Remember the Hallmark Hall of Fame movies? I used to watch those with my parents all the time, and I don’t know about anyone else, but my favorites next to Harvest of Fire was the Sarah, Plain and Tall trilogy. Based on Patricia MacLachlan’s novels of the same name, they are prime examples of how to present books that don’t seem to be screen-worthy. While there were only three movies made, there were five novels in all, and each one is marked with very gentle, beautiful language that’s just full enough without a lot of flowers weighing things down.
For those who aren’t familiar with the first story, the plot is simply this: Widower Jacob Witting places an advertisement for a wife in a newspaper, and to his Kansas farm comes Sarah Wheaton of Maine, who brings music and fun to he and his two children, Caleb and Anna. She teaches them how to swim and makes stew and bread with them, and in no time at all they become a family. Still, Caleb worries that Sarah misses Maine too much and won’t be content on the farm.
In the second book, entitled Skylark, a terrible drought forces Jacob to send Sarah, Caleb, and Anna to Maine to stay with Sarah’s three maiden aunts. While Caleb and Anna enjoy the sea and the aunts, they worry that they’ll never be able to get home again or that Sarah won’t want to go back to Kansas.
The third book is called Caleb’s Story and concerns the return of Jacob’s long-lost father, John Witting to the Witting farm. He hasn’t been heard from for years, no one knows where he’s been or why he left, and Jacob is understandably angry and resentful of his dad for deserting he and his mother when he was a boy. Caleb seems to be the only one who can get along with John and may just have a hand in thawing everyone out. He’s ably assisted by his little sister, Cassie, who was born after the Wittings got back from Maine.
Author Patricia MacLachlan was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming on March 3, 1938, and when she was five she and her parents moved to Minnesota, then later to Connecticut, where her dad was an English professor at the University of Connecticut. MacLachlan graduated from the university with a degree in education and married her college sweetheart, Robert MacLachlan, who was a clinical psychologist.
According to her biography on Publisher’s Weekly, MacLachlan was always encouraged to read extensively and to make up characters and use her imagination, which she began doing at a very young age. However, she hesitated to become a writer because the idea was intimidating, and taught school from 1963 until 1979. Her first picture book, The Sick Day was published in 1979 and was one of sixty books MacLachlan would author.
Sarah, Plain and Tall was published in 1985 and inspiration for the series came from a number of sources. It was set in the Midwest, where MacLachlan had lived as a child, and the impetus for the plot came from MacLachlan’s own family history, in which an aunt came out from Maine to marry her widowed uncle, who lived in Kansas. When her aunt and her mother’s health began to fail, MacLachlan wrote the book for them. Plenty of others caught the spirit of Sarah as well–the book garnered both a Newbury Award and a Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction and is now a staple of libraries and schools.
There were whispers of the novel in earlier works, which, when read in Sarah might be what we would now call Easter eggs. The first version of Sarah was a subplot in MacLachlan’s earlier novel, Arthur, For the Very First Time, in which an aunt had come into the family via mail order. Sarah’s maiden aunts call themselves the “Unclaimed Treasures,” which was the title of a novel MacLachlan publised in 1984.
When it came to Hallmark adapting the film for their Hall of Fame series, a couple of problems presented themselves. First, how to stretch a fifty-eight page novel into a TV film, and secondly, giving a five-foot-five Glenn Close a few extra inches? The average height of women in the late ninteenth and early twentieth century was roughly five-foot-four, so lifts were put into her shoes to make Close a little more commanding.
The former took a little more doing; MacLachlan’s gentle story dealt with grief very effectively, but most of it is unspoken and unshown. In the film, we see the Witting family still very much grieving for Catherine, their departed wife and mother, with Jacob putting all of his wife’s things away after she passes. This traumatizes Anna, who has nightmares and is scared of forgetting what her mother looked like.
Sarah tries to talk to Jacob about it, but when he storms out for a walk, she pulls out Catherine’s photo, as well as the quilt she made and her favorite painting of a red-winged blackbird. Jacob doesn’t argue, but he still has quite an internal struggle to get through before he and Sarah are able to really be together.
As for Skylark, it’s fun to see Sarah go back to her roots and show Anna and Caleb where she grew up, plus the Unclaimed Treasures are wonderful ladies who play piano and flute and go skinny-dipping. It’s tough going to get the family to Maine, though, because everyone’s stressed about the drought in Kansas and Sarah finally has a huge meltdown. Jacob practically has to put her on the train to get her to leave.
Winter’s End, which was adapted from Caleb’s Story, is my son’s favorite (He says it’s the meatiest of the three). The film shows the family in the thick of the First World War and the 1918 influenza epidemic. Anna is a nurse and engaged to the local doctor’s son, Sarah, Jacob, and Caleb are thriving on the farm, along with Cassie. Then, just as in the book, Caleb and Cassie discover John Witting out in the barn and the family is curious to know where he’s been. There’s some especially great acting in this movie, as John is played by Jack Palance and his scenes with Christopher Walken are as intense as a Hallmark movie can be.
One of the nice things about all three films is that they’re very personal to both the books and MacLachlan herself. She was closely involved with all three, writing and, in the case of Winter’s End, producing. Caleb seems to be a favorite character; like MacLachlan, he carried a little prairie dirt with him wherever he went, and he seems to be the catalyst for moving the story forward, maybe because he’s very easy to relate to and has the most room to grow as a character.
I could say more about the Sarah, Plain and Tall series, whether the books or the films, but they deserve to be discovered. A visit or several with the Witting family is like a warm blanket and a hot cup of soup–cozy, comforting, and real.
The Charismatic Christopher Plummer Blogathon is coming up on Saturday. Thanks for reading, all…
Sarah, Plain and Tall (DVD), Skylark (DVD), Winter’s End (DVD), and the complete set (DVD) are available to own from Amazon.
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2 thoughts on “Page To Screen: The Sarah, Plain and Tall Trilogy”
Informative and effective review, rebecca! While I love my crazy and generally inappropriate films, I do have a soft spot for classic Hallmark material. To dance with white dog, for example. However, I’ve never seen Sarah plain and tall but your review makes me think I should give it a chance.
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That’s great, John–hope you enjoy it. 🙂