Genre elevates art when it contributes something useful to the narrative. When it only adds aesthetic interest for the viewer, it becomes pastiche and is rendered useless. The Brontës were masters of using genre to enhance their work while offering innovative changes to the English gothic novel. However, film adaptations of their novels, specifically of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, err towards traditional and conservative historical romance and moody gothics on screen. This does a disservice to the source material, and ultimately forfeits the original meanings of the novels in favor of recognizable tropes that an audience might better understand. Specifically, these film adaptations often neglect to include or completely represent the narratives’ motifs of childhood abuse, trauma and alienation. While these themes are less compatible with the desired cinematic understanding of the Brontës’ stories as sweeping gothic romances, they are ultimately integral to experiencing them fully.
Like their protagonists, the Brontë siblings’ childhood was plagued by death, loneliness, isolation and abusive or neglectful relationships with adults. The death of their mother Elizabeth Branwell from ovarian cancer when Charlotte was only 8, and Emily 4, was followed soon after by the death of their two Elder sisters, Maria and Elizabeth. This all took place when Charlotte, Elizabeth, Maria, and Emily were away at an impoverished, neglectful and abusive boarding school called Cowan Bridge. This experience would serve as a model for the early life of Jane Eyre, and her ‘angelic’ older sister Maria would be the inspiration for Jane’s only friend Helen Burns. The poor living conditions of the Cowan School was a likely cause for the outbreak of tuberculosis that killed the two girls, much like Helen Burns. Charlotte and Emily nursed a lifelong hatred of the school and others like it.
The surviving Brontë children never recovered from the loss of their mother and two older sisters. Once home again, their already-distant and cold father withdrew completely, taking every meal alone and rarely interacting with his four children. The Brontës withdrew into a shared fantasy of mighty kingdoms and characters like the Duke of Wellington (Charlotte’s favourite) and Napoleon Bonaparte (Branwell’s favourite). These fantasies, played out with Branwell’s toy soldiers, were extensive and all-consuming. They occupied the imaginations of the Brontë siblings into their adulthoods and until their deaths. In times of pain and loneliness, Charlotte would write to her brother with new adventures and poetry about the characters and stories they created. Indeed, many of these stories would become the basis for the Brontës’ eventual novels, including Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.
The Brontës’ treatment of children was innovative in literature. While Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre certainly emulated many elements of Gothic fiction of the late 18th and early 19th centuries (seemingly haunted castles and mansions, tumultuous romances, dangerous but seductive men), their inclusion of children and the ultimate subversion of these tropes transformed these novels into something else entirely. Indeed, Jane Eyre is the first novel ever published to include a child’s first person narration.
Unlike most of the film adaptations, Jane Eyre is a child for the first third of the novel. It is clear that her experiences with her adoptive family, and at the Lowood institution for girls as a student and a teacher shape her personality and outlook on life going forward. These experiences mirror Charlotte’s own childhood. Without this knowledge, her peculiarity and alienation as a governess at Thornfield hall holds less weight. Like Charlotte, Jane’s traumatic childhood gives way to a lonely and alienated adult. Like Jane, Charlotte fell in love with an older man when she was a teacher and student at a finishing school in Belgium. However, her real-life Mr. Rochester was happily married and did not wish to engage in a romance with the young spinster. Jane Eyre largely echoes this experience, this time with a happy ending.
The film adaptations of Jane Eyre (there have been many) are more interested in the romantic and gothic elements of the story, rather than the psychological pain that Jane undergoes as a child and an adult. However, it is this focus on Jane’s individuality and character that separate the story from other Gothic romances of its time and those before it. Of the non-silent, feature film adaptations of Jane Eyre, only 3 feature a complete account of Jane’s childhood from the novel, including her brutal punishments by her foster parents and teachers, and the untimely death of Helen Burns, who dies in her arms. 1
Wuthering Heights has suffered similar, if not worse, narrative losses from unfaithful and romanticized adaptations. Like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights largely focuses on two children living and surviving under abusive circumstances inflicted by their older brother. Indeed, Catherine Earnshaw (Cathy) dies at 18 in childbirth, never reaching adulthood.
The book highlights the hindrance of growth by violence. It is her older brother Hindley’s abusive treatment of Heathcliff and Cathy that triggers and nurses their codependent reliance on one another, and hinders their ability to function on their own as teenagers (and later adults, in Heathcliff’s case).
In spite of the novel’s clear focus on childhood and adolescence, most adaptations choose to cast adults as the two young lovers. 2 This transforms the narrative from a tragic story about two teenagers who are largely victims of their situation into a somewhat silly, but sensual, story about selfish adults. Cathy’s violent tantrums and spoiled nature make much less sense in this context, as do Heathcliff’s sullen moods and smarminess. Much like Romeo and Juliet, it is important to keep the intended ages of the lovers in mind in order to fully understand the tragedy of the story.
Adaptations of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights like to focus on the tension and broodiness of the characters and the settings, without acknowledging that they are the byproduct of the complex psychologies of the characters, and not simply a symptom of the gothic genre. This must be properly addressed in film in order to fully represent the genius of the Brontës and their novels. Filmmakers must interact with the gothic genre like the Brontës do in order to create emotionally faithful adaptations of their work.
- The 1943 film starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine, the 1970 made-for-TV film starring George C. Scott and Susannah York, and the 1996 film starring William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg. ↩
- Casting Heathcliff and Cathy as adults has long been the status quo for adaptations of Wuthering Heights. A notable exception to this is the 2011 adaptation starring Kaya Scoledario, who was 18 at the time of filming. However, this adaptation was highly sexualized and depicted Cathy and Heathcliff engaging in sexual activities including intercourse. This differs greatly from the novel, as the relationship between the two was never explicitly sexual. This is another way in which adaptations of the novel attempt to move the film away from its original source material in order to make it more romantic or gothic, which, in my opinion, is ultimately to its detriment. ↩