In 1944, famous writer Anya Seton wrote Dragonwyck, a novel of Gothic suspense that became a bestseller, and was filmed in 1946 by first time director Joseph Mankiewicz. It was a great success, and it catapulted the career of leading lady Gene Tierney, leading man Vincent Price, and director/writer Mankiewicz.  
Comparing the movie and the book is a great way to illustrate how different Hollywood is from the world of literature... And how it tackles some major problems. 

First, let me say that there are spoilers ahead. If you haven't read the book or watched the movie, do it right now! You won't regret it. But for now, let's continue. 

The plot is, in a nutshell, as it follows (taken from Goodreads): 

First published in 1944, Dragonwyck was a national bestseller that was made into a major motion picture starring Gene Tierney and Vincent Price in 1946. A classic gothic romance, the story features an 18-year-old Miranda Wells who falls under the spell of a mysterious old mansion and its equally fascinating master. Tired of churning butter, weeding the garden patch, and receiving the dull young farmers who seek her hand in marriage, Miranda is excited by an invitation from the upstate New York estate of her distant relative, the intriguing Nicholas Van Ryn. Her passion is kindled by the icy fire of Nicholas, the last of the Van Ryns, and the luxury of Dragonwyck, and a way of life of which she has only dreamed. Dressed in satin and lace, she becomes part of Dragonwyck, with its Gothic towers, flowering gardens, acres of tenant farms, and dark, terrible secrets. This compelling novel paints a marvelous portrait of a country torn between freedom and feudal traditions; a country divided between the very wealthy and the very poor. Poor tenant farmers at Dragonwyck, the European royalty who visit, and American icons such as Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and the Astors are vividly brought to life. This is a heart-stopping story of a remarkable woman, her breathtaking passions, and the mystery and terror that await her in the magnificent hallways of Dragonwyck.

It's funny how the novel and the book, while closely related when plot is concerned, take so vastly different styles and paths overall. Yes, the plot of the book is more of less faithfully followed by the movie (except for the ending, which had to be changed because of censorship problems), but the main axis, the center that all revolves around, is very dissimilar.   

The movie is a wonderful Gothic romance with elements of the supernatural. The book is a psychological study (and a very brutal one at that) with some sociopolitical questions thrown in for good measure. They meet at some points, but are completely different in character. It is literary like comparing oranges and lemons. Both are fruits from the same family, but diverge wildly from one another. One is a intensive, nice looking, sweet treat. The other is alluring, alarming and sour. 

Let's dissect this point by point. First, the characters. 

In the movie, the main character, Miranda Welles, is played by Gene Tierney, one of my absolute favorite classic actresses. She was a stunner, truly a Mona Lisa of Hollywood, but so deliciously flawed due to her overbite, making her more interesting than classical beauties like Hedy Lamarr.

Tierney was physically totally wrong for Miranda - in the book, Miranda is described as a blond, blue eyed women-child, very graceful, delicate, looking much like an angel. Tierney, on the other hand, is a beguiling mix of dark hair and porcelain skin, with clear blue eyes, and more sturdy in build. An actress whom I imagine to be a perfect match for Miranda in looks is Anita Louise, or perhaps Marian Marsh

Despite this shortcoming, Tierney diffuses Miranda with something special. She is a country girl, fed on bread, potatoes and the Bible from her earliest days, with little to no knowledge of the way the world outside her little Connecticut farm works. However, she is indoctrinated with a healthy sense of right/wrong and is morally sturdy. This gives her the strength to go forward in the wide world so outside her comfort zone, and ultimately to transcend the terribly narrow scope of her early life. Tierney plays this to utter perfection without being too overt and brass. 

The movie Miranda is ballsy and strong, is nobody's fool but is still a happy-go-lucky girl at heart. Tierney makes Miranda very likable - you understand why she falls for Van Ryn, why she wants to get away from her overtly frugal/puritanical life in Greenwich. You admire her for fighting and for hoping for a better life. She is a great Gothic heroine, pretty and with a strong personality. 

There is a scene where Miranda talks to the high society ladies during the ball at Dragonwyck. They all come from ancient Dutch families and cannot understand that Miranda is only "Welles", not Van Der Welles, and that she comes from, gasp, Connecticut! What shame! It is enough to make women more experienced than Miranda powerless. These ladies, like vipers, just wait for the time to strike and spread their venom down unassuming victims of lesser breeding and inferior bloodlines. Yet, Miranda is better than that. She brusquely, but still nicely, tells them off. Tierney is great in the scene. You understand that she is afraid, but how she musters the strength to speak her own mind and never out-step the boundaries of proper behavior is pure bravado. Score one for Miss Welles.  



On the other hand, Vincent Price makes a stunning Nicholas Van Ryn, and creates an elegant, dashing Gothic hero. There is darkness in him, but he's so suave and soft-spoken you can't resist him. His voice, like honey, flows through the massive, empty halls of Dragonwyck. He genuinely loves Miranda, and when he is good to her, he is fantastic. Who can not like Price in this movie? He is truly yummy. While Price was never a typically handsome man, this role suits his looks like a glove - tall, lean, stately, straight as a pole - he is so otherworldly and affable beyond words.

However, he is one bad man. The great "twist" of the movie is that he murdered his first wife so he can marry Miranda, and then tries to bunk her off too. Also, he is a Patroon, a modern version (for the 19th century) of a feudal lord who has complete control over his patch of land. Farmers who farm the land must answer to him and can't own the land. There is social struggle for the right of the farmers, and since Europe abolished such practices, it's only a matter of years before they abolish it in the US. Of course, Van Ryn is NOT at all happy with the fact that he will have to relinquish his birthright (as he sees it). This only takes a small fragment of the movie, but it shows how staunch and unmovable Van Ryn is, completely out of sync with the times he lives in. This is no 16th century, and he is not the original Dutch settler who came here from Amsterdam with the promise of riches and wealth.

it's pretty clear that Van Ryn is a social Darwinist, a perfect pupil of the ruthless teachings of Ayn Rand. His ancestors booked him the right to be master of the lands - and he intends to keep that right. It's the farmer's own fault their fathers couldn't measure up to his fathers. It's a dog eat dog mentality, twisted and deceitful. But, whatever one can say about the character of van Ryn, all he does he does it with flair - he is the ultimate bitter pill sugar coated in caramel. 
 
Glenn Langan, a typical pretty-boy actor with little talent, makes less of an impression but was decent enough as the second male lead, Dr. Turner. He's bland, handsome, cares a great deal for the farmers and does his job as a doctor admirably. He's almost too good to be true. He falls quickly for Miranda and waits for her to break out of Van Ryn's spell so they can finally be together. He's the proverbial boy-next-door, but with some added pizzazz - he is more physical and mentally active and a bit more vigorous overall. The role doesn't ask too much, and Langan makes it work. 

I have to say that this setting of three characters is perfect for a movie of this kind. We have a guileless, naive but strong heroine, a handsome, elegant but sinister antagonist, and a every-day, bland but sturdy love interest. They rub of each other perfectly and form a shapeless triangle.

For Miranda, Nicholas is the dream world she should neither aspire nor try to live in, and Jeff is the solid, normal world that she should go for.
For Nicholas, Miranda is the answer to all his Machiavellian aspirations, and Jeff is the ugly reality he chooses to discard.
For Jeff, Nicholas is the social injustice he must fight against in general, and Miranda is the woman who he must fight for in particular.


And all of them are written very well, and all of them are attractive in their own way. You understand and condone many things they do - Miranda being star-struck my material wealth, Nicholas falling into a drug-induced depression, Jeff falling for an innocent-corrupted like Miranda, who has neither the disposition nor the will to belong to his hard-knocks world. 

The movie also gives great importance to the supernatural - the curse of Nicholas' grandmother that haunts the Van Ryn bloodline. Only the Van Ryns can hear the ghost playing the grandmother's harpsichord. This is used to great effect in several truly chilling scenes. Is it real, or not? Are they all just crazy? The movie gives you no answers.  

The book, however, takes a slightly different approach. Gone are the likable heroes and villains. Welcome to the shades of grey. 

First Miranda. 

Miranda is hardly sympathetic in the book, but she is so human it's almost painful. She is vain, conceited, shallow and sometimes almost idiotic and too naive. Unlike the movie Miranda, she is neither brave nor spirited nor opinionated. Her beauty is more or less her only call-to-fame. 

But, somehow you understand her - she comes from puritan stock, lived in a sterile, black and white world - and when she does escape that mundane existence, instead of finding a middle road, she ends up on the other side of the spectrum - in vast wealth that simply eats her alive. Both worlds ask the same suffocating stipulations from her. They are different incarnations of purgatory, one made of gold the other from soil, neither which gives Miranda to grow and develop as a woman.

In the first she is governed by strict religious rules that are more form than substance, in the second by the smothering society/propriety rules, enforced by her own husband. And yet, much of what comes to Miranda is of her own making. She is no innocent victim - she wanted it, she knew what she was getting into - the problem was she didn't UNDERSTAND what she was getting into. She is hardly ignorant of the things that go on around her - but she is a master of self-deceit, incapable to any serious contemplation, let alone of any self-reflection. 

Nichlas van Ryn is the tour de force of this book, the character you will remember over everybody else. In the book, he is one nasty piece of work. The movie makes him much softer: he is a handsome, charming man who goes off the rails when things don't go his way. He is egocentric, spoiled, brainwashed by an ideal of his illustrious bloodline. He is not that bad in himself - he was just smashed by a world outside his own perfect sanctuary, a world he is unable to bend to his will. Tragic but hardy foreign to literature lovers. He is neither the first nor the last character to live and die by his own fallacies. 

In the book, however, he is, pure and simple, a sociopath. He is literary "poison in breeches" - seductive as hell on the outside, but absolutely reptilian and ice blooded underneath the surface. Think of Viconte de Valmont from Dangerous Liaisons - who deflowers a virgin just for the fun of it - and strip him of the little guile he has.

Dragonwyck the novel, if nothing else, is a good description of a systematic enslaving of a young, innocent (if a bit moronic) girl by a seasoned, well heeled sociopath. Van Ryn, a spider in all but his physical form, weaves a web so elaborate, so extravagant, not unlike some precious lacework or endless maze of beautifully painted corridors, that Miranda truly has no chance to escape once she falls into it. Anybody who brags about how they don't understand women who stay in abusive relationships should read this book. It's not only possible, but it's chillingly realistic and understandable when you see it from a slightly different angle. 

Nobody goes into an abusive relationship on purpose (unless you are a masochist, but that is a topic for an another discussion). They quite literary fall into it, unwittingly, and it's so hard to crawl back from the bottomless pit of deception. This is what the book is all about - you can forget the time period it is set in, all the political insinuations, all the marginal characters and sub plots.

This is it. 

Miranda lives with a sociopath whose moods change like the wind and whose mind she knows absolutely nothing about. Van Ryn is a closed book, a never ending enigma that governs every minute of her day. She wants to please him more than anything - but there is no pleasing a sociopath, for he is like a vengeful golden idol of a long forgotten ancient deity - delusive, deeply vindictive and utterly outside her capacity of understanding.

This is why Van Ryn chose Miranda as his next wife - because she is exactly the meek, trifling girl he can mold according to his own desires, completely forgoing her as a person. She is an instrument to him, nothing more than a blindly devoted slave and uterus to carry his future sons. 

The movie hardy touches upon this - the movie Miranda is made out of stronger stuff and would have left her husband much earlier if he started to act like he does in the novel. Case in point: the movie ends not long after Van Ryn goes all nuts after his son's death and is killed by the angry mob. He was a wonderful husband to her before - kind, understanding, generous (his only blemish is the fact that he is an atheist and that he killed his first wife to be with her - but Miranda doesn't know this in the movie). Miranda conforts him head on as soon as he starts to alienate himself, and matches him repartee by repartee. Then he tires to kill her and is later killed. Miranda doesn't suffer much, and she goes on with her life right away. Period. 

In the book, Miranda suffers for years in her marriage. As an expert horticulturist, Van Ryn tends to her like she is an orchid in his hothouse, a Gothic place where the visceral and pungent mix with devilish heat and deadly moisture. In this surroundings, she "blossoms" and "flourishes" under the "gentle" care of his sadistic techniques. In other words, she is expertly asphyxiated by his vicious "solicitude". And she dies, little by little, year by year. It's chilling to read the book and slowly realize this. It's mental murder in bits, a long and tortuous process that gives great pleasure to the torturer but completely destroys the one tortured. Miranda may have survived the marriage, but the scars will remain with her forever.  

Dr. Turner is also different than from the book. Despite the fact that he is ultimately the hero, he's a headstrong, stubborn semi-chauvinist who starts to boss Miranda as soon as he sees her. While you cannot but admire his devotion to his profession and steady involvement with the anti-patroon movement, you get the feeling that he is doing it more for his own endless sense of adventure and a strong rebellious streak than for the people around him.

Perhaps I am wrong, but he is less the sainted doctor and more of a fleshed out human being, and I like his character much better in the novel. However, the movie needed a hero to be the counter balance to Van Ryn, so I understand why they did the whitewashing. That is Hollywood for you.   

Much ambiguity and shades of grey were lost in the transition from book to the movie, but you know what? In the end, I don't mind at all. I completely understand why Mankiewicz went down this road. It's a cleaner, safer version of the same story, more gripping and mysterious, much lighter and easier to film. It's not as profound as the book, but Gothic romances usually are not. For what Mankiewicz tried to accomplish, he did it brilliantly. This is truly a gem among 1940s melodramas, a testament to the time when Hollywood cared more about stories and characters than action and special effects.

Enjoy it!  

Published by Stela Zoric