Squawk Radio

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Lisa on "The Thorn Birds"

Dear Friends,

This is the question that separates the women from the girls--who among us remembers watching The Thorn Birds miniseries the first time it aired?

1983. I was only twelve years old . . . okay, eighteen years old . . . and it was the heyday of the television miniseries. The big, melodramatic, splashy, deliciously over the top spectacle, the EVENT that no one wanted to miss. And The Thorn Birds, starring Richard Chamberlain and Rachel Ward, was the mother of all miniseries. Very few book to film transitions have ever preserved the spirit of the original work so well, but I think this lavish production, even with the big eighties hair and big eighties TV acting, nailed the essence of a love story that infuriates, arouses, fascinates, and ultimately breaks your heart.

The book that engendered this series was published in 1978. It is a sprawling, visceral Australian saga by Colleen McCullough, who shows her characters no mercy as she reveals every aching detail of their humanness. Five decades of the Cleary family are portrayed as they work, suffer, survive, die, rut, fight and above all, love. But the engine and driving force of “The Thorn Birds” is a remarkable affair between Meggie Cleary and Father Ralph de Briccassart, the ambitious and handsome priest who loves her.

Although Meggie believes for a while that she is competing against God Himself for Ralph, she eventually comes to realize her romantic rival is Ralph’s ruthless ambition. Across the span of years they steal days, hours, moments with each other, compelled by helpless sexual need and star-crossed love. As they try to forget each other, Meggie marries Luke O’Neill, a stockman, while Ralph goes to Rome and becomes a Cardinal. But nothing can stop their affair from resuming, resulting in a shocking chain of events that leads to a powerful ending.

As a reader, I can’t help wondering, would Meggie and Ralph find happiness if they ended up together? It’s difficult to imagine this pair snuggling in domestic tranquility, enjoying the ordinary moments of life, any more than one can imagine Cathy and Heathcliff doing the same. These characters exist to yearn for something they know they can never have . . . and it is this intense desire, seemingly never to be fulfilled, that is the DNA of romance. Here are McCullough’s famous last lines of The Thorn Birds :

“The bird with the thorn in its breast, it follows an immutable law; it is driven by it knows not what to impale itself, and die singing. At the very instant the thorn enters there is no awareness in it of the dying to come; it simply sings and sings until there is not the life left to utter another note. But we, when we put the thorns in our breasts, we know. We understand. And still we do it. Still we do it.”

Colleen McCullough wrote well-known and wonderful novels before and after The Thorn Birds, but this will probably remain her definitive work. It is a book to be read in privacy, the words bleeding across the page as if they came not from the author’s head but from an open vein. In my opinion, McCullough never came close to writing anything so primal again . . . and she didn’t have to. The Thorn Birds, her blazing achievement, was more than enough.

Have you read The Thorn Birds or watched the miniseries? Loved or hated it? Has there been some other star-crossed love story that touched your heart even more?
Lisa Kleypas, 6:56 AM