Poldark: Going Backwards

Still from the original Poldark.

The old Poldark series from 1975 was a sheer delight. My husband and I discovered it during lockdown and binge-watched all 29 episodes in something like two weeks. My affection for the old series, combined with the overly-slick promotional materials of the remake from 2015-2019, put me off watching the remake until we’d out of pretty everything else. We eventually did run out of everything else, though, so we decided to give the new Poldark a try. 

The cinematography of the new Poldark is spectacular, but in every other respect it’s vastly inferior to the original. Worse than that, the new Poldark is profoundly offensive. It’s overtly misogynistic, celebrates a deeply toxic vision of masculinity, and appears to emanate from the pens of writers who have a deeply negative view of human nature. 

Robin Ellis’s Ross Poldark from 1975 was an emotionally mature man. Aidan Turner’s, on the other hand, comes off more like a spoiled adolescent, with a physique manufactured in a gym, as a result of a very carefully designed body-sculpting program, rather than in the fields as a result of hard labor that he is inexplicably depicted as doing, despite that he is a wealthy landowner. 

Poldark, set in eighteenth-century Cornwall, is sometimes referred to as the Cornish Gone With the Wind. The plot line is basically that of Gone With the Wind only with gender reversals. Ross Poldark is Scarlet O’Hara, hardened by his experience in the American War of Independence just as Scarlet was by the Civil War.  Ross labors through most of the narrative under the delusion that he is in love with the noble and aristocratic Elizabeth Chynoweth (read Ashley Wilkes), only to realize, finally, that his true love is actually the smart and feisty Demelza Carne Poldark, who also just happens to be his spouse (read Rhett Butler). 

This plot line is harder to divine, however, in the remake than in the original. The original was in effect a coming-of-age novel. Poldark, though physically mature and perhaps (like Scarlet) even prematurely aged by his experiences in a doomed war, has to learn from hard experience that he’s wasted his passion on an inadequate object, that his soulmate has been there with him the whole time, only he couldn’t see it. This is a story of perennial appeal, hence the success of the first series. 

The problem is that the second series basically abandons this plot line for a more superficial and not only less interesting, but actually less coherent one. In the original Poldark, Elizabeth, Poldark’s childhood sweetheart, is beautiful, but that’a about it. She isn’t a particularly nice person. She’s not evil, or anything like that, but superficial, and if not actually money grubbing, certainly so risk averse that it seems pretty clear she’d have married Poldark’s cousin, Francis, even if she hadn’t assumed Poldark had been killed in the war. She flat-out confesses to Poldark in the original series that he is too much of a loose cannon for her, that she needs safety and security, and, as we later learn when, after the death of her first husband, she marries George Warleggan, Poldark’s arch enemy — money and social status. She’s not all bad, she’s just weak and materialistic and hence an unfit object for the affections of the swashbuckling Ross.

Not so the Elizabeth of the remake. She’s as noble as they come, at least initially, hence Poldark’s continued obsession with her comes off not as delusional, or as a mark of emotional immaturity, but as perfectly understandable. The problem is that even while viewers of the remake are likely rooting for the reunion of Ross and his childhood sweetheart, the former actually marries his kitchen maid, Demelza, for the sole reason that, in a weak moment, he had sex with her. 

The 1975 Demelza was a poor waif disguised as a boy when Poldark discovers her and decides to employ her as a kitchen maid in order to rescue her from her abusive father. This Demelza propositions Poldark before they even get back to his decaying estate. (It’s unclear whether she’s already decided that Poldark is the man for her or whether she just can’t pass up an opportunity to make some ready cash.)

This little detail is completely omitted from the remake. In the remake, Demelza is a pure and chaste as the saintly Elizabeth, and accompanies Poldark on his journey home as docilely as a cow being led by a ring through its nose. 

Both Demelza’s are in their early teens when rescued by Poldark from an abusive father. The Demelza of the original is a survivor, though. She’s effectively a female version of the Artful Dodger, who lives by thieving and removing her “knickers” for anyone willing to give her a shilling. She’s discovered by Poldark when he sees her being throttled by a baker in a public market for having stolen some of his goods. 

The Demelza of the remake, but contrast, is also discovered in a public market, but the commotion that attracts Poldark’s attention is not the result of her having stolen anything, but the result of her ineffectual efforts to protect what would appear to be her emotional support dog. 

The Demelza of the original is smart and cunning and obviously capable of surviving on her own. She knows a good thing when she sees it, though, and basically manipulates Poldark into making her his kitchen maid. Not so the Demelza of the remake. She’s so weak and feeble and helpless that Poldark decides he’d better look after her.

The Demelza of the original assists Poldark into whipping the drunken, lazy couple who pass for his household staff into shape. Not so the Demelza of the remake, she quickly becomes the abused Cinderella to the couple’s wicked stepparents.  

It’s Demelza who seduces Poldark in the original and Poldark marries her only after he learns she’s pregnant. Even then, his offer of marriage is not immediately forthcoming because he assumes initially, and not unreasonably, that the child is someone else’s.

Demelza is deeply in love with Poldark, though, and he knows it and when he learns the child is his he decides to make the best of a bad situation and marry her. One might be tempted to the conclusion that marrying someone you’re not in love with is not actually making the best of a bad situation, but only exacerbating it. Things work out well for Poldark, however, just as they do for Scarlet O’Hara, because Poldark gains a help meet who is his equal and whom he comes to appreciate as such. 

Not so the Demelza of the remake, whom Poldark marries, again, not because she is pregnant, and not even because he has fallen in love with her, but simply because he’s had sex with her. Not only does that action strain credulity, the new Poldark’s later declaration to his now wife, the timid and self-effacing Demelza, that she is his true love, and that she has “rescued” him is completely incomprehensible. The old Demelza does indeed rescue Poldark by providing loving, supportive, and sometimes even challenging companionship. But when the new Poldark declares to the new Demelza that she has rescued him, confused viewers are forced to conclude that Poldark must have been unable to feed himself, because anticipating his gastronomic needs is basically the only thing the obsequious new Demelza has done by that point.

The new Demelza cleans up better than the old one, but that, in itself is inadequate to explain in what sense she could be understood to be Poldark’s soul mate. The original Demelza is not beautiful, at least not in the traditional sense, but she’s smart and vivacious and charming and uses her charms judiciously to Poldark’s advantage.

Not so the new Demelza, she’s beautiful, but that’s about it. She appears to suffer from cripplingly low self esteem and is challenged even as to her posture. Far from sparing verbally with Poldark, she’s barely articulate and looks constantly to others for affirmation. The Demelza of the original deliberately seduces the despondent Ross when he is too drunk to resist. The Demelza of the remake ends up being seduced by a despondent Ross when she timidly enters his bedroom to request his help unfastening her dress because it fastens up the back and hence she can’t manage it herself. If the original Demelza had asked for such help, we’d have known what she was up to. The Demelza of the remake, on the other hand, gives the unmistakeable impression that she didn’t actually want to enter the holy of holies that is Poldark’s bedroom, but that she was forced to because the challenge of extricating herself from a dress that fastened up the back was simply too much for her feeble intellectual and motor skills.  

The new Poldark isn’t a coming-of-age story. Poldark does’t credibly learn anything about himself, or the human condition more generally, in this remake. The tweaked narrative doesn’t even ring true as a story about a hopelessly emotionally immature, if admirably righteous man, who loses the love of his life to a more prosperous relative because it includes the incoherent plot line of his purported increasing emotional dependence on his doormat spouse. It wouldn’t be an interesting story even if it didn’t include this incoherent detail. It does include this detail, however, which takes it from the territory of the uninteresting, to the downright offensive. That is, the message of the new Poldark appears to be that what’s required to win the heart of a swashbuckler such as Poldark is drop-dead beauty and and a completely self-effacing and obsequious personality. 

The Demelza of the original is a woman to admire and emulate. A woman undaunted by the poverty from which she sprang, unashamed of her questionable sexual past, an intelligent and principled woman who knows what she wants and is determined to do what she can to get it. She might be manipulative, but she’s good hearted and uses her intelligence in the service of ends that spring from that heart. 

Demelza isn’t the only female character who falls victim to a misogynistic rewriting. Nearly all the female characters in the original are more intelligent, assertive, and sympathetic. Even the actress from a traveling show who is murdered by her miner husband for having an affair is more sympathetic in the original. That story line is developed in more detail in the original where we see the actress chronically neglected by the husband she married out of love. Not so in the remake. The actress there is portrayed from the very beginning as a conniving and materialistic tramp who marries a minor because she decides she wants to settle down and have her own house and he promised to give it to her. Her purported affection for the minor is presented as feigned from the beginning and her disgust with the house he has lovingly built her is palpable even before she crosses the threshold. So rather than being saddened, one is almost irresistibly gladdened by her eventual murder. 

But it gets worse. When the new Poldark learns his childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth, is planning to marry his archrival, George Warleggan, he flies into a rage, gallops over to Elizabeth’s estate, finds her alone and brutally rapes her. And we’re supposed to continue to admire him despite that. There’s a similar scene in the 1975 Poldark, but like what is arguably the rape scene in “Gone With The Wind,” it is far more subtle. That is, viewers are provided the opportunity to infer that the object of the, at least initially, unwanted male affections may well have changed her mind before the deed was done. Not so with the new Poldark. There, it is unequivocally a rape, and shown in disturbing detail. 

Yet the viewer is supposed to continue to admire Poldark as a righteous dude.  Really, I’m not making this up. The implication is that Elizabeth deserved to be raped, just as the wife of the aforementioned minor deserved to be murdered.  

But the crimes of the new Poldark aren’t restricted to its conspicuous misogyny. The plot is far more superficial than the original. I won’t reveal any more of the events of the original that are missing from the remake. Suffice it to say that the behavior of the characters in the original makes sense because the events are there to give that behavior the necessary context, whereas the behavior of the characters in the remake often does not make sense because that context is missing. 

Historical accuracy appears to have been sacrificed to contemporary tastes in terms of the costumes. The women in the 1975 “Poldark” invariably wear Martha-Washington-style caps during the day. Someone involved in the production of the new “Poldark” appears to have feared that such granny caps might dampen the eroticism the show was clearly going for, though, so no caps this time. On top of that, Demelza is invariably dressed, even during the day, in a low-cut cleavage-revealing dress that would have been reserved for evening wear. 

So little attention was paid to the development of the plot that even the events don’t always make sense. Francis, Poldark’s cousin and husband of his childhood sweetheart Elizabeth, appears at the end of the first episode of season two to have committed suicide. We see him load a pistol and place it against his temple. Next we see the image of a finger pulling the trigger immediately followed by a flashing light and the sound of a deafening explosion. 

Now that’s weird, I thought, since I knew from the first series that Francis does not actually kill himself. How are they going to get out of this one, I wondered? Sure enough, there is Francis still alive at the beginning of episode two. The mystery of his survival is solved later in the episode when he explains that he’d tried to shoot himself in the head, but that the powder had been damp and so had failed to ignite. 

Wait a minute, I said to my husband, I’m pretty sure the powder did ignite. Didn’t we see the gun go off? So we went back and checked the end of the first episode, and there is was, the powder igniting! Really, people, really? For all the money that has obviously been poured into the production of this remake, you can’t even get the events to cohere?

The one character that was actually a caricature in the original Poldark, and as such leavened the seriousness of the narrative with comic relief, provides no such relief in the remake.  Ralph Bates’ portrayal of George Warleggan, Poldark’s arch nemesis, was hilarious. The Warleggan character was actually my favorite part of the show. The writing and acting of the original were sufficiently good to pull the viewer into the narrative and hence engender a certain amount of anxiety when a particular plot twist did not go Poldark’s way. This anxiety was immediately dispelled, however, by the conspicuous Wile E. Coyote-like machinations of Bates’ Warleggan. One knew immediately, that just as the Roadrunner always escaped from the traps set for him by Wile E. Coyote, so would Poldark always escape the clutches of Warleggan. What made the series fun and interesting was not whether Poldark would triumph over Warleggan, but how. That was the real charm of the original series. It was serious and fun at the same time.

Not so with the remake. The new “Poldark” has no humor whatever. None of the characters, with the exception of Jack Farthing’s George Warleggan, is even believable, and none whatever is admirable. That, in fact, is arguably the most disturbing thing about the new Poldark. The villainous characters are the only ones whose psychology the writers appear to understand. The admirable characters, or the characters that are clearly supposed to be admirable, are too one-dimensional. They are simply not credible as characters. Poldark is too much of a petulant hothead for viewers to truly sympathize with him, and all the female characters are so timid and inarticulate they resemble figments of a misogynistic imagination far more closely than they resemble real flesh and blood women. 

Farthing’s Warleggan, on the other hand is a dramatic triumph, so good, in fact, that one ceases, eventually, to be distracted by the striking resemblance he bears to Roger Daltrey. Unfortunately, Warleggan is such an unappealing character that one can’t really take any pleasure in Farthing’s virtuoso performance. If Poldark were more appealing, then a realistically villainous Warleggan would be an appropriate foil and we could appreciate him as such and root for Poldark’s eventual triumph over him. Poldark is himself so offensive, though, that I found myself unable to care whether he escaped Warleggan’s clutches. 

Poldark, as I mentioned, is sometimes referred to at the Cornish Gone With the Wind. The 2015 remake, on the other hand, is closer to the long-awaited but staggeringly inept GWTW sequel, the now forgotten, but briefly infamous Scarlet. The only real resemblance of the new Poldark to the 1939 blockbuster is the cinematography, it is, as I said earlier, spectacular. In every other respect, not only is the new Poldark vastly inferior, it’s downright offensive.

That says a lot, doesn’t it? People in the entertainment industry appear unable to plum the depths of the psyches of decent, ordinary people, to say nothing of actually admirable people. Villains they understand. Emotional immaturity, uncontrollable anger, misogyny, greed, betrayal, callous indifference to the suffering of others, those are things they understand and things they clearly believe will resonate with contemporary viewers. If that’s what they think, though, then they’re wrong because the original Poldark was far more popular than the remake, despite the latter’s spectacular cinematography.

M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Her latest book is: Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. She can be reached at: mgpiety@drexel.edu