice and Fire series: take heart!) Proving that all good things come to those who wait, the first television adaptation of the series did not appear until 1975. Starring Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark and Angharad Rees as his scullery maid/love interest, the program was an instant hit and was so popular in Cornwall that, when it aired on Sunday nights, Cornish vicars “changed church services to fit around it.”
“Poldark”: The 1975 BBC Adaptation
Watching this first adaptation can feel a little clunky; it looks like the public television you remember from your childhood, with that poorly lit and bare-bones look of a filmed stage play. No one could fault the pacing of the program, however, as the writers had a mandate to end each episode with a cliffhanger and the producers hired extras who were actually villagers from Cornwall (and who had very real grudges against one another, leading to some extremely realistic village brawl scenes). But the cornerstone of this first adaptation was Robin Ellis as Poldark. When you first see him, extremely slim of build and slightly pockmarked of face, with Ross’s signature cheek scar not so subtly drawn on, you think, ‘Huh, this is not a dashing hero.”
But then he fixes his wayward household staff with his level glare and strides through scenes in his riding boots and with more physical presence than one would think possible, and your knees start to go a bit weak. But the real revelation is when he laughs, sometimes at Demelza’s coy fishing for compliments, sometimes with her at the foibles of their household staff and neighbors. By then, if you have any sort of weakness at all for a man with a sense of humor, you are lost. This is a Ross who truly brings to life Winston Graham’s creation as written: independent, highly idiosyncratic, disdainful of society, bound to his tenants by tradition and affection, but also, perhaps most importantly, a man who loves to laugh.
Through no fault of her own, Rees was not able to gain much of a foothold in this adaptation as Demelza. The writers made her a coquette, a young village girl who offered to let Ross look under her petticoats for a shilling, and generally a character with whom Graham himself took strong issue. In later episodes, she developed into more of the strong-willed heroine, but still she never quite became the Demelza of Graham’s books.
“Poldark”: The 2015 Adaptation
Fans hungry for a new interpretation of the saga had to wait even longer to see it filmed for the second time. Although a standalone movie, “Poldark,” was filmed in 1996 (based on Graham’s book The Stranger from the Sea, the actors from the first adaptation were approached but could not be assembled to star in it); it took another forty years, until 2015, for a true “modern” take on the series. Produced once again by the BBC, this modern series brings the slick production values viewers have come to expect. Although the first series was filmed in various locations in Cornwall (even, for the sake of authenticity, in an actual abandoned mine), this second series elevates the dramatic Cornish landscape, coastline, cliffs, and oceans views to a true character in its own right. From the opening titles and the gorgeous soundtrack, the viewer knows they are in for a truly powerful and brooding story.
Early trailers for the new adaptation showcased its split personality. One of the earliest trailers released highlighted the beginning of the romance between Ross and Demelza. Later trailers were more action-oriented and focused more pointedly on Ross, even showcasing what would become several fan favorite moments of star Aidan Turner showing off his glorious abs (please note that the trailer for season three continues the trend, by introducing Demelza’s brother Drake sans shirt). In this series Demelza, as portrayed by Eleanor Tomlinson, has a bit more grit, but still seems overly uncertain in her role as Ross’s spouse and lover. The chemistry between Turner’s and Tomlinson’s Ross and Demelza, however, creates plenty of sparks, as is further evidenced by the wealth of YouTube fan and music videos featuring the series’ most romantic clips.
But the truly great thing about the 2015 series is the portrayal of the story’s villain, George Warleggan, by Jack Farthing. Because these are series based on a twelve-volume saga, there are of course any number of supporting characters and storylines: numerous villagers and tenants of the Poldarks; Ross’s cousin Francis and his wife Elizabeth (Ross’s former flame; his relationship with her drives much of the internal and external action of the first two series of this adaptation); Demelza’s extended family; and of course, the evil new rich in the form of bankers George Warleggan and his uncle Cary. George is Ross’s contemporary and vastly his superior in terms of wealth, but his grandfather was a blacksmith and he, therefore, comes in for a great deal of abuse at the hands of the older, landed, mine-owning more established families and nobility of the region (who count Ross and his estate Nampara among their number). Don’t feel bad for George on account of these slights. He and his uncle are total bounders, always ready to exploit a weakness (like Francis’s, for gambling) for their profit and generally being prototype über-capitalists.
In the books the Warleggans, most particularly George, were entirely satisfactory bad guys, always attempting to stick it to Ross, generally not letting Demelza forget her place as the former poor daughter of a miner and kitchen maid (even after she’s married to Ross), and engaging in legal but still nefarious business and investment schemes. But Farthing’s portrayal of Warleggan is so nuanced, so subtly distasteful, so (for lack of a better term) deliciously evil, that every time he appears on screen I hiss, “Warleggan!” with equal parts awe and disdain. My husband has suggested I make a drinking game of it and have a shot of something every time he appears on screen. I won’t do that; I want to enjoy Farthing’s masterful performance while dead sober.
This latest adaptation of Poldark will also hold an edge over the 1970s version quite simply because it has more material with which to work. After twenty-nine episodes, the earlier version caught up to the books Graham had written. If ratings continue to be high and the BBC so chooses, there will be plenty of stories to tell even among the next generation of Poldarks; namely, Ross’s and Demelza’s children (and, to some extent, Elizabeth’s, whose lives are affected by their complex paternity.
Poldark: The Books
Which all begs the question, why watch the adaptations at all? Why not just read the source material? And really the only acceptable answer for that is, yes, by all means, read the source material. Read the books before you watch the series, read them after, it really won’t matter. The first novel, Ross Poldark, starts slowly, but that is more a reflection of its publication date in the 1940s than it is of poor writing. And yes, some of Graham’s characters and their quirks are drawn with a broad brush. My husband, who seems to have a lot of opinions on the Poldark series, although he has never read or watched any of them to completion, commented on the first book, “Why is his uncle barking all the time?” To which I had to point out that Ross’s uncle was an older gentleman suffering from indigestion, whose common interjections of “Aarf,” should be taken as muffled belches and not as barks.
The books offer much of what the television series has to offer: Ross, sticking up for the common people while dealing with his own demons, most notably his seemingly unquenchable desire for the blonde (in the books) and unachievable Elizabeth; George Warleggan, playing a long game of his own but struggling with his own jealousy for Ross’s social class and the respect paid him in all quarters of society; violent quarrels and grudge matches between the Cornish villagers, highlighted when they all show up to salvage what they can from a shipwreck, which was a common and accepted practice then. But the books offer something more: a Demelza who is one of the singular heroines in all of historical fiction. If she truly was based on Graham’s wife, then Graham was a lucky man, as is Ross.
In the 1975 adaptation, Angharald Rees played Demelza as very young, and charming in her desire to be found attractive, but without the equanimity and intelligence of Graham’s written character. In the 2015 adaptation, Demelza recovers some of her intelligence and her fortitude but pairs them with a sweetness that seems almost too naïve to be that of a formerly abused child and a deference to Ross in all things that leave no room for the playfulness displayed by her character in the book. Consider the Christmas scene, when newlyweds Ross and Demelza join the party at Francis’s and Elizabeth’s home of Trenwith. In the adaptation, Demelza is urged to sing a song for the company, and does so, sweetly, with eyes only for Ross. The moment is considered a great triumph for her, and a bittersweet one for Francis and Elizabeth (whose love has suffered under the weight of Francis’s gambling losses and Elizabeth’s single-minded focus on their son), who can barely look one another in the eye during the singing of Demelza’s romantic song. The same scene in the book is also one of triumph for Demelza, but in slightly a different way, as she goes on to sing a second, more playfully flirtatious song, aiming it at the husband of one of the company’s more catty wives. Or, as Ross describes it to himself, later:
“Ross was conscious of that new side of her nature that his wife had shown…Demelza among the unexpected arrivals, giving as good as she got without compromising her dignity, singing those saucy songs in her low, husky voice with its soft native burr. Demelza flirting with John Treneglos under Ruth’s very nose—under Ross’s own too for that matter.”
In a way I’m doing Graham’s Demelza a disservice; to highlight flirtation as evidence of her strong and independent nature is not my preferred way of doing things. In the entire scene before that paragraph, Demelza is shown matching wits with the wife of the man in question, and unquestionably, she wins. But that scene was too long to quote. You’re just going to have to take my word for it; the dark-eyed brunette Demelza of the Poldark books (why do they keep making her red-haired in the movies?) is what makes them a singular reading experience. Ross’s character in the books makes for a strong second, though, as when he tries to plead for mercy for one of his tenants on a poaching charge and has a few choice words in front of the judges when the sentence is harsh:
“’Otherwise,’ said Dr. Halse, ‘we will have you committed for contempt of court.’
Ross bowed slightly. ‘I can only assure you, sir, that such a committal would be a reading of my inmost thoughts.’”
Perhaps the defining characteristic of the books is that the Ross and Demelza are the equals of one another, in their abilities to turn a phrase, and in numerous other ways.
So What to Do?
Choose an adaptation, or read the books? Well, my suggestion is not going to save you anytime, but the only recommendation I can make in good conscience is that you do all three. Watch the 1975 Poldark to better know the true Ross; watch the latest adaptation for the sheer enjoyment of wishing you could know less about the dastardly George Warleggan; read the books to marvel at strong-willed, intelligent, and still loving Demelza. And when you’re done with all that, wait with me for the adaptations or fan fictions that combine all those things. It’s a rare story that you can hear three different times, three different ways…and all it does it leave you wanting more.
About the Author: Sarah Cords really only has two interests: watching British TV and reading nonfiction books. In order to have a quasi-legitimate reason to spend way too much time doing those two things, she blogs about the former at the Great British TV Site (http://greatbritishtv.com/) and the latter at Citizen Reader (http://www.citizenreader.com/).