Do you ever sit around and ponder the origins of movies?
Or obsess over John Thornton’s (played by Richard Armitage) eyes in the 2004 BBC adaptation of Gaskell’s North & South?
Nope? That’s just me? Well, you better abandon this post now.
Oh, still here? Buckle up. Let’s think about film for a second. Movies started out as “moving pictures.” Friends used to say to each other, “Would you like to go see a picture this weekend?” And, in a way, that is rather accurate because movies are indeed merely thousands upon thousands of pictures strung together. It follows, then, that to analyze a movie, we need to apply some of the same techniques and tools we would use to analyze a painting. Where does the creator want the viewer to look? What is the focus? (Besides Richard Armitage’s incredible jawline, that is.)
In 1975, Laura Mulvey published an earth-shattering essay in the literary theory world entitled “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema.” Although much debated and discussed, the article established the structure of film narrative as steering spectators and the establishment of viewers with one particular character perspective, normally that of the heterosexual masculine persuasion. This literary lens brought forth the idea of the use of “gaze” during film editing and the overwhelming use of “male gaze” to guide the audience during many films.
I’m a little obsessed with Elizabeth Gaskell and North and South. Maybe a lot obsessed actually. If you were to run into me at a coffee shop or the library and asked me what my favorite book was I would probably talk your ear off about the merits of ‘the industrial Pride and Prejudice.’ The fact that Gaskell simultaneously combines the social issues of the Industrial Revolution with the passionate tale of mill owner John Thornton and sophisticated southerner Margaret Hale thrills me. The 2004 BBC miniseries starring none other than Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe only throws fuel on these already rampant flames. Thus, I was surprised to note, after re-watching the miniseries for the gazillionth time following the reading of Mulvey’s article that I noticed a lot of “gazing” going on in the camera work. Noting this only encouraged me analyze the topic in pleasurable detail, and these are the fruits of my results.
Thinking about gaze actually helps this particular adaptation make more sense to me. A little about my adaptation preferences: I’m a book to screen purist with a pension for artistic flare if appropriate. The 1975 BBC adaptation of the same novel converts the book to film quite well for the decade. My only criticisms of the adaptation are that it lacks creativity and passion. The creative team for the 2004 adaptation must have also noted this disparity for they decided to dial up both these qualities quite a bit in the most recent miniseries. I noticed my first time watching it that the director and producers were attempting a much more artistic flavor and making some interesting additions to the text. Unfortunately, many of these additions appear to instruct the audience to use “male gaze” (looking with the erotic perspective of the heterosexual male) while looking at our heroine, Margaret.
Examples of Male Gaze in North and South (2004)
Although I’m sure it starts earlier in the production, I first noticed the audiences introduction and encouragement to don the perspective of “male gaze” during the first shots in Margaret’s hometown in Helstone.
The audience is invited to zoom down on Margaret’s prone body on the grass which we later learn was the perspective of her suitor, Henry Lennox. This shot is beautiful and rather epic and the beginning of the “real story,” so, for me, it sets the tone for the rest of the adaptation and encourages the audience to acquire the lens of “male gaze.”
This perspective is reiterated when Margaret meets Mr. Thornton, the most prominent male character in the novel. This scene is particularly fascinating because it is nearly entirely reinvented from the text by the screenwriter, Sandy Welch. It’s an understandable scene to tweak. In the book, Margaret merely develops an intense dislike of Mr. Thornton due to his gruff nature and profession as a tradesman. This makes it hard to resonate with Margaret at first in our current social climate, so the screenwriter and creative team developed a new meeting scene between the main character and Mr. Thornton.
In contrast to the quiet courtesies and surprised exchanges among two strangers in the book, viewers of the 2004 adaptation follow along as a watcher from behind Margaret’s shoulder as she enters a cotton mill for the first time until we meet the eagle-eyed gaze of Mr. Thornton overseeing production. The camera then follows his pursuit of a smoking worker and the worker’s punishment and Margaret’s startled reaction from Thornton’s perspective. Thornton even exclaims as the first words the audience hears from his character, “I saw you!” Fitting.
The audience doesn’t experience the world as much through Margaret’s eyes considering she is the protagonist of the story. Camera work often takes the role of a more intimate watcher and peers through windows and doorways at Margaret’s face, hands, body, and from behind her shoulder. This effectively creates a “picture” of beauty and further invites the audience to view Margaret in a more objective way. She is also often filmed from above after the camera has recently focused on Thornton’s watching eyes implying that we are seeing this woman through his perspective. We are invited along to be “intimate” watchers through such editing.
There is another scene in which Margaret is out lost and walking alone in the city of Milton when the workers are released from the mills. She is nearly trampled as workers (mostly male) push past her and tease her by playing with her dress and grabbing her skirt. Rather than seeing this happen from the perspective of Margaret, the camera records the moment from the perspective of the workers and pans up and down Margaret’s body as workers grab her clothes revealing at once her desirability and vulnerability as a woman, adding to the audiences excitement and emotion at the intimacy. Welch even adjusts the dialogue of Margaret’s meeting with another primary character, Higgins in order to explain and justify this point of view:
The adaptation justifies this looking at Margaret during her introduction to Higgins by his explanation of the event, “Don’t worry. They won’t harm you. They just like a bonny face and yours is a picture.” Thus, it is not supposed to be troublesome to view woman as image and man as the bearer of the look because that is how she is introduced to us and to male characters in addition to characters verbally confirming such looking.
Other moments of intimacy are also dictated from the perspective of the “male gaze.” Every time Margaret’s hands near a male the camera looks at their hands from the man’s perspective.
During Thornton’s first dinner at the Hale’s, the camera follows Margaret through Thornton’s gaze first as she wakes up prone on a chair and then as she pours the tea and then again when she pulls her hand away from his offer of handshake. The audience soon learns to attach moments of intimacy with the male point of view.
Looking and Gaze in Gaskell’s Novel
The act of looking or gazing plays a pivotal role in Gaskell’s original text for North and South. Combined, the words “look” and “gaze” appear nearly five-hundred times in the novel. Looking is especially crucial during one of the most climactic scenes in the story: The riot scene at Marlborough Mill. Gaskell wrote this interaction between her characters while they stood watching it all begin to happen:
“He glanced at Margaret, standing all by herself at the window nearest the factory. Her eyes glittered, her colour was deepened on cheek and lip. As if she felt his look, she turned to him and asked a question that had been for some time in her mind:
‘Where are the poor imported work-people? In the factory there?'”
After Thornton steps out upon her urging to speak to the disgruntled mill workers, Margaret leaves her place, framed as a picture at the window, and steps out into the gaze of the all of the men and even puts her body for viewing between Thornton and the mill workers.
This passage certainly reveals that male gaze and the erotic depiction of Margaret was present in the book too to a certain degree, but why did the creative team behind the 2004 adaptation choose to include it when male gaze was not as present in the camera work of the 1975 BBC adaptation?
Why Male Gaze?
To include male gaze was certainly an editing choice made by the creative team of the 2004 adaptation of North & South. But what reasons could they have to bring male gaze to the 21st century? I believe they had several.
Resonate with Mr. Thornton
It has been documented that the BBC message board dedicated to its miniseries North & South crashed from an unexpected influx of enthusiastic comments from fans. Many of these fans were particularly thrilled with the portrayal of Mr. Thornton by Richard Armitage and thus #thorntonThursday was born. I do not believe that this obsession with the leading man was entirely unplanned by the creative team of this production. The screenplay and the camera work were executed in a way to include more from Thornton’s perspective, (and a lot of male gaze), in order to get audiences to resonate and approach the story from more than merely Margaret’s perspective.
“Experiencing” the Romance
Mulvey proposes in her initial essay that, if male gaze is used, we as an audience learn to identify with the male lead and desire what he desires. She writes, “As the spectator identifies with the main male protagonist, he projects his look onto that of his like, his screen surrogate, so that the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coincides with the active power of the erotic look, both giving a satisfying sense of omnipotence…. But as the narrative progresses she falls in love with the main male protagonist and becomes his… By means of identification with him, through participation in his power, the spectator can indirectly possess her too.” By participating in the male gaze, when Thornton finally wins Margaret over we, as an audience, feel as if we may have achieved romantic success as well.
I’m not normally the type of person to suggest that a creative team chooses their adaptation style to set up one particular scene, but…
This moment is not particularly present in the book. But as we watch Margaret drive away to London and leaving Milton after possessing her by extension through Thornton’s male gaze, the: “Look back, look back at me!” hits our emotions as a collective audience as well. It is a more personal wound than if the adaptation had been shot more equally. It also reveals Thornton has lost some of his agency and the power of gaze and allows for the final transformation and reunion at the end of the story. It returns some of that agency to Margaret and makes the romance and the storytelling that much sweeter.
And I, for one, always need to grab for the tissues.