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Literature: The Thorn Birds
Ralph: "There's a story... a legend, about a bird that sings just once in its life. From the moment it leaves its nest, it searches for a thorn tree... and never rests until it's found one. And then it sings... more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth. And singing, it impales itself on the longest, sharpest thorn. But, as it dies, it rises above its own agony, to outsing the lark and the nightingale. The thorn bird pays its life for just one song, but the whole world stills to listen, and God in his heaven smiles."
Meggie: "What does it mean, Father?"
Ralph: "That the best... is bought only at the cost of great pain."

Not just a successful book in its own right (published in 1977) but also adapted in 1983 into the second highest-rated American mini-series ever, Colleen McCullough's The Thorn Birds branches over 50 years of the 20th century and focuses on the Cleary family, their home — a fictional sheep station called Drogheda — and the forbidden love between the daughter of the family, Meggie, and Ralph de Bricassart, an ambitious Catholic priest.

Has been described as the Australian Gone with the Wind, and with good reason. Not to be confused with the Korean drama of the same name.

Just starting on a character page.


  • Adaptation Distillation: The mini-series makes several minor adjustments concerning ages and the general time line of the book, as well as other alterations; probably the biggest changes are Jim and Patsy being left out altogether and Frank dying in prison. The series was a great success, so obviously they got it right...apart from the 19-year gap. See below.
  • Ambition Is Evil: Ralph befriends wealthy widow Mary Carson even though he dislikes her in the hopes that her wealth and influence can help him get back into the church's good graces and eventually advance his career. When she dies, she does make a huge donation on his behalf and even though by now he's fallen in love with Meggie Cleary, the prospect of advancement is too tempting for him and he leaves her—and continues to leave her in order to continue rising in the ranks of the church. By the end of the book, he admits that deep down, he always knew that he was the father of Meggie's son Dane, but taunts himself by referring to himself as "Cardinal deBricassart", because he is also forced to admit that advancing his career was more important to him than being with the woman he loved and building a life with her.
  • Author Avatar: Justine is based on Colleen McCullough herself who also had a difficult relationship with her mother and whose brother drowned when young.
  • Aww, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: Fee unfortunately realizes too late that she does love Paddy shortly after Paddy's death because she was too busy mourning for her old love
  • Babies Make Everything Better: Meggie assumes this when trying to become pregnant by Luke—she's wrong. She also assumes this after getting pregnant by Ralph, content to have his son if she can't have him.
  • Bad Ass Grandma: Fee's grandmother who refused to let the rest of the family disown Fee when Fee got pregnant as a teenager. When she was dying she arranged for Fee to marry Paddy because she realized the family would throw Fee out once she passed on.
  • Big Fancy House: The Drogheda mansion.
  • Black Sheep: Poor Frank.
  • Break the Cutie: Fee and Meggie, repeatedly.
  • California Doubling: Literally. While set in Australia, the miniseries was filmed in. . .California, though the Matlock Island scenes were shot in Hawaii.
  • Celibate Hero: Ralph is like this, until, well, he isn't so celibate.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Stuart, Meggie's brother who is closest to her in age. He lives in his own world, seldom speaks and takes whatever abuse or tragedy life offers him stoically. Shortly before he is gored to death by a boar he realizes that he never made any plans for himself because he somehow knew he was fated to die young.
  • The Charmer: Luke
  • Compressed Adaptation: The TV producers skipped over 19 years, leaving out Justine's and Dane's childhoods entirely. CBS sought to remedy this error with The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years.
  • Cunning Linguist: Ralph and Dane are both multilingual, though we don't get to see either of them use their skills much, making this also an Informed Ability on both their parts.
  • Daddy's Girl: Paddy and Meggie, in that Paddy seems more protective of Meggie than the rest of his children.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Justine, usually at her mother's expense.
  • Death by Adaptation: Frank dies in the movie, but not in the book.
  • Defiled Forever: Fee's family seemed to regard her as this, as her illegitimate child made her ineligible for marriage to any man of equal social standing.
  • Determined Homesteader's Children: Meggie and her brothers can be considered examples.
  • Disappeared Dad: Frank's real father. All that is revealed about him is that he is a well known, part Maori New Zealand politician. Luke to Justine and (technically) Dane, as well, once Meggie left him.
  • Don't Tell Mama: Meggie's oldest brother Frank runs away from home when she's a girl, after having a fight with Paddy in which it's revealed that Frank isn't his. Years later, Fee happens to find a newspaper in which an article announces his conviction for a terrible crime. Frank's only comment to the press was "Don't tell my mother."
  • Emotionless Girl: According to Paddy, since their marriage began Fee has not complained or cried or even laughed, and though he and their children all love her, she only shows obvious affection for Frank - the son of the man who seduced and abandoned her, hereby explaining her demeanor. She gets warmer later on, ironically because of her husband and sons dying.
  • The Epic
  • Everything's Better With Sheep: The Clearys are sheep farmers.
  • Evil Matriarch: While you sometimes feel sorry for Mary Carson, you can't deny that she's a conniving bitch of the first order.
  • Fallen Princess: Fee.
  • Fiery Redhead: Paddy. Also Justine, at least in the book.
  • Forbidden Fruit: Ralph and Meggie, to each other.
  • Generation Xerox: Meggie is determined never to play favorites with her children, yet she blatantly favors Dane just as her mother did Frank. She also loses her favorite child, just as Fee did.
  • Grand Staircase Entrance: How the mini-series presents Meggie's entry into Mary Carson's birthday party. Ralph certainly takes notice.
  • Genius Cripple: Anne Mueller has a disability, and she is remarkably well-read.
  • Heroes Want Redheads: Ralph and Meggie, Rain and Justine
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Luke and his cane-cutting mate, Arnie. To the point where Meggie sarcastically states that Luke should have married Arnie instead of her, since he clearly prefers Arnie's company to hers. Keep in mind, this is someone completely ignorant that homosexuality even exists.
  • Hollywood Fire: A massive one destroys some of the Drogheda property, and kills Paddy; his son Stuart finds the body, only to be killed moments later by a wild boar.
  • Hot for Preacher:
  • If I Can't Have You: For all that Ralph encourages Meggie to forget him and marry someone else, he gets pretty peeved when she actually goes and does it, and Fee has to call him out on his hypocrisy. Twice.
  • Interquel: The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years, which unfortunately, was almost completely inconsistent with both the original miniseries as well as the book in terms of both characterization and plotline.
  • I Am Not Your Father: Basically yelled by Paddy during a fight with Frank.
  • Irish Priest: Ralph
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Mary Carson is a wretched person, but she picks up on Ralph's feelings for Meggie almost instantly, calls him out on the impropriety of them, and scoffs at his protestations of "I'm a priest", reminding him, "You're a man first." Her assessments may be motivated only out of jealousy, but they're still correct.
  • Land Down Under
  • Loving a Shadow: Paddy and Fee. Ralph and Meggie also, to the point where Meggie marries Luke because of his resemblance to Ralph. After the marriage falls apart, she refuses to divorce him and move on with anyone else, having resigned herself to loving a man she knows she can never be with.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Mary Carson, so incensed when Ralph rebuffs her and so jealous of his feelings for Meggie that she seeks to control his destiny from beyond the grave and prevent them from ever having a chance to be together—she wills her fortune to Ralph, thus improving his stance with the church, knowing full well that the prospect of advancing his career will outweigh his desire to be with Meggie.
  • Marital Rape License: Meggie's boorish husband Luke forces himself on her on their wedding night because "it's time." All the more horrific for Meggie in that she is ignorant of the facts of life.
  • Massive Numbered Siblings: There are a total of nine children in the Cleary family, and Fee and Ralph are implied to have come from large families themselves.
  • May-December Romance: Ralph is eighteen years older than Meggie. To a lesser extent, Rainer and Justine. He is ten years older.
  • Men Are Better Than Women: Fee's attitude towards her children for much of the book. She dotes on her sons but barely acknowledges Meggie's existence. It has suggested that her own hard lot is why she had no enthusiasm about having a female child. She does come to respect and grow closer to Meggie in later life.
  • Miss Conception: Book Meggie is completely ignorant about where babies come from, believing, even in her mid-teens, that one "wishes for them and they grow". Fee, of course, never bothers to explain anything to her, leaving Meggie in for a very unpleasant wedding night (her husband being a lousy, selfish, and inconsiderate lover doesn't help much). In the movie, she knows, but is still unprepared for how painful the first time can be.
  • Mixed Race: Frank's dark eyes that had bewildered Ralph (seeing as the rest of the family is light-eyed) are explained when it is revealed that his real father is half Maori. Fee herself has a distant Maori ancestor.
  • Momma's Boy: Frank, and later Stuart.
  • Mouthy Kid: Justine
  • My Girl Back Home: Ralph seems to think of Meggie this way while he is at the Vatican.
  • Nephewism: Done with a twist. When Dane decides to enter the priesthood, Meggie agrees only as long as he can study with Father Ralph. Ralph's superior decides that, to throw off any suspicions from people who wonder at Ralph's obvious fondness for the younger man, they will tell people that Dane is his nephew.
  • Nay-Theist: Meggie had shades of this especially when Dane dies.
  • No Periods, Period: Averted. Poor Ralph has to explain to Meggie what's actually happening when she starts menstruating, since her mother hasn't bothered to tell her anything at all and Meggie thinks she's dying from a tumor.
    • And yet not averted: the characters exist in a No Periods, Period culture, as made clear by the very fact that Meggie doesn't know what her menstruation is: and when she finally manages to tell Ralph, he is in an agony of embarrassment at the very mention of it (the women who tell him their sexual fantasies as fact in the confessional graphically describe every aspect of human sexuality they can imagine ... except that they menstruate).
  • Non Indicative Name: "The Missing Years", referring to the roughly 15-20 years skipped over by the original series, only covers approximately one year of that time, if even that much.
  • Nuns Are Spooky: In the book, Meggie has some horrible experiences at parochial school because of sadistic nuns.
  • Oedipus Complex: Fee and Frank, to a downright disturbing level. Reversed with Meggie and Dane—though she actually wants to her son get married and have children, rather than keeping him to herself (though she still sees his decision to become a priest as an attack on her). Ralph and Meggie can be seen as a gender swapped version as well.
  • Parental Favoritism: Justine knows all too well that Dane is the favorite. In the book, she's gotten over it (Meggie doesn't neglect her nearly as much as she does in the movie), while in the movie she resents her mother for it, although not Dane.
    • Similarly, Meggie and the rest of the boys know that Fee favors Frank more than the rest of them, as well, but Meggie resents Fee, not Frank for this.
      • It is also implied that Meggie is Paddy's favorite.
  • Pedophile Priest: Subverted with Ralph, who is implied to have feelings for Meggie from the moment they meet, when he's 28 and she's 10, but nothing happens between them until she grows up. Even then, she's still quite young.
  • Pink Means Feminine: Meggie wears a greyish pink ("ashes of roses") dress at Mary Carson's birthday party. Ralph associates Meggie with this color forever after.
  • Playing Gertrude: Rachel Ward is only a few years older than the actress and actor portraying her children, but this is justified in that she's been playing the role since Meggie was a teenager.
  • Preacher's Kid: Dane, in that he acts very angelic, but he is unaware of his true parentage.
  • Precision F-Strike: "The old bitch."
  • Rags to Riches: The Cleary family does this; they go from living a very meager existence on New Zealand to living on a fantastic country estate in Australia, even if they do spend the first few years living in the servants quarters.
    • Also to a lesser extent with Ralph, when Mary Carson leaves most of her estate to the Catholic Church and makes him the executor of her will. This sudden influx of wealth improves his standing with the church, and he commences a rise through the ranks which eventually leads to his being made a cardinal.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Ralph is in Australia for reasons he initially refuses to reveal, before finally admitting that he was insubordinate to a senior official.
  • Rich Bitch: Mary Carson again.
  • Riches to Rags: Fee who was disowned by her wealthy and powerful New Zealand family after being pregnant out of wedlock.
  • Scenery Porn: Mostly the Australian outback, but also Queensland and New Zealand.
  • Secretly Wealthy: Subverted with Mary Carson. People already knew she was rich, but she was much wealthier than anyone imagined.
  • Sex Comedy: Justine's first time. She starts laughing uncontrollably when she sees a reflection of her her partner's bouncing buttocks (whose hair tufts make her think of Dagwood). Her partner is less amused, however.
  • Sexy Priest: Ralph in a nutshell. Mary also wonders why so many priests are beautiful, and whether they choose the priesthood as an escape from the consequences of their appearances—or perhaps they like somehow taunting women with the fact that such an attractive man is unavailable to them. All this while she's admiring a half naked Ralph in the rain, of course.
  • She Is All Grown Up: Ralph has this reaction to Meggie when she walks into Mary Carson's birthday party.
  • Sibling Rivalry: Averted; Justine doesn't resent Dane for being their mother's favorite, they love each other dearly and he's the only person she lets herself be close to for a long time.
    • Also averted with Frank and Meggie; despite the fact that he is their mother's favorite child, and she seems for many years to be her least favorite, Meggie adores Frank and vice versa. In fact, Frank seems to be genuinely fond of all his younger siblings, with Meggie being his favorite. No mean feat, considering that he despises their father.
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: Meggie comments at one time about how different Justine and Dane are, and yet they get along so wonderfully.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Ralph and Meggie, Fee and Pakeha, Justine and Rainer. Though in Justine and Rainer's case, it's not so much circumstances as it is Justine herself—she pushes him away because she feels undeserving of love, fears ruining the relationship, feels responsible for Dane's death (irrationally thinking had she not been with Rainer, she could have prevented Dane's drowning) and should thus be punished by never finding happiness, etc.
  • Stern Nun: Sister Agnes, who is more sadistic than stern.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Stuart and Dane.
  • Vow of Celibacy: The illicit relationship between a Catholic priest and a younger woman is the main conflict.
  • Wife Husbandry: Ralph's known Meggie since she was ten and when they make love for the first time, he at last acknowledges he's molded and shaped her without intending to and that she's his creation. Ummm...yay? Also averted, since he didn't do it intentionally and he resists it for as long as possible, trying to think of Meggie as a child and not a woman.

Teen IdolRomance NovelThe Time Traveler's Wife
Teen Power Inc.Australian LiteratureThe Three Worlds Cycle
This Perfect DayLiterature of the 1970sTime and Again
The SilmarillionThe EpicA Song of Ice and Fire

alternative title(s): The Thorn Birds
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