SCARLETT: The Sequel to Margaret Mitchell's GONE WITH THE WIND by Alexandra Ripley became a huge bestseller in the fall of 1991, and remained on the PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY bestsellers' list for thirty-one weeks, even with mostly unfavorable reviews from both critics and regular middle-America readers. How and why SCARLETT became such a huge success in the publishing industry despite many different complexities and obstacles is very unique. Perhaps the most peculiar reason that SCARLETT became a bestseller is because the novel seemed doomed from the very beginning. GONE WITH THE WIND being her only novel, Margaret Mitchell strongly opposed there ever being a sequel to her blockbuster hit, stating in her will that there should never be a sequel written to GONE WITH THE WIND by anyone after her death (TIME - October 7, 1991). Fifty years later, however, Mitchell's heirs did not have their great-aunts wishes in mind when they realized what an excellent money-making opportunity would come with a sequel, closure really, to the what has been called the greatest love story of all time. The only problem was finding a qualified author who was willing to go out on a limb and risk their reputation by probably enduring harsh criticism for writing the sequel. That is why Alexandra Ripley seemed like a perfect choice for the difficult task. Little known, but very hard-working, Ripley herself was a true Southern Belle with a knack for detail and research, and practically no reputation to ruin; the only place Ripley could go was up (LIFE - May 1988). Thus began the complicated and surprising journey of our trip back to Margaret Mitchell's South. The critics hated SCARLETT, but the public had mixed opinions. One fact is certain though. No matter how much a sequel to GWTW might have been doomed, anyone who ever visited Tara or grew to know Scarlett and her family, would never be able to resist another trip back into the epic story if given the chance. That is how SCARLETT: The Sequel to Margaret Mitchell's GONE WITH THE WIND became a bestseller.
Even though Margaret Mitchell herself never wanted a sequel of any sort to be written to her 1939 epic bestseller GONE WITH THE WIND, when time was running for the opportunity of a sequel to be written, Mitchell's heirs decided to honor their own greed rather than her wishes. The idea being, that even the most devoted of Mitchell / GONE WITH THE WIND followers would break down and read anything that included Rhett and Scarlett as characters. Not surprisingly, the Mitchell heirs had come up with a multi-million dollar franchise that produced just the results expected. The Mitchell heirs had found a way to continue to maximize the profits from their aunt's only novel: a sequel. It was no secret that almost anyone who wrote the sequel would ultimately be criticized to death for accepting the job of recreating Mitchell's Antebellum South and unforgettable characters, so at least Mitchell's estate tried to find the most qualified, most true-to-Mitchell author they could find. The search for the sequel's author was almost as extensive as the famous search for the GONE WITH THE WIND film version's Scarlett (Washington Post - September 25, 1991).
Alexandra Ripley was finally chosen to be the author to challenge and endure harsh criticisms in order to produce a viable sequel to Margaret Mitchell's GONE WITH THE WIND. Although many peopled vied for the job, no one was working out very well. Fortunately, as it turned out Ripley and Margaret Mitchell's estate shared the same agency, the William Morris Agency in New York City. When Mitchell's heirs authorized a sequel to be written in 1983, Ripley's agent, Robert Gottlieb, mentioned Ripley as a perfect candidate for the job of author. He was very confident in Ripley's ability to write the challenging sequel because of her Southern background, her hard work ethic and great researching skills, and her extensive experience with historical romances (LIFE - May 1988). Gottlieb set up a meeting between Ripley and Mitchell's heirs in Atlanta, and the team completely hit it off (Current Biography Yearbook 1992).
Ripley, being a native Charlestonian, born and bred in the heart of the South, was an excellent choice. Ripley had already written a few novels, including best selling historical romance novels, CHARLESTON and ON LEAVING CHARLESTON. She had proven herself as an excellent researcher and narrator of the South, very necessary qualities in whoever would tackle the GONE WITH THE WIND sequel. Ripley handled the gigantic task well from the beginning, researching excessively and rereading GONE WITH THE WIND six times, studying Mitchell's characters and her writing style as best as she could. It seemed to Ripley that to some extent, Mitchell had left a door open for a sequel to be written, even if Mitchell didn't really ever want one written (The Washington Post).
Ripley took this opportunity to develop what would later be hailed as the very worst aspect of a widely acclaimed horrible book. Ripley decided to have Scarlett leave her comfort zone of Georgia, to venture out in search of her ancestors in Ireland, quite a strange turn from what many believe Mitchell would have done had she been around to write the novel. Ripley fiercely defended her decision though. Having researched extensively, Ripley couldn't find anything exciting going on in the South during this time period. In stead of writing about a boring place, Ripley began looking at other options and came across a reference in a book about "peasants in Ireland, burning barns and cutting cows' throats." Ripley then decided to go back to the GONE WITH THE WIND text where she found several references to Scarlett's Irish ancestors and Scarlett's general tie to her "Southern-Irishness", which led Ripley to believe that Mitchell might have sent Scarlett to Ireland eventually herself (The Washington Post).
Despite the subtle details Mitchell might have left about Scarlett and her Irish ancestry, there is no denying that the voyage Scarlett takes to Ireland in Ripley's sequel seems quite out of place for Scarlett. She was always one for a big adventure, but never to an unknown place without definite friendly neighbors, beaus, and good food and service to pamper her with. Not to mention the fact that besides just being weird for most GONE WITH THE WIND fans, the parts in Ireland are drastically less entertaining than reading about Scarlett O'Hara in Atlanta, Savannah, Tara, or even Charleston. The whole reason GONE WITH THE WIND became such a huge book is not all because of Rhett and Scarlett, but also because of the time and place that their love story occurred. There is something very romantic and intriguing about the Old South, and if those elements are taken away, then the story line definitely suffers.
The most entertaining, and widely hailed as the best part of the novel was the beginning portion where Scarlett actually chases her lost love all around the South, landing finally in Rhett's hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. Just like Mitchell's Scarlett, Ripley's new, more sensitive and independent Scarlett still knows how to get the men, working every feminine charm she has to get just one more night with the dreamy Rhett. Ripley actually does a very fine job with the transition from GONE WITH THE WIND to SCARLETT, picking up exactly where Mitchell left off. The continuing saga of Scarlett O'Hara is totally believable at first, and remains a delightful little trip into Mitchell's Scarlett Land until Scarlett and Rhett get ship wrecked.
Most critics had a problem with this point in the novel too, stating that the ship wrecked love scene was way too super market romance-like, and not at all like what Mitchell would have ever done (National Review - March 16, 1992). There was only one big passion scene between Rhett and Scarlett in the sequel, and it is terribly cheesy, not at all passionate and gripping like the love scenes between Rhett and Scarlett in GONE WITH THE WIND. If the passionate scenes are taken out and replaced with a sensitive, kind, and likable Scarlett who doesn't seem to possess that fiery passion anymore, and the background of the beautiful Old South is replaced with a poverty stricken, war-torn Ireland, readers are obviously going to lack enthusiasm for the story. Eventually it becomes blatantly clear that there are some drastic changes from Mitchell's novel, and that is very difficult to deal with being a huge fan of the original story. The biggest change that critics noted however, was that the title character, Mitchell's heroine, Scarlett, was not at all the same character and that really made the sequel of her story hard to believe.
One critic wrote that the most disappointing aspect of Ripley's novel was that "unfortunately as the novel progresses, it's title character - one of the most willful brats in the history of fiction - matures into a kinder and duller person" (Maclean's - October 21, 1991). Another critic was much crueler in her criticism of the book, and especially the character of Scarlett. Janet Maslin wrote extensively on the differences between Mitchell's Scarlett and Ripley's Scarlett, comparing Mitchell's Scarlett to strong modern day women like Madonna or Becky Sharp, while Ripley's Scarlett is more like "Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman" star Jane Seymour. "Scarlett O'Hara isn't here. This book's heroine may have green eyes and a small waist and a habit of exclaiming "Fiddle-dee-dee," but she is no one Mitchell's readers will recognize. Ripley has devised a kinder, gentler, body-snatched Scarlett" (The New York Times - September 27, 1991). This same reviewer had equally horrible comments about Ripley's Rhett and Ashley, stating that Ripley turns the "swashbuckling Rhett Butler into a mama's boy, and the once dignified Ashley Wilkes is now 'emitting the cry of a soul in torment, filled with loneliness and fear'" (The New York Times).
These are the differences from Mitchell that Ripley displayed in her writing techniques that caused so many critics to go crazy with disgust for the novel. Ultimately, many people were very excited about being able to continue looking into the lives of Rhett and Scarlett, but they all wanted it from Mitchell's eyes. That was Ripley's biggest flaw: she is not Margaret Mitchell, and therefore could not write the sequel exactly as Mitchell would have done. Although this is not at all Ripley's fault, the critics destroyed her just the same. The tragedy of the experience is that if not for Ripley, there might not have ever been a sequel written, and a bad sequel is almost better than none at all because at least people can spend more time with the characters if they want to. Ripley did the absolute best that she could have. Her writing style might not be as grand as Mitchell's but Ripley certainly did above and beyond the call as far as research and work for the novel go. Besides Ripley's shortcomings, though, the novel did become a bestseller, and many different aspects contributed to that.
One huge reason the novel became a bestseller despite less than favorable reviews is because people couldn't help themselves from reading it. The story of Rhett and Scarlett is just too much fun to resist, no matter who the storyteller is or how weird and non-enjoyable the story. Even die-hard Margaret Mitchell fans who felt bad about there being a sequel against her wishes were somewhat excited about another chapter in the lives of America's most exciting couple. The publicity and speculation surrounding SCARLETT was huge. Everyone had something to say about the novel. Many people loved to hate SCARLETT, but nobody could resist spending their time and money reading and discussing the long-awaited sequel. The novel was actually somewhat scandalous, in true Scarlett O'Hara fashion.
Just like Scarlett herself, SCARLETT: The Sequel to Margaret Mitchell's GONE WITH THE WIND was showered with an enormous amount of attention and publicity. SCARLETT was promoted on radio and television, and advertisements were posted in almost all of the major magazines. SCARLETT made television and radio news at dawn on the day it was released it was so popular. Alexandra Ripley made numerous publicity appearances on morning news and talk shows, and toured all over the country going to bookstores and signing copies of her book once it was released. The hoopla surrounding this book was ridiculous. Everybody was anticipating the release, even if many people were against the sequel, or had already predetermined that it was going to stink, they were still anxious and excited to see exactly what the sequel to the grand story of Scarlett O' Hara was all about (Publisher's Weekly - September 1991).
Before the release date, the novel was promoted by huge campaigns all over the globe. Almost every country in the world jumped on the SCARLETT bandwagon and bookstores everywhere eagerly signed up to sell thousands of copies. Many stores even opened their doors at midnight on September 25, 1991 so that people could buy the book at the very exact time that it was to be released. Just to name a few major cities that went all out, Paris and London had some of the most extensive and impressive release parties in the world (Publisher's Weekly - October 1991).
Paris publisher Pierre Belfond paid a whooping $1,000,001 for the French rights to the novel, and held a September 24 evening launch in his bookstore complete with all the Southern fixins including barbecue spare ribs, fried chicken and brownies. Belfond even had copies of the book on hand so that he could hand them right out as soon as the clock struck midnight. In London, one bookstore opened at midnight to sell copies, and had Scarlett and Rhett look-a-likes on hand to entertain the shoppers. The next morning the hired look-a-likes were sent out to present review copies of the novel to morning news radio and talk shows. That night, Londoners even celebrated the highly anticipated release with a Scarlett Ball at the elegant Osberton Hall in Nottinghamshire (Publisher's Weekly - October 1991). With all of this publicity all over the world, SCARLETT: The Sequel to Margaret Mitchell's GONE WITH THE WIND was sure to become at least a big selling novel.
There was just too much hoopla surrounding the sequel to the biggest blockbuster novel hit of all time to keep SCARLETT from becoming any thing less than a bestseller. There was scandal because the original author never wanted a sequel written, interest because the characters were some of the most famous literary characters of all time, and tons of time and money spent on publicity to promote the novel. Even though many critics and fans were disappointed in the sequel, everybody was curious about the novel, and that caused sells to skyrocket and launched SCARLETT onto the Publisher's Weekly bestsellers' list for thirty-one weeks. What does SCARLETT say about bestsellers in general? Well, it obviously says that the actual quality and brilliance of the author and story don't necessarily have to have anything to do with a novel becoming a bestseller. Sometimes it's all in the publicity campaign and in this case the interest of the public. Not to mention that if not for Margaret Mitchell herself, and the brilliant novel that she wrote more than fifty years ago, none of the success of SCARLETT would have ever been possible.
Works Cited for assignment #5:
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Copyright 1991 The Washington Post.