Slide over Jane, the Bronte Gang is coming to town
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
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?