With the final season of Poldark airing on PBS this fall (starting in TWO WEEKS!), I decided to go for it this summer and finally read the book series that inspired it all and see how the two compared. I’m happy to report that I was not disappointed!
Written by Winston Graham, the Poldark Saga begins with Ross Poldark, as the titular character returns from the American Revolution to Cornwall only to find that his father has died, leaving their home in disrepair, and Elizabeth, the woman he loves, is engaged to his cousin Francis, leaving him no choice but to start again. The series follows Ross through his personal and professional highs and lows over the years, as well as those around him, both highborn and low.
Now, before I get too far into this, I should clarify: I’ve only currently read the Poldark books up to the end of the television series’ timeline (Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark, Warleggan, The Black Moon, The Four Swans, The Angry Tide).
It is my understanding that starting with the eighth book, The Stranger From the Sea, Graham jumps forward in time a bit to focus on the adventures of Ross’s children. So, anything from the eighth book forward is beyond my knowledge.
The television series stays pretty true to the events in the book, so I didn’t have to worry about thinking “that’s not how I remember it” too often, which is always a plus. What’s even better is that in the books, the time constraints of television no longer apply, so those events are explored more thoroughly, adding depth to the characters, both major and minor, as well as providing more context.
What I appreciated most about the books was that they allowed me to get inside the characters’ heads so I could understand their ways of thinking more precisely. Elizabeth, for example, is typically a more buttoned-up character, so it was really helpful to actually see some of the events from her POV to understand her behavior. Sam Carne definitely benefited from having his POV represented in the later books; he’s one who can come across as a bit of a buzzkill, but once I saw his thought process, I had a lot more respect for him. I also better understand the Hugh Armitage storyline having read a certain character’s thoughts regarding him in The Four Swans, but I can’t be more specific about that without spoilers.
There are some differences in how the characters come across on the page vs. the screen. I think Ross, though still likeable in the books, comes across as more sensitive and sympathetic in the show, especially in regard to a certain spoiler-ridden event in book four, Warleggan. It’s also easier to forget Demelza’s underlying insecurities on the screen, likely because we see her come into her own in just a few episodes, whereas it takes the entire first book before she marries Ross (this isn’t really a spoiler, trust me), and most of the second sees her struggling to navigate the class differences between them. The timing makes it seem like a faster and easier transition; in the books, it’s clearer how hard-won every bit of her refinement and confidence is. Why that confidence so quickly disappears in the London episodes of season four makes so much more sense to me now that I’ve read the books.
George Warleggan is portrayed as the antagonist pretty much from the start of the show, but I was surprised to find that he really isn’t a strong presence coming after Ross at all in the first book, and only gradually slides into that role in the rest of the series. He also has parents who are still fairly involved in his life, while on the show we only ever hear about his unscrupulous Uncle Cary. Also interesting to me, though it doesn’t have bearing on the plot, his grandfather, the blacksmith, is also still alive in the books, and apparently the family does their best to keep him out of the public eye. I may have missed it, but I don’t recall him being referenced as alive on the show.
Possibly the most humorous character differences to me are the differences between the books’ description of characters vs. how they appear in the series. I realize the right actor might not always have the exact look of a character, and I don’t actually care that much if their appearance isn’t important to plot, but I do find it funny that in this case hardly a single character (except maybe Ross) seems to line up, and it’s hard to forget as Graham has certain details, like George’s “thick-neck” or Caroline’s height, that he likes to remind readers of regularly.
If you love the show, you should definitely read the books. They’ll open up a whole other layer of it for you to enjoy. If you haven’t given either a chance yet, but you do enjoy historical fiction or costume dramas, you should check them out! You can find the show through Amazon Prime or PBS Passport. I recommend watching and reading in tandem, season one with book one and two, season two with book three and four, and so on. The television series helps illustrate some of the historical details that readers might not be as familiar with, plus it has the great visuals of the Cornish countryside, and the books take you deeper into the story, allowing you to become more familiar with the minor characters and occurrences.
But catch up fast, because the final season starts on PBS on September 29th!