First published on June 30, 1936, Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With the Wind won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and became an instant bestseller worldwide. When David O. Selznick bought the film rights from Margaret Mitchell on July 30, 1936, he faced the daunting task of condensing the 1,037–page novel into a film of manageable size: the studio calculated that filming the entire book would result in a film about 168 hours long. In addition, they had to make drastic cuts without damaging what Selznick called the “chemicals,” or essential elements, of the novel. Selznick feared that even filling in some of the novel’s holes—such as the absence of scenes portraying Rhett’s smuggling activities—would damage the film’s popularity in the eyes of the public. Though large chunks of the film ended up being cut, Selznick felt that the individual scenes should be left intact, sensing that audiences would understand the need for omissions but would consider any distortion or addition to their beloved story a betrayal.
To perform this immense task, Selznick hired Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist and film writer Sidney Howard to write the script. After receiving a barrage of suggestions from Selznick, Howard sent back a first draft that was four hundred pages long, equivalent to about six hours of film. In an attempt to pare the story down, Selznick and Howard then sat through several intense editing sessions. Many of the characters who had less impact on the narrative were cut, a list that included any of the O’Haras not living at Tara and all of Scarlett’s children by her first two husbands. Seeing Scarlett’s string of marriages as important to her character development, Howard fought to keep Frank Kennedy in the film despite Selznick’s recommendations. Selznick had Bonnie Blue restored to the script in order to keep her tear-jerking scenes in the film. While he doubted he would be able to film it, Selznick also asked Howard to write a “night of love” for Scarlett and Rhett. Despite the editing sessions, the film still ran over their desired length of three hours, and the script was shelved.
After Clark Gable was cast as Rhett, Selznick could no longer hold off finishing the script. He hired Jo Swerling, a noted script “fixer,” when Howard refused to return to Hollywood. Swerling’s work did not satisfy Selznick, and he called in a group of writers to try their hand at reshaping Howard’s work so it would better fit Selznick’s vision. One of these writers was the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose contribution to the script was largely judged by what he removed: several dramatic speeches were replaced by simpler and more direct lines taken straight from the novel. After Fitzgerald came Ben Hecht, who worked to simplify and tighten the now haphazard script and focus more attention on Rhett’s and Scarlett’s relationship. Selznick contributed to the chaos by making almost daily changes to the script, and the cast did not receive a final version of the script until after the film was completed. Despite all of these different voices, the essential “chemicals” remained, helping Gone With the Wind go on to become one of the biggest box-office successes of all time.