Watched North and South (the 2004 BBC miniseries) with Mom today, and I quite enjoyed it :) I had watched the first half on Netflix out of boredom, but then it struck me that it was something mom might enjoy too. I'm about 1/4 way through the book as well and it's interesting to compare some of the differences... I'm looking forward to getting further in.
Anyway, the miniseries was very well directed and paced, although several things were obviously altered to make Margaret and Thornton's meeting more dramatic. The score was simple but catchy. And Richard Armitage is just ridiculously hot. Roaw. (And apparently he's playing a bad guy in the Captain America movie.) On a more technical note, it didn't have that visual weirdness that so much from the UK has, which is due to the frames-per-second standard or some such? Anyway, it's what makes most of what's on BBC America look like it was filmed ala a soap opera.
Obviously the original novel was written decades after Jane Austen's, but it's hard not to get a Austeny feel from this movie, at least from someone who is (pretty contentedly) ignorant of British history circa the 1800s. The obvious difference, of course, is that with Austen's books most of the observations and commentary are on the landed gentry, usually as some character or another tries to climb the social ladder or lift themselves or their family out of genteel poverty. In North and South the Hales are obviously in a downward slide in terms of the social status, and Mrs. Hale and Dixon both long for the old glory days, but while Mrs. Thornton is proud of her son's accomplishments and Fanny loves 'things', most of the characters aren't fixated on bettering themselves. The workers want to eat, and the masters, while obviously interested in making money, never seem especially eager to run off to London with that money and play at being a proper gentleman: they're tradesmen, and they're happy being tradesmen. But maybe the book with uncover some hidden layers in that regard.
The central plot, revolving around employers, employees, strikes and unions, is also especially relevant in light of all the union news going on in the US. It seems in some ways things have changed tremendously... and in others, not much at all. Again, I can't speak for the book, but the movie at least was pretty fair: like Margaret, you could appreciate both Higgins' and Thornton's side of things, and the story didn't end with a decisive victory for one side over another. In the end both men have to swallow their pride.
As far as the romance between Margaret and Thornton (although none of it was really properly romantic), it's hard not to see certain P&P parallels: the spurned first proposal (following a proposal from an altogether icky character), the conflict of personality, misunderstandings, meddling relatives and eventual reconciliation. Or maybe those are just things to be expected from the literature of the time!
... And did I mention Richard Armitage is hot? He's going to be in The Hobbit too. Not that I'm becoming his imdb-stalker or anything.