Victorian love saga still pulls in the crowds

A film version of ‘Wuthering Heights’ has cast a striking new light on Emily Brontë’s classic novel. Such adaptations are more popular than ever. What explains their enduring appeal?

The latest movie adaptation of Wuthering Heights is an exercise in brooding melancholy. Sweeping views of windswept moors, battered by relentless wind and rain, are the setting for an explosive romance. Madness, heartbreak and frustrated passion perfectly illustrate the film’s assertion that ‘love is a force of nature’.

Written in 1847 by Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights tells the story of Heathcliff and Catherine, deeply in love but forced by circumstance and their own weakness to live apart. No stranger to the big screen, it has inspired nearly 20 films, several operas, a ballet, and a popular song.

Meanwhile, Emily’s sister Charlotte Brontë, has inspired even more spin-offs with her novel Jane Eyre – and a film version hit cinemas just weeks before Wuthering Heights.

Along with Jane Austen, whose work has so far inspired more than 35 film and TV adaptions, the Brontë sisters seem to prove that modern audiences never tire of watching women in corsets pursuing love, with varying success, in the delicate hierarchies of the 19th Century.

Though each of these stories are different, they are all shaped by worlds radically different to the modern age. For Brontë heroines, marriage is essential, not a matter of choice, and much of their suffering comes from the period’s rigid social structures of class and gender.

In the books, such a society is often the subject of biting observation. Heathcliff and Catherine, for example, are deeply flawed characters, torn apart largely by their own weakness. Austen’s work, too, is celebrated for the depth of character development and the strong, witty heroines.

In modern adaptations, many feel this complexity is lost to idealised romance, whether grand, gothic passions or the ideal man summed up by Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy and the famous wet shirt scene. With the tide of adaptations showing no sign of fading, it seems that the appeal of 19th Century love affairs looks set to be a popular favourite for some time to come.

Fairytale or truth?

Some critics believe that by losing ourselves in dramatic, often heartbreaking courtships we indulge in escapism to a world of romance that has nothing to do with the mundane reality of life. The world of floor-length dresses and society dances holds such appeal because it seems to represent a fairy tale more perfect than we can ever hope to experience.

Quite the opposite, others say. Such romances are still appealing because their stories and characters are universal and we experience many of the same stormy emotions today. From their need to achieve success to their inability to express their deepest emotions, these 19th Century heroines have stories we can closely relate to nearly 200 years later.

You Decide

  1. Why are we still attracted to stories from times very different to our own?
  2. Do we read books to escape from our own lives, or to see our own lives reflected back at us?

Activities

  1. Research one novel by Austen or one of the Brontë sisters, and its adaptations. What variety of interpretations has the book attracted?
  2. Write your own short story inspired by Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre.

Some People Say...

“Why would I want to read about people from hundreds of years ago?”

What do you think?

Q & A

How has the director made the new Wuthering Heights film unique?
Andrea Arnold, famous for gritty films about people on the margins of modern society, directed the film. She uses minimal dialogue, with harsher, more modern language, and focuses on brutal shots of nature to communicate the character’s suffering. Perhaps most strikingly, she has chosen a mixed-race actor to play Heathcliff. Although the book is not specific about the character’s race, Arnold uses it to explain his outsider status, which is such a strong factor in the book’s plot.
What about the recent Jane Eyre adaptation?
It is a more traditional interpretation of the story. More unusual adaptations of the book have included a zombie film loosely based on the book, and a graphic novel.

Word Watch

Emily Brontë
Born in 1818, Emily Brontë wrote only one novel, Wuthering Heights, before her death in 1848. She published under the pen name Ellis Bell, while her sister Charlotte wrote as Currer Bell, and Anne wrote as Acton Bell.
Jane Austen
British novelist, who lived between 1775 and 1817. Austen is one of the best loved writers in the English language, with works including Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility.
Popular song
Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush. A major hit on its release in 1978, the song was inspired by the novel. Singer Kate Bush, who used several quotes from the book, had allegedly only watched a film version when writing the song.
Mr Darcy
The hero of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, played by Colin Firth in a 1995 TV adaptation. The image of Firth in a wet shirt became synonymous with Darcy’s character, and one of the most memorable moments in British television.

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