Edgy Brontës

This autumn new adaptations of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights will hit cinemas. After our long infatuation with Jane Austen, Matthew Sweet asks whether the Brontës’ time has come again
August 24, 2011
Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre: Cary Fukunaga’s new film attempts to capture some of the unignorable harshness of the novel

Cary Fukunaga. Sounds pretty hardcore, doesn’t he? If you’ve seen his name on a credit roll, it was probably attached to his first feature: Sin Nombre, the story of a teenager on the run from the Mara Salvatrucha, a Mexican gang with pistols in their waistbands, tattoos across their faces and heroin in their bloodstreams. So what’s Cary’s next movie? A toughnut melodrama of the favelas? A bloody exposure of organised crime in Honduras? Nope, it’s Jane Eyre. In the tea-rooms of Haworth, they must be chewing the gingham in disbelief.

Fukunaga, however, is not the only film director with an edgy, arty reputation to have just grabbed a Brontë sister with both hands. Andrea Arnold, whose Fish Tank followed the sharks and small fry of an Essex council estate, is about to release an adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Drawing on those lines in the novel that describe its anti-hero as “dark-skinned gypsy in aspect and a little lascar,” she has cast an unknown black British actor as Heathcliff.

That can only be a good thing. The two most successful period pieces on TV are Cranford—adapted from the stories of Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Brontë’s biographer—and Downton Abbey—Julian Fellowes’s pastiche of older, better sources. Both are for viewers who like their Sunday-night drama untroubled by awkward ideas like multiculturalism. They are the cultural equivalent of moving to Winchester and spending a lot of time in the bath.

Some 19th-century authors will submit to this kind of treatment. It’s perfectly possible to film a Dickens novel without prompting an audience to examine the social injustices of the present day. (Crank up the fog machine and the viewers simply congratulate themselves for living in more enlightened times.) It’s more difficult, though, to turn the work of the Brontës into comfort food. Despite the aggressively cute nature of the Brontë industry—all those branded ginger biscuits, “what would Jane Eyre do?” thongs, Lowood Institution baseball shirts and “Team Brontë” clocks—the sisters’ fiction has an unignorable harshness, an emotional brutality, a searing sadomasochistic streak. There’s a reason why Kate Bush never had a number one hit about Barnaby Rudge (though I’d have loved to see her bring the Gordon Riots to life in the Top of the Pops studio).

With the exception of Shirley—the one by Charlotte that nobody reads—the Brontës’ body of work is more concerned with passionate individuals than the broader society in which they move. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights decline to produce the kind of social panoramas upon which Eliot, Dickens or Gaskell drew their work. Instead, the Brontës’ books are rough, dangerous, individualistic, ungovernable—and the family that yielded them shared some of those qualities. The patriarch of Haworth Parsonage, Patrick Brontë, was suspected of drinking on the job. (He insisted that his eye lotion smelt of alcohol.) His son, Branwell, is thought to have had an affair with a married woman, subsequently boozing himself into debt and oblivion. Emily was a sucker for bulldogs. So is Lauren in The Only Way is Essex. The Brontës were a problem family who filled their fiction with problem families. Imagine the edition of The Jeremy Kyle Show that could be made with the feuding factions of Wuthering Heights.

Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre is not sufficiently radical to scare too many of those who like literary adaptations for their predictability. Its Mr Rochester (Michael Fassbender) is, as usual, much younger and prettier than the figure described in the book; the role of his house is, as ever, played by Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, which fulfilled the same role in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jane Eyre and the recent BBC version. But the film has a stern, cold quality. It is as preoccupied with silence as it is with passion. This is the only adaptation of the novel in which the unblinking religious fundamentalist St John Rivers (a glaciated Jamie Bell) has a presence to rival that of Rochester. Fukunaga, however, still can’t quite muster the severity and force of the original.

In the boom-time filmmakers turned to the bourgeois certitudes of Jane Austen. If the Brontës are to be our literary companions during the downturn, then there’s scope for more extreme and tumultuous versions of their fiction. If that’s the case, perhaps Mexico might be the place to look for inspiration. In 1954, a political exile from the Franco regime went up to the high chaparral to shoot a melodrama called Abismos de Pasión. The movie concludes with the hero tearing the lid from his dead lover’s coffin, whereupon the vision of his lost beloved manifests on the mausoleum stairs. In the blink of an eye she vanishes, resolving into the form of the hero’s rival—who executes him in a blaze of gunfire. The script was adapted from Wuthering Heights. The director was Luis Buñuel. Now he’s hardcore.