Graham Piro, “North and South’s” Riot Scene as a Screenplay


For my remediation assignment, I translated the “North and South” riot scene into a screenplay. I chose this scene because it is the most cinematic scene in the whole novel, and it certainly was very exciting to read. Translating it into a screenplay was more difficult than I imagined. First, the dialogue does not read naturally. The book’s dialogue is very much in a certain style, and hearing actors say some of the lines on screen would just come off as extremely clunky. I tried to simplify the dialogue so that the context was clear and the characters spoke as succinctly as possible. The rest of the film would probably be very dialogue heavy, and therefore I would want this scene to tell its story through visuals as opposed to dialogue.

The next issue was pacing. In the book it’s easy to set up the scene through prose, but on screen, that proves to be a bit more difficult. I tried to cut extraneous detail as possible to make sure that the scene flowed quickly and efficiently. For example, the dialogue between Fanny and Margaret is reduced significantly, as well as the number of lines that Mrs. Thornton has. I wanted to make sure that the focus remained on what was happening with the crowd, so having the characters say fewer lines was the easiest way to keep the focus on what was happening outside the house.

Next, I wanted to make sure that the focus of the scene remained on Thornton and Margaret. I think that their dynamic is what makes this scene so compelling, and so I wanted to show how Margaret is Thornton’s equal. This may not be completely faithful to the book, but for the purpose of telling a more efficient story, I think making Margaret stronger makes the marriage between her and Thornton far more believable. It was tough to balance the reactions of the different characters. I think in hindsight, I should have included Fanny to make the characters’ reactions more varied. Mrs. Thornton and Thornton are both fairly stoic, so there is no foil to exemplify Margaret’s strength in the face of the crowd.

Translating the scene into a screenplay certainly helped me think about the dynamics between the different characters much more. I had to understand the different motivations and different elements to write the scene, and I think that reading it again, I may not have captured the exact spirit of what Gaskell wrote. However, I think that translating the novel into a film means that certain artistic liberties must be taken. Making Margaret a stronger character, for example, is something that I would definitely do if I had to write the rest of the screenplay. However, I definitely would also try to vary up the characters instead of having them all react the same way. I tried to make sure that Margaret’s speech to Thornton was much stronger and more decisive than in the book, where she wavers right afterwards. Writing the screenplay was a fun and interesting way to think deeper about the interactions between the characters and their motivations in the novel.