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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Controversial Poldark

For those who have not yet seen episode 7 of season 2, be warned that this post has spoilers

A Hot Sex Scene in the hugely popular historical drama series "Poldark" has the commentators hopping.

Most intriguing of all, perhaps, is that the American version of the Hot Sex Scene is different.  The controversial bit has been removed, though with what effect is debatable and dubious.

To provide the background, I can do nothing better than paraphrase from the racy roundup on the WETA television blog, the commentary Recapping Poldark.

The Vile George Warleggan, villain of the story, has talked Elizabeth (Ross's ex-fiancee, and the widow of his cousin, Francis) into agreeing to marry him.  And instead of manning up and informing Ross in person, Elizabeth sends him one of those Austen-style letters, announcing her decision.

Ross is in a foul mood already, much of which he has taken out on his long-suffering wife, Demelza.  He had had a nasty day at the mine, involving the collapse of a tunnel, and the death of three men, and late at night is a bad time to open a letter like this.

He announces he is off to see Elizabeth, presumably to talk her out of this disastrous marriage, even though he has no kind of alternative to offer. Demelza begs him not to go, begs him at least to wait until the next day, but he’s just angry that she didn’t tell him about her suspicions this was happening. He tells her to get out of his way.

Ross barges right into the house at Trenwith. He literally kicks a door down. (Seriously?  In the book, he jumped in a window.)  He confronts Elizabeth, refuses to leave when she asks him to and declares that she can’t marry George. I think this is supposed to be Ross being heroic – trust me, I don’t want Elizabeth to marry Vile George either – but he just comes off as bullish and jerky.  (This opinion, from the WETA blogger, is one that I agree with wholeheartedly -- but it must have been a hell of a part to play.)

As the blogger goes on to say, no one could even start to guess what Ross  expected Elizabeth to do. Despite his poor treatment of poor Demelza, he's made no plans to up sticks and leave her. Is Elizabeth just supposed to stay alone forever, and be nobly poor, and take care of her sick mother and raise her son, and eat stale crusts of bread forever, all alone? All so that Ross doesn’t have to make any decisions or do anything that might inconvenience him or actually deal with his own emotions?

Apparently so.

Ross even has the gall to accuse Elizabeth of marrying George for his money. (Seriously!)  She denies it in a huff, of course – but so what if she was? She has a small child and a sick mother and no one else to help her. People make compromises all the time, and if she can live with marrying the vilest person in the county in exchange for some comfort and safety, I’m not sure why Ross thinks he gets to judge her.

And then the scene gets really difficult.  Ross grabs Elizabeth and kisses her. She shoves him off and he says she can’t love George. She says she sure does, and it’s clearly a spiteful lie, but he grabs her and kisses her again and she cries, "No!" but next thing you know they’re in bed and having sex, despite how furious and resistant everyone seemed to be a minute ago.

Now, my commentary.  My first reaction was that this was the old, tired, distasteful story.  The girl says no, but when the man persists, she finishes up enjoying it.  In a word, when she said no, she didn't really mean it.  How many times has that feeble excuse been made?

My other reaction was that it seemed very dated.  It took me back to that deathless movie, Gone With the Wind, and the scene where Rhett Butler gets sick and tired of Scarlett (who is his wedded wife at that part of the story) constantly refusing his attentions.  So he grabs her and rapes her.  Bad enough.  What was really shocking was the next scene of her waking joyously in bed.  Yes.  Seriously.

But back to Poldark.  Was it in the book (number three in the series, titled Warleggan)?  Yes.  The scene was played as written.  Perhaps the actors could have diluted what was obviously going to be controversial by having Elizabeth sigh her "No," instead of shouting it.  Then consensual sex would have been easier to comprehend.  After all, the pair have been lusting after each other forever.  But she definitely snapped out that fatal little negative.

The British public certainly reacted.  The tweetosphere ran hot, it seems.  The Radio Times responded with a scholarly comparison of the passage in the book with the TV scene, along with interviews with Debbie Horsfield – creator of the new series – Aidan Turner, who plays Ross Poldark, and Andrew Graham, son of the author.

The Telegraph ran an analysis -- was it rape or was it not? -- along with comments from a women's campaign group saying it sent the worst possible message.

The Guardian agreed that it was certainly not OK, and compared it to the appalling rape scene in Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, adding a description of a rape scene in a Royal Opera House production of William Tell that I, as an opera addict, found horrifying.  Quite frankly, I found the comparisons over the top, with an unintended result -- making the rape (if it was a rape) of Elizabeth seem relatively insignificant.

The BBC News, as is proper, merely reported the controversy, along  with a rather startling comment from the author's son, Andrew Graham, saying, "There is no 'shock rape' storyline in the novels.To say so is to misconstrue my father's text. The BBC has cut nothing and Mammoth Screen's portrayal of these scenes is entirely true to my father's writing."

The BBC had received 17 complaints about the scene at the time of writing, or so the news reports.  Seven of these were formal notifications to the media regulator, "Ofcom."  Undoubtedly, some kind of decision will be forthcoming.

But what about the American version of the episode?

In this one, the whole section after the first rough kiss is cut out.  The kiss bit segues into the next morning, where Elizabeth is lying serenely in bed watching Ross get dressed, ready to ride out and confront his understandably furious wife.  This, to put it mildly, must have left the audience puzzled.  What the hell happened?  Did Elizabeth return the kiss, so that she becomes the seductress, and Ross, somehow, remains a heroic figure?  Or did they simply talk the nighttime hours away?

As the WETA blogger says, it just doesn't feel right to take such an important part of the story away --  The decision to alter the scene for American broadcast feels odd….if the showrunners want to make it clearer that Ross and Elizabeth finally gave in to their life-long passion instead of something darker. Or if they wanted to make sure Ross stayed at least partially heroic. Or both. Maybe the folks in charge just didn’t want to end up in another media/critical firestorm about rape as a plot device.

And I agree with him (or her). Though the decision to delete might have felt wise, nonetheless it is basically dishonest, cheating not just the audience, but the writer and screenwriters, too.


V.E. Ulett said...

Well, this is interesting. I didn't know there were two versions. I haven't watched this latest production of Poldark but I read the first 4 - 5 books years ago.

World of the Written Word said...

It is well worth watching -- though not for the dialogue, which is often wooden. The details are as marvelous as the landscape -- in the market, for instance, the contents of the stalls are perfect. And the colors are wonderful, very Zeffirelli and muted, in russets and greens. As a historical drama, it is firstrate -- if you ignore the story, and Aidan Turner's permanent frown. And, for that matter, Elizabeth's wig. The portrayals of the old aunt and the now deceased Francis are memorable.