October 11, 2011

One Superlative song, existence the price: How 'The Thorn Birds' compares from book to silver screen

Colleen McCullough hated Meggie Cleary.

The news came as quite a surprise to me, but apparently it’s true. In April 2009, as the best-selling author worked on the stage musical version of her literary triumph, the UK Daily Mail quoted her directly:

“Meggie in The Thorn Birds is basically my mother. I detested her. Can you imagine writing a 280,000-word book and hating your heroine? She was everything I despise in a woman. She suffered and, worst of all, she enjoyed suffering.”

I didn’t pick up on the author’s hatred when reading the book – far from it – my interpretation was that McCullough really felt for her central character.

The book was divided into 7 sections, and the first of these is titled ‘Meggie’ – it delves into her history; her relationships, her upbringing, and those key moments that helped to form the woman that she would become. 

There were times that I wanted to slap some sense into Meggie, but my frustration was always leveled by compassion because I understood her feelings and motivations.

I cannot say the same about the 1983 television mini-series version of The Thorn Birds. In many ways, it was a well-constructed and faithful adaptation and in many ways I enjoyed it immensely, but I felt no compassion for Rachel Ward’s childishly petulant and obstinate Meggie.

But this is not the fault of Ward. The television mini-series first introduced Meggie as a sweet, smiling nine-year-old – completely disregarding the entire first hunk of the book in which Meggie was regularly harassed, tormented and then neglected.

Viewers would have no idea that Meggie had experienced love and true companionship in New Zealand, which was shamefully ripped away from her. They would have no idea that, prior to meeting Ralph, Meggie had come to believe that love was only bestowed upon others, and never upon herself.

I know that in any adaptation – whether it is a feature-length film or a 465-minute saga – allowances must be made for necessary sacrifices in both plot and character development. But in this case I think the filmmakers have made a mistake.

Perhaps a little more trivially, I would have loved it if the Cleary family had retained their various shades of ginger hair. McCullough described Meggie’s hair as “not red and not gold, but somewhere in between” and it was the one physical trait that made her stand out from the crowd, for better or worse. It was also the quality that clearly identified Frank as an outsider:
“Her hair was the typical Cleary beacon, all the Cleary children save Frank being martyred by a thatch some shade of red.”

A beautiful, elegant and desirable Rachel Ward, with even the slightest strawberry tinge to her hair, would have empowered redheads everywhere.

There is no question that the television adaptation of The Thorn Birds was successful and well received. Richard Chamberlain himself quite modestly stated that it is “one of the 3 or 4 best things ever done on American television” – but it had the potential to be the first.

The verdict: 

Book or Big Screen? Book

The film is:   3. A decent, credible, faithful adaptation

I would be very happy to receive your comments and feedback on ‘Book or Big Screen’ – please click on the below link to tell me what film adaptation you are excited about, or to suggest the book/film that I should review next.


  1. Hi Danielle,

    I really enjoyed reading your post. I did enjoy the mini-series, but only because I viewed it as separate from the book. In fact, that's the way I typically enjoy any film adaptation...if I can separate the book and the film into "related" but not the "same" works of art. The mini-series was an interesting story with beautiful actors, but when I read the book, I became so enmeshed with the story, it became a part of that period of my life. I found it fascinating that Colleen McCullough detested Meggie because I remember having that sense when I read the book. At the very least, I remember feeling that the author treated her main character with a very strong, unsympathetic light. It certainly didn't bother me, in fact it made Meggie more "real" and human to me. I love both film and books, so I look forward to your future posts.

  2. Hi Lori. Thank you for your comments, and your thoughtful feedback.

    You make an interesting point about film adaptations and books being viewed as separate works of art... I always find it a little disconcerting when publishers release a new edition of a book with the movie poster emblazoned on the cover. The two are often so different that its odd to see the book marketed as a hard copy version of the film (rather than the other way around).

    That would be an interesting topic of a blog post.. so thanks for getting me thinking!