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Slide over Jane, the Bronte Gang is coming to town

May 14, 2010

Michael Fassbender: the new Mr. Rochester?

The town in question being Hollywood, of course. After two decades of worrying poor Jane Austen like a dog with a rag doll, the movie business is set to rediscover the Bronte sisters.

As USA Today reports, productions are gearing up for new versions of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, both scheduled for release next year.  Also in the works: a biopic of the three writing Bronte sibs (Emily, Charlotte and baby sis, Anne, who wrote Agnes Grey and died at 29 of tuburculosis).

Of course, the Brontes never quite went away, as we’ll see in a moment, but first a brief tribute to the film career of Jane Austen (who probably isn’t really retiring, either).

For many years now, Hollywood has been absolutely obsessed with the work of Jane Austen, adapting it more or less faithfully (the much-loved 1995 British miniseries Pride & Prejudice starring Colin Firth as a memorable Mr. Darcy and the much paler 2005 theatrical version with Keira Knightly as an utterly forgettable Elizabeth Bennet).

There have also been some fanciful translations, beginning with Clueless, Amy Heckerling’s charming 1995 update of Emma in Beverly Hills. Becoming Jane (2007), drawn not from a novel but from Austen’s letters, stars Anne Hathaway as the author herself and is much admired in some quarters.

Indeed, many decent adaptations can be found.

Two lesser-knowns are my favorites, and

Plain enough to be Jane? Mia Wasikowska

I recommend them highly: the excellent 1995 Persuasian, starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds, which strikes me as authentic in its tense restraint; and 1999’s Mansfield Park, in which writer-director Patricia Rozema nimbly combines Austen’s novel with bits of Austen’s bio to create an altogether new work. Frances O’Connor plays a feisty Fanny Price, too.

But don’t take my word for it: Here’s the estimable Roger Ebert on Persuasion and Mansfield Park. And for Janeites for whom Bronte fare will not suffice, take heart: Aisha, a Bollywood version of Emma set in modern-day Dehli, is schedule for Indian release in August, while From Prada to Nada, “a loose adaptation of Sense and Sensibility” set in modern Latino L.A., according to the Jane Austen Society of North America, started filming last November.

So goodbye, Jane: How can we miss you if you never go away?

While the Brontes have not enjoyed an Austenian vogue of late, they never fell completely out of fashion either.

Most critics still revere the 1939 Wuthering Heights, directed by William Wyler with a luminous Merle Oberon as Cathy. But I find it intolerably melodramatic, and isn’t Lawrence Olivier’s Heathcliff both hammy and prissy? The innumerable additional versions include turns by Ralph Fiennes and Juliet Binoche (1992), Timothy Dalton and Anna Calder-Marshall (1970), Angela Scoular and Ian McShane (1967), and, proving my point that Emily has always been with us, Tom Hardy and Charlotte Riley (2009).

Andrea Arnold, wisely searching for young lesser-knowns for her new the new Heights, has cast Kaya Scoladario as Cathy. Heathcliff has not yet been announced.

Versions of Jane Eyre are likewise beyond counting. The classic is the 1944, with Orson Welles as Rochester and the divine Joan Fontaine as Jane, but also notable: Franco Zefferelli’s 1996 version, with William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourgh; a 1983 take with Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton (who knew James Bond got around so much?); a 1973 version with George C. Scott and Susannah York; and most recently a 2006 TV miniseries with Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens.

Director Cary Fukunaga has cast Australian actress Mia Wasikowski (Alice in Wonderfuland) as Jane and Michael Fassbinder (Inglourious Basterds) as Rochester. I can’t help but object to most of the lovely actresses who have ever played Jane — she’s supposed to be “plain,” after all.

Before leaving the subject, I must mention Jean Rhys’ brilliant, beautiful novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, which tells the story of the mad first wife in the attic and makes of Rochester something close to a villain. A sexy and powerful film version, starring Karina Lombard as a gorgeous and wounded Antoinette Cosway and Nathanial Parker as a ruthless and entitled Rochester, came out in 1993. I recommend it highly.

Let the debate begin: Can the Bronte’s supplant dear Jane in the hearts of moviegoers? And does anyone agree with me when I say Wide Sargasso Sea is better than Jane Eyre?

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Sean permalink
    May 14, 2010 1:26 pm

    I second your plaudits of ‘Wide Sargasso Sea.’ It’s a beautiful film, and strange in a way I found very absorbing. I haven’t read any Jean Rhys or the Brontes. But I love Monty Python’s semafore version of ‘Wuthering Heights’ !

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    May 14, 2010 2:22 pm

    I didn’t want to scare off any potential readers by saying that Wide Sargasso Sea also brilliantly dramatizes issues of colonialism and exploitation. Oooh: Those nasty Brits!

  3. rachel permalink
    May 14, 2010 2:56 pm

    I really like “Wide Sargasso Sea.” And in fact, I read it for a Post-Colonial Literature course in college. But I have to admit that I haven’t read “Jane Eyre.”

    I’ve read “Wuthering Heights” but that’s about it. I think it’s good that Hollywood might leave Jane Austen alone for a little bit and attack, I mean use the Bronte sisters for a bit. But I don’t think that they can ever replace Jane Austen, or even be equal. There’s a quality to Jane Austen that I think the Bronte sisters just don’t have.

    Also, I’m sure that there are good movie adaptations of Austen’s novels, but again: the books are better.

  4. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    May 14, 2010 7:35 pm

    As the nice folks at the Jane Austen Association of North America say, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that the book is always better than the movie, but what fun we have watching those movies! ”

    And I completely agree with you that Austen is a superior writer to the Brontes — all three of them combined. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth reading. Especially Wuthering Heights.

    Oh, and did you ever wonder what the hell “wuthering” means? I looked it up: It’s an archaic British dialect word, derived from the Scottish “withering,” that means “to blow fiercely.” So: “Windy Heights.”

  5. Candice Simmons permalink
    May 17, 2010 1:21 pm

    I like Wuthering Heights (and knew what wuthering meant), but it can’t compare to Jane Austen. And that’s all I got to say about that.

  6. May 22, 2010 7:45 am

    I do think however, that Wuthering and Jane Eyre are overdone. They need to explore Anne – Agnes Grey would make a great movie. Another literary road the movies could go down is to explore the novels of 20th century writers Mary Stewart, Rumer Godden and Norah Lofts. And remakes of Daphne Dumaurier would be fantastic as well! We need to shake it up a bit.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 22, 2010 11:00 am

      Yes, I agree it would be great if Hollywood branched out to take in more variety of literary sources, but I think all this talk of the Bronte sisters means they believe a large market exists for Georgian, Regency and Victorian costume dramas, especially with romance. So that’s what we’re going to get, ike it or not.

    • linny permalink
      February 6, 2011 4:52 pm

      I agree that Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre have been overdone, but unlike the latter, the former has never been a success. Try and try as they might, WH is too unfilmable…that’s the magic of the novel.

  7. May 22, 2010 7:50 am

    P.S. – I assumed wuthering meant to blow fiercely, but thank you for looking it up!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 22, 2010 11:00 am

      I live but to serve. You’re welcome.

  8. July 16, 2010 6:49 am

    Nice posts topics are good

  9. Rosie permalink
    July 20, 2010 1:37 pm

    and the much paler 2005 theatrical version with Keira Knightly as an utterly forgettable Elizabeth Bennet)

    Exaggerate much? She was so forgettable that she earned an Oscar nod for her performance.

    Most critics still revere the 1939 Wuthering Heights, directed by William Wyler with a luminous Merle Oberon as Cathy. But I find it intolerably melodramatic, and isn’t Lawrence Olivier’s Heathcliff both hammy and prissy.

    No. And I thank Wyler for that. And the 1939 version was not “intolerably” melodramatic to me. No more than the other versions. But then “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” is a melodramatic story.

  10. Rosie permalink
    July 20, 2010 1:38 pm

    Yes, I agree it would be great if Hollywood branched out to take in more variety of literary sources, but I think all this talk of the Bronte sisters means they believe a large market exists for Georgian, Regency and Victorian costume dramas, especially with romance.

    It is the British film and television industry that seemed to fixated with Austen and Bronte a lot more than Hollywood.

  11. linny permalink
    February 4, 2011 8:45 pm

    I am currently reading Wide Sargasso Sea… shocking to say the least, as it tells the other side of the story. Rochester a villain? Charlotte Bronte racist? Surely not…hmmm…more typical of the time I think. Bronte would have heard stories of the West Indies, and like most of us, fuelled by certain propoganda drives of today, probably fell into the trap of stereotyping. Rochester believed what he wanted to believe of “Bertha” in order to escape a loveless marriage and a place he hated. A villain? Yes, to a degree, in order to survive a harsh and destructive environment…he exploited the weakness of a woman who wasn’t actually “mad” but was driven mad by her circumstances and need for love and attention. Bertha (or Antoinette…the fact that he changed her name, depersonalises HER and does little to warm us to HIM) should be pitied, but Bronte can be forgiven for that I think..if she was alive today, and had the chance to rewrite Jane Eyre, I think she would paint a much more sympathetic picture of the “mad woman” in the attic, with the benefit of insight and that the fact that someone who is abused in the way that Bertha was, it would be perfectly reasonable to expect repurcussions. Imperialist Britain had a lot to answer for.

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