Do many fans of the current adaptation of Winston Graham’s “POLDARK” saga have an unnatural hatred of the character known as Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan? Or do they merely dislike her? Did this “dislike” lead producer Debbie Horsfield and the BBC to sanction a major change in the relationship between Elizabeth and the saga’s protagonist, Ross Poldark during the series’ Season Two? A change that I personally found disturbing? Or was it something else?
Last summer, I encountered rumors that “POLDARK” producer Debbie Horsfield and the BBC had decided to make a major change to the series’s adaptation of the 1953 novel, “Warleggan” – a change that eventually reflected in Episode Eight (Episode Seven in the U.S.) of the series’ second season. Horsfield and the BBC decided to deliberately change the nature of an encounter between Ross Poldark and Elizabeth Poldark in an effort to preserve Ross’ “heroic” image. Nearly a month after learning this decision, I learned that both leading man Aidan Turner and co-star Heida Reed (who portrays Elizabeth Poldark) had met with Horsfield. Turner claimed, along with Horsfield and Graham’s son, Andrew Graham that the May 9, 1793 encounter between Ross and Elizabeth had been consensual sex and not rape, when the protagonist appeared at his cousin-in-law’s home (the Trenwith estate) to convince her not to marry his on-going nemesis, banker George Warleggan. Judging from what I had read in the novel, I find this opinion hard to accept:
‘I can’t help this either.’ He kissed her. She turned her face away but could not get it far enough round to avoid him.
When he lifted his head, her eyes were lit with anger. He’d never seen her like it before, and he found pleasure in it.
‘This is – contemptible! I shouldn’t have believed it of you! To force yourself … To insult me when – when I have no one …
‘I don’t like this marriage to George, Elizabeth. I don’t like it! I should be glad of your assurance that you’ll not go through with it.’
‘I’d be surprised if you believed me if I gave it you! You called me a liar! Well, at least I do not go back on my promises! I love George to distraction and shall marry him next week-‘
He caught her again, and this time began to kiss her with intense passion to which anger had given an extra relish, before anger was lost. Her hair began to fall in plaited tangles. She got her hand up to his mouth, but he brushed it away. Then she smacked his face, so he pinioned her arm …
She suddenly found herself for a brief second nearly free. ‘You treat me -like a slut-‘
‘It’s time you were so treated-‘
‘Let me go, Ross! You’re hateful — horrible! If George –‘
‘Shall you marry him?’
‘Don’t! I’ll scream! Oh, God, Ross … Please .. .’
‘Whatever you say, I don’t think I can believe you now. Isn’t that so?’
‘There’s no tomorrow,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t come. Life is an illusion. Didn’t you know? Let us make the most of the shadows.’
‘Ross, you can’t intend … Stop! Stop, I tell you.’
But he took no further notice of the words she spoke. He lifted her in his arms and carried her to the bed.
This is how Graham had ended both the chapter and the scene . . . with Ross forcing Elizabeth on her bed … against her will. It did not end with any hint that they were about to embark upon consensual sex.
Many fans of the series, especially young female fans had reacted with joy over the news. What they had failed to realize was that in making this change, Horsfield threatened to undermine the lesson of Ross and Elizabeth’s story arc and what it really meant. Winston Graham – a male writer – had the balls to show that even the “heroic” Ross Poldark was capable of a monstrous act. He had the courage to reveal that Ross was not some romance novel hero, but a complex and ambiguous man, capable of not only decent acts, but monstrous ones as well. Like any other human being on the face of this Earth. More importantly, his assault of Elizabeth revealed the consequences that rape victims tend to pay in a patriarchal society – past or present – in the novels that followed. It seemed Debbie Horsfield and the BBC were only willing to portray Ross as an adulterer. Is it possible they believed it would be easier for viewers to accept Ross simply as an adulterer, instead of an adulterer/rapist? Some individuals, including Turner, claimed that Ross was incapable of rape. Bullshit! Although a fictional character, Ross Poldark is also a human being. And humans are basically capable of anything. Hell, Agatha Christie had the good sense to realize this. Why is it that so many other humans are incapable of doing the same?
The moment I had learned that she had decided to turn Ross’ rape into an act of consensual sex between him and Elizabeth, I suspected that fans would end up slut shaming the latter. I suspected that even though many fans would be “disappointed” in Ross, they would eventually forgive him. However, I also suspected that these same fans would end up branding Elizabeth as a whore until the end of this series. It is soooo typical of this sexist society. The woman is always to blame. Even in the eyes of other women.
So, what actually happened between Ross and Elizabeth in the BBC’s recent adaptation of “Warleggan”? In Episode 8 (Episode 7 in the U.S.), Ross returned home to Nampara, his personal estate, and discovered a letter from Elizabeth in which she announced her engagement to George Warleggan. Despite his wife Demelza’s protests, Ross decided to go to Trenwith and try to convince or perhaps coerce Elizabeth into breaking the engagement. He showed up at Trenwith, barged into both the house and Elizabeth’s bedroom. An argument commenced between the two in which Ross tried to shame Elizabeth into breaking the engagement. She refused to comply, making it clear that her actions stemmed from saving her immediate family at Trenwith from further financial problems and ensuring her son (and Ross’ cousin) Geoffrey Charles’ future.
And … what happened next? Ross began to force himself upon Elizabeth. She tried to put up a fight, while insisting that he leave. He eventually forced her on the bed. And just as he was about to rape her, Elizabeth capitulated at the last minute. This last moment of consent was Horsfield and the BBC’s way of stating that the entire scene between Ross and Elizabeth was basically consensual sex. Can you believe it? Considering the manner in which Elizabeth tried and failed to fight off Ross before she “consented”, the entire scene might as well have been rape. After all, Elizabeth fought Ross until he had her pinned on the bed. If she had not “consented”, chances are he would have raped her anyway. Worse, the culmination of the entire scene projected the negative image of the “rape fantasy”. I am sure that many of you know what I mean. When a woman or a man says “no”, he or she really means “yes”.
You may be wondering why I would include a potential male victim in this scenario. Simple … many people harbor the illusion that men do not mind being the victim of a woman’s rape. Also, I saw this same scenario play out in the “BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER” Season Six episode called (6.11) “Gone”. In this episode, the series’ protagonist had been rendered invisible by some ray gun invented by a trio of geeky scientists. Using her invisibility to indulge in her own desires, Buffy decided to pay a call to chipped vampire Spike (with whom she had begun an affair) at his crypt. She barged into the latter, shoved a frightened Spike against the wall and started to rip off his clothes. He consented to sex at the last minute when an uncontrolled giggle revealed Buffy’s identity. What made this scene rather sickening to watch was that it was written as a comedic moment. I have the oddest feeling that producer Debbie Horsfield may have seen this particular episode and decided to write her own version of the situation in order to spare Ross Poldark from being labeled a rapist.
Someone had pointed out that the 1975 adaptation produced by Morris Barry and Anthony Coburn had adapted this sequence with more honesty. After a recent viewing of this series, I am afraid that I cannot agree. What happened? Well … one scene featured a conversation between Elizabeth and her sister-in-law, Verity Poldark Blamey, in which she made it clear that her reason for marrying George Warleggan was for money and more social clout. To make matters worse, the scene had Verity instructing Elizabeth to explain to Ross that the latter was considering the family’s salvation from a future filled with poverty and Geoffrey Charles’ future. But Elizabeth made it clear – in a rather bitchy and unsympathetic manner conveyed by actress Jill Townsend – that her reasons for George was all about a new life for her – with a wealthy husband. And she set out to include this in her letter to Ross. Even worse, the screenwriter had drastically changed Elizabeth’s personality once the series had commenced upon adapting “Warleggan” in Episode Thirteen. She suddenly began behaving as “The Bitch of the Century”.
When Ross had finally confronted her in Episode Fifteen, Elizabeth still insisted that a marriage to George was a way for her to have a new life. What I found distasteful about the whole thing is that this was NOT Elizabeth’s true reason for marrying George Warleggan in the 1953 novel. She truly made the decision to marry George in order to spare her family – especially Geoffrey Charles – a long future trapped in poverty, as was conveyed in the 2016 series. But I ended up acquiring the ugly feeling that Barry, Coburn and screenwriter Jack Russell had decided to change Elizabeth’s reason for marrying George in order to justify Ross’ rape of her.
And yes … Ross did rape Elizabeth in the 1975 series. Unlike the 2016 version, there was no last minute consent on Elizabeth’s part. But I found the entire scene rather rushed. Once Ross and Elizabeth barely had time to discuss or argue over the matter, the former quickly tackled the latter to the bed and began to rape her, as the scene faded to black. However, both versions set out to regain Ross’ reputation with the viewers by the end of their respective adaptations of “Warleggan”. How did they achieve this? Screenwriter Jack Russell included a scene in the last episode of the 1975 series in which George Warleggan had enclosed the Trenwith land from the tenants, forcing them to transform from small peasant proprietors and serfs into agricultural wage-laborers. This action led to a riot in which the former tenant farmers stormed the Trenwith manor house and burn it to the ground. During the riot, Ross and Demelza arrived to save the recently married Elizabeth and George from mob violence. This also gave the series’ producers and Russell to have Elizabeth ask Ross why he had decided to save George from the mob. What the hell? The enclosures happened in the novel. But not the riot. What was the purpose of this? To give Ross an opportunity to give Elizabeth a “you are beneath me” glare?
Debbie Horsfield decided to resort to a similar scenario in the 2016 version. However, before she could subject television audiences to this idiocy, she included a scene in which an angry Demelza Poldark got a chance to slut shame Elizabeth during an encounter between the pair on a deserted road. This scene, by the way, never happened in the novel. And quite frankly, I never understood Horsfield’s purpose by including this scene. What did she expect from the audience? Viewers pumping their fists in the air while crying, “Demelza, you go girl?” Perhaps there were fans that actually did this or something similar. I did not. In fact, I merely shook my head in disbelief. Pardon me, but I found it difficult to cheer on Demelza’s behalf, when I just recently watched her husband force himself on Elizabeth. Unlike the 1975 version, the Trenwith riot sequence did not end with the house burned to the ground. Instead, it ended with Nampara servant Jud Paynter, whipping up a mob to march on Trenwith and Ross preventing Demelza (who had gone to Trenwith to warn Elizabeth and George about the impending riot) from being shot by one of the rioters. The scene even included Ross riding through the crowd on a horse and sweeping Demelza up onto the saddle. It seemed like a scene straight from a Harlequin Romance novel. And I had to struggle to force down the bile that threatened to rise up my throat.
From the moment Elizabeth Poldark had decided to inform Ross of her upcoming marriage to George Warleggan to the latter’s confrontation with Ross over the Trenwith enclosures, the adaptations of Winston Graham’s 1953 novel for both the 1975 and 2016 series … well, for me they have been major disappointments. Were producers Morris Barry, Anthony Coburn and Debbie Horsfield unwilling to allow television audiences to face Ross’ violent act against his soon-to-be former cousin-in-law? Was that why all three had insisted upon changing the circumstances that surrounded Ross and Elizabeth’s encounter on that May 1793 night? Or were they pressured by the BBC to make these changes, who may have feared that television audiences could not openly face or accept Ross as a rapist? Or perhaps the three producers, along with the BBC, knew that many viewers could accept Ross as an adulterer, but not as a rapist? Who knows? I know one thing. I hope and pray that one day, some television producer would be able to adapt “Warleggan” without resorting to excessive changes.