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.
Author Avatar: Justine is based on Colleen McCullough herself who also had a difficult relationship with her mother and whose brother drowned when young.
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.
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.
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.
Daddy's Girl: Paddy and Meggie, in that Paddy seems more protective of Meggie than the rest of his children.
Dawson Casting: Rachel Ward was in her mid-20's when cast as the teenaged Meggie. Justified in that she continued to play Meggie even as the character aged. Additionally, in The Missing Years, a 17-year old Olivia Burnette is cast as the pre-teen Justine. Ironically, her petite stature initially does her make her look much younger that she is, but her, er, development gives away the fact that she's older.
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.
Evil Matriarch: While you sometimes feel sorry for Mary Carson, you can't deny that she's a conniving bitch of the first order.
Fake Nationality: All over the place. The only Australian-born actor in a major role is Bryan Brown, who played Luke. Meanwhile, Americans and Brits play characters from Australia (Justine and Dane), Ireland (Ralph, Paddy, Mary), and New Zealand (Fee and most of the Cleary children), while Canadian Christopher Plummer plays an Italian cardinal.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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, 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. Justified in that she had to play Meggie over the course of many years.
Preacher's Kid: Dane, in that he acts very angelic, but he is unaware of his true parentage.
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.
Riches To Rags: Fee who was disowned by her wealthy and powerful New Zealand family after being pregnant out of wedlock.
Romance on the Set: Rachel Ward (Meggie) and Bryan Brown (Luke) fell in love while working on the show (ironic, as they were playing people trapped in a loveless marriage). They have been married nearly 30 years and have three children. Meanwhile, Richard Chamberlain met his partner while on set, an actor playing a priest who like Ralph, broke his vow of chastity.
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.
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.