The Major Problems of “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” (1985)

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The Major Problems of “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” (1985)

For many fans of the television adaptations of John Jakes’ NORTH AND SOUTH trilogy, the first miniseries, a 1985 television adaptation of the 1982 novel, is considered the best. If I must be honest, I share that opinion. However . . .“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” is not perfect. Below are some of the reasons why: 

*Journey to West Point – After their initial meeting during a brawl with workers at a New York City stage station, future West Point cadets George Hazard and Orry Main traveled to the U.S. Military Academy via the railroad. This mode of transportation for this particular route was impossible. There was no rail service between New York City and the West Point Academy in 1842. Anyone traveling to the Military Academy would have to do so by a river steamer up the Hudson River. In fact, no rail service between New York City and West Point exists today.

*Orry Main’s Swordsmanship – Cadets Orry Main and Elkhannah Bent engaged in a duel, during the latter’s swordsmanship class for the platoon under his command at West Point. Needless to say, Cadet Main emerged the victor. As a poor scholar, Orry lacked the brains to be a good swordsman. And two, Bent was at the beginning of his second year as a West Point cadet. He was not an instructor. Why was he holding lessons in swordsmanship to the plebes in his platoon?

*Ashton Main’s Knowledge of Salem Jones’ Sex Life – Orry returned to Mont Royal, his family’s South Carolina rice plantation during the summer of 1844 for a three month furlough. Upon his arrival, he learned about overseer Salem Jones’ sexual exploitation of a young female house slave named Semiramis from his eight-to-ten year-old sister, Ashton. Instead of being appalled by his young sister’s knowledge of Jones’ sex life, Orry casually acknowledged the information. This scene made no sense, whatsoever. No adult male of Orry’s class would regard his 8-to-10 year-old sister’s knowledge of the overseer’s sex life without being horrified. Never. Whoever wrote this scene seemed to have forgotten that this miniseries was set during the mid-19th century.

*Timeline in Episode Three – Part of the timeline featured in Episode Three is in error. The episode began during the late winter/early spring of 1848. In fact, most of the events in the episode’s first half – George’s second visit to Mont Royal, Priam’s escape, George’s wedding to Constance Flynn, the Philadelphia abolitionist meeting, the consummation of Orry’s affair with Madeline LaMotte and the accident at Hazard Iron – all took place in 1848.

The miniseries then jumped five years later, marking the death of Orry’s father, Tillet Main, in 1853. Eighteen fifty-three? The timeline should have jumped at least three-to-four years to the early months of 1852. Episode Four marked 1856 as the year Billy Hazard and Charles Main graduated from West Point. There were no three-year programs at the Military Academy. And contrary to George and Orry’s conversation about their younger relatives’ arrival at West Point, cadets were not in the habit of beginning their four years in the fall. They usually arrive at the Point in early June.

*Summer Visit to Mont Royal – According to the miniseries, newly commissioned Army officer George Hazard paid a visit to Mont Royal in 1846, before he and Orry set out for Texas and Mexico. Considering that the visit probably took place in September – the end of their three-month furlough after graduation – I have no problem with this.

However, the entire Hazard family visited Mont Royal during the summer of 1854 – during Billy and Charles’ three-month furlough between their second and third years at West Point. Wealthy 18th and 19th century low country South Carolinians were not in the habit of hanging around their low country plantations during the summer heat and pestilence. During this time of the year, the Mains would probably be at a Northern resort, in Charleston (by the sea) or at the Summerton resort in South Carolina’s upcountry.

*Grady’s Reading Ability – During the Hazards’ 1854 visit to Mont Royal, abolitionist Virgilia Hazard met Grady, the slave of Ashton Main’s fiance, James Huntoon. The pair eventually became lovers and began making plans for Grady’s escape to the North. During their meeting in the Mains’ cotton dock, Grady informed Virgilia that he had taught himself to read . . . and therefore, would be able to read her instructions. Taught himself to read? I could only scratch my head at that remark. It would be a neat trick for anyone to be able to teach him/herself to read.

*West Point Graduation – I noticed a few curious mistakes regarding Billy Hazard and Charles Main’s graduation from West Point in June 1856. A graduation ball was held in honor of the graduates, following their final parade. The miniseries did not imply where. This actually did not happen in the novel or real life during the 19th century. During this century, West Points graduates usually packed their belongings after the final parade, and traveled down the Hudson River to New York City. Upon their arrival in the city, they usually attend a graduation luncheon or supper in their new Army uniforms. And then they went home for a three-month furlough before reporting for duty. Sorry, no graduation ball.

*Madeline LaMotte’s Drugged Period – During the late summer of 1856, Ashton Main informed neighbor Madeline LaMotte that she was pregnant with the child of a cadet she met during Billy and Charles’ graduation. Madeline agreed to help her get a secret abortion. However, Madeline lied about her whereabouts to her venal husband, who eventually disclosed her lie. To deal with his problematic wife, Justin LaMotte had Madeline locked in her bedroom and slightly starved. He called their family physician, Dr. Lorenzo Sapp, who suggested that he keep her drugged with laudanum, until she left him for good in February 1861. But once again, the miniseries proved its inability to maintain a consistent timeline and claimed in the latter half of Episode Five and in Episode Six that Justin had kept Madeline drugged for months. Actually, he kept her drugged for nearly four-and-a-half years.

I realized that “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” was not perfect. But looking over the above mistakes, I had no idea that its flaws were that extensive. Despite its flaws, it is still the best of the three miniseries in the trilogy. And it is still one of my favorite television miniseries of all time.

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