How Gone with the Wind Influenced Game of Thrones

George R.R. Martin frequently mentions Gone with the Wind in interviews. We examine its overlooked influence on “A Song of Ice and Fire” a year after Game of Thrones’ finale.

Sansa Stark and Scarlett O'Hara in Game of Thrones and Gone with the Wind
Photo: Warner Bros. / HBO

How many children did Scarlett O’Hara have? That’s the question George R.R. Martin always raises when asked about the differences between his literary series, “A Song of Ice and Fire,” and HBO’s television adaptation, Game of Thrones. He mentioned it on his blog when defending the TV series surpassing the books’ narrative in 2015, and he repeated it more than once in 2019 when Game of Thrones ended, seemingly by revealing the final betrayals and tragedies Martin has planned for the novels.

So just how many children did Scarlett have?

For those who’ve never read the book or seen the movie version of Gone with the Wind, the answer is three in Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the following year, and one in the David O. Selznick movie adaptation from 1939. “I think they’re both true to the spirit of the work,” Martin told Rolling Stone in 2019. And yet, I and many other writers who spent years dissecting “A Song of Ice and Fire” tended to ignore how clearly important that spirit is to Martin, not to mention the Game of Thrones universe.

It’s easy to do. Despite being one of the most popular stories in American fiction—with Gone with the Wind selling more tickets than any film ever when adjusted for inflation—the movie is over 80 years old and is subject to a thoroughly complicated legacy. Plus, like everyone else, the focus for Westeros-minded journalists was always about what would happen next in Martin’s story, not so much how he got there. But it’s been one year since Game of Thrones ended, and now that we have a little perspective on the series and its legacy, I’m starting to wonder if we should’ve been thinking about Scarlett and her beloved Tara all along.

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The legacy of Gone with the Wind—which recently came back to the pop culture forefront thanks to Netflix’s Hollywood—can be as easily attributed to when it was written as when it’s set. Technically a tale of Southern belles and doomed cavaliers during the Civil War and Reconstruction period that followed, it was also Mitchell’s pure flight of Southern revisionist fancy that filled a void for many (white) American readers during the seventh year of the Great Depression.

At a time of great want, here was a story about a protagonist who is nothing if not insatiable in fulfilling her wants, consequences be damned. As Scarlett O’Hara famously decries after seeing the ruins of her cherished childhood home, the Tara plantation, “As God is my witness, they are not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this. And when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again!” It was revolutionary to readers and moviegoers to have a heroine who could be so vain and capricious, yet still have greater grit than any of the men in her world. And unfortunately, it’s still remarkable today for the “hero” of a major piece of pop culture to be an exceedingly flawed woman, one whose sins become almost a virtue.

Of course the world Mitchell builds around this anti-heroine is dishonest: a lie about the innocence of the Antebellum South. With its apologetic and happy-go-lucky depiction of slavery as a simpler, better time for wealthy white Southerners and the black Americans they kept in bondage, Gone with the Wind is far removed from the actual horrors of its world. And while Selznick’s movie attempts to slightly decrease that inherent racism, it also plays up its mythological aspect. With an air of Arthurian fable, the movie’s opening text reads, “Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered.”

But that dream, and its emphasis on a heroine so flawed she becomes unstoppable, lives on in the less controversial modern fiction it influences, including Game of Thrones. For like the well-documented influences of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, or actual atrocities and triumphs in medieval history, Mitchell’s daydream of a lost world, and the life-destroying want that came after, pours over “A Song of Ice and Fire” and the HBO TV series it spawned.

The most obvious comparison between the texts is how much of Scarlett O’Hara is sprinkled across multiple heroines and anti-heroines who’ve made steel out of their trials by fire, chiefly Sansa Stark. Introduced as a “silly girl” in her sister Arya’s eyes, Sansa was dismissed by some readers and many viewers as the boring half of the Stark sisters. Whereas Arya initially exemplified a popular archetype in the 21st century, particularly in fantasy fiction, of the tomboy who will go on gender norm-defying adventures, Sansa appeared to be a prisoner of her courtesies and naïve love for patriarchal songs about “Knights and their Ladies Fair.” Worse, she enjoys those illusions and the spoiled privilege they bring, leading her to make selfish choices that hurt those around her.

Like Scarlett, who is introduced at age 16 as wallowing in her effect on the young men in the county, and instantly annoyed by boring talk of “war, war, war,” Sansa is oblivious in the first book to the political machinations conspiring around her. But then she was raised that way. As with Scarlett’s conceit before her, Sansa believes her ultimate life’s goal is to marry well, and she has set her eyes on the wrong man in Prince Joffrey. By the end of that first volume, the man she desires has destroyed her life by beheading her father and escalating a years-long war that will take everything. While Scarlett’s obsession with neighbor Ashley Wilkes is not as directly self-destructive, the war which comes, and that Ashley welcomes, still takes everything from her. And like Sansa, Scarlett takes much of it back, sometimes by bloody deed.

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In the most recently published ASOIAF book, Sansa is still a long way from her ancestral home Winterfell (Tara), a place she gleefully left to be closer to the man she shouldn’t have pursued in Joffrey (Ashley). But now knowing her mother and brother were killed by their enemies in the war, and with reports of Winterfell being put to the torch, Sansa dreams of a family home that will never be the same. Of course Winterfell is not totally destroyed, and if Game of Thrones’ final seasons are any indication of her future, she’ll see those walls again.

In revealing contrast, when Scarlett returned home to Tara after surviving the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind, her mother was dead and her father had become enfeebled with grief—soon to follow his wife to the grave. But Scarlett’s tenacity made her an unlikely thing: a savvy business woman who through unscrupulous means rebuilt the O’Hara name to its former glory. She didn’t have a free labor force in the cotton fields anymore (thank God), but she had the ability to manipulate men around her and the chance to build a new lumber mill that kept her family from starvation.

Similarly, an older Sansa on Game of Thrones is seen to be morally flexible in a way that’d make her father and eldest brother wince, but they’re dead. So she’ll successfully manipulate Littlefinger to bring an army North to save Jon Snow, and thereby reclaim Winterfell, and she’ll position Jon against Danaerys by telling Tyrion Lannister of Jon’s true parentage. If her younger sister doesn’t like this type of sneakiness, then as Scarlett might say about her own disapproving sisters, “Fiddle dee dee.” By the end of the series, Sansa through ignoble means is Queen in the North, just as Scarlett, along with Rhett Butler, remain the only wealthy characters from the beginning of Gone with the Wind to fully retain their status in Reconstruction.

But there are many other parallels throughout Game of Thrones. You can find shadows of Mitchell’s Rhett Butler, especially as inhabited by Clark Gable, in Game of Thrones’ Jaime Lannister, who like Rhett is introduced as having no honor due to a disgrace to his family some years back. He then spends the rest of an epic saga chasing a woman who doesn’t love him. He knows the romance is one-sided, but he feels duty-bound to her all the same, to the point of self-destruction. You can also see Rhett’s proud roguish decree that he’s no gentleman in Sandor Clegane’s pride of being no knight; both have only contempt for the hypocrisies of the landed gentry around them.

Still, what Martin seems to be most intrigued in transplanting to Westeros is Scarlett’s sense of loss and perseverance. It’s almost overbearing on the page when Arya and Sansa process the deaths of first their father and then their mother and brothers, and that type of agony is what transforms Scarlett from pampered belle to hardened survivor.

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“If Gone with the Wind has a theme, it is that of survival,” Mitchell said in 1936. “What makes some people come through catastrophes and others, apparently just as able, strong, and brave, go under? It happens in every upheaval. Some people survive; others don’t. What qualities are in those who fight their way through triumphantly and lacking in those who go under?”

As much as studying the way power is used and abused, particularly in an often romanticized feudal society, that exploration of survival psychology permeates Martin’s work. Like Mitchell, he crafts a lavish epic with hundreds of characters and the backdrop of war and ruin. And perhaps more in line with Selznick’s movie, he surpassed initial expectations of his medium by offering layered and unsympathetic portraits of the archetypes who are usually two-dimensional. Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett was certainly no wilting flower defined by her romances, even as she marries three times (Sansa’s engaged thrice), and the characters who should be Martin’s traditional fantasy heroes—Ned, Robb, and finally Daenerys—turn out to be anything but in Game of Thrones.

Indeed, if we take the final seasons of Game of Thrones as an outline of Martin’s ending, then it becomes clear that most of all, Daenerys is also descended from Scarlett. Unlike that Southern belle, Dany is born into survival—literally coming into this world at sea following the collapse of her father’s dynasty, hence the name nickname “Stormborn”—but like the interior psychology of Scarlett’s post-war success, those lifelong scars linger.

There’s a mutual gnawing sense of lost entitlement to both characters. While Mitchell frames the loss of the Antebellum South as the fall of a civilization, Daenerys stews over missing out on her crowning birthright—it’s gone with the wind before she was even born. And like the daughters of the Confederacy, particularly in those early generations such as Mitchell, that sense of a “Lost Cause” becomes romanticized to the point of delusion: they would argue slavery wasn’t evil; it built a civilization of Knights and Their Ladies Fair. And the Mad King wasn’t a tyrant; he was wrongfully deposed by treasonous usurpers who would not bend the knee.

Dany struggles with the actual history of her ancestors, and in the final pages of A Dance with Dragons, when she laments to herself about the unruly city of Meereen, she concludes, “Dragons do not plant.” That ends on a note of probable doom for Meereen, while the fate of King’s Landing beneath Dany’s dragonfire was a definite catastrophe in the Game of Thrones finale. She’d spent her whole life chasing the wrong dream of the Iron Throne, and in the end it destroyed her ability to find happiness.

“You’re throwing away happiness with both hands,” Rhett famously says of Scarlett in Gone with the Wind. He refers to how even though she’s restored Tara and has a daughter with Rhett, she still secretly pines for Ashley Wilkes, the man who got away before the Civil War. She doesn’t really love Ashley; she loves the idea of him—and that she might’ve had him if life went differently. Dany also loves the idea of King’s Landing and the Iron Throne, which she articulates through fiery Scarlett-like speeches about fire and blood. The characters’ dreams of what should have been theirs before war took it away lead to self-destruction. Scarlett ruins her marriage to Rhett, even though she loved him, and Dany ruins King’s Landing, even though it surrendered.

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Of course these are just echoes, ghosts and parallels that exist between the narratives. But as with his love of Tolkien and history, Martin seems to have taken a popular American epic and filtered it through a fantasy strainer. Just as there are hints of Elizabeth I in Sansa’s arc, or Richard III in Tyrion Lannister’s, Scarlett and the collapse of her idyllic childhood appear to be one more element in Martin’s sweeping collage. A collage that was able to capture national and global attention by whisking viewers past problematic elements into vistas of triumph and tragedy on the grandest scale.

In another interview Martin gave in 2015, the author considered Gone with the Wind’s legacy from a different vantage: that of licensed sequels written after his death (think a more lucrative version of fan fiction).

“One thing that history has shown us is that eventually these literary rights pass to grandchildren or collateral descendants, or people who didn’t actually know the writer and don’t care about his wishes, it’s just a cash cow to them,” Martin told The Sydney Morning Herald. “Then we get abominations to my mind like Scarlett, the Gone with the Wind sequel.” A fear of seeing someone play in his sandbox like that authorized (and embarrassing) 1991 novel obviously haunts Martin. And yet, like the original Mitchell book he so admires, I wouldn’t be surprised if folks are still trying to rewrite Dany’s unhappy ending 50 years from now.