The Brontës - Cinemagoers have had their fill of this sister act

Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre return to the screen in September. Today's film-makers are too obsessed with the Brontë sisters, argues Geoffrey Macnab
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The Independent Culture

You could be forgiven for thinking that the centre of the British film industry isn't Pinewood or Soho but a small parsonage on the Yorkshire moors. Later this year, we will be treated to not one but two new films based on novels by those eccentric Brontë sisters who used to live in Haworth, West Yorkshire. It will be a full-blown battle of the Brontës at the box office. Cary Fukunaga's Jane Eyre, adapted from Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel and starring Mia Wasikowka, is due for release in early September, just a couple of weeks before Andrea Arnold's new version of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. Each has a rival British broadcaster behind them. Jane Eyre is supported by BBC Films and Wuthering Heights by Film4.

Meanwhile, with the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens's birth falling next year, new versions of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist are also being plotted.

The question all this frantic activity raises is just why British film-makers remain so obsessed with dusting down 19th-century literary classics – and whether these new movies can add anything to the dozens of Dickens and Brontë adaptations that have already been made for the big screen, let alone the endless TV mini-series and radio dramas that Dickens and the Brontës continue to spawn.

Every time, a new adaptation is hatched, the rhetoric is always the same. The film-makers talk earnestly about reinventing a much-loved novel for a new generation. They insist that the novel retains its relevance and topicality – and then invariably they go ahead and make yet another film featuring women in bonnets and crinolines and scowling men in top hats. When the films are released, the debate will then start as to whether they've strayed too far from the original text or stuck too closely to it. Academics will be wheeled out to point up the inaccuracies and anachronisms. If film-makers are too revisionist or cavalier, they'll be attacked for betraying their source material. If they're too faithful, they'll be criticised for dullness. Opinion will become so clouded by the memory of the novel and of all the previous adaptations that it will be forgotten that these are actually movies that should be seen in their own right.

There is something disheartening about a film-maker as adventurous as Andrea Arnold turning toward Victorian fiction for inspiration. After making Red Road and Fish Tank, the first set in inner-city Glasgow and the second on an Essex council estate, Arnold was hailed as one of the most exciting new talents in British cinema. She looked at modern British urban life with a rawness and pathos not seen in British film-making since Alan Clarke in his heyday. Why, you wonder, is she venturing now into the realm of costume drama? Aren't there any new writers out there or contemporary dramas she could make?

Both BBC Films and Film4 passed on The King's Speech but, it seems, neither could resist the lure of the Brontës.

The New York Times recently calculated that there have been "at least 18 film versions (of Jane Eyre) going back to a 1910 silent movie, and nine made-for-television Janes".

What is striking is how few of these anyone remembers. The only one that is still in regular circulation on TV and DVD is the 1943 Twentieth Century Fox version directed by Robert Stevenson, with Joan Fontaine as Jane and Orson Welles in roaring, saturnine form as Rochester. This is gothic Hollywood melodrama with all the trappings – chiaroscuro lighting, a swirling and ominous Bernard Herrmann score, and lots of close-ups of Fontaine in ecstatic suffering mode. The film's original trailer went to painstaking lengths to try to reassure audiences that "it has always been true that the pictures you enjoy most are based on widely read novels". Fox, it was clear, was desperate to reassure its potential audience that just because Jane Eyre was based on a book, that didn't mean it would be dreary. The film boasted a screenplay by Welles's Mercury Theatre partner John Houseman and novelist Aldous Huxley and featured a youthful Elizabeth Taylor as the kindly, long-suffering. Helen Burns. Its secret was that it wore its high culture credentials lightly.

Wuthering Heights has been adapted for screen several times too – and with very variable results. The 1939 William Wyler version arguably worked best because (like the Orson Welles Jane Eyre), it was full-blown Hollywood fare with big star performances from Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as Cathy. The writers, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, best known for newspaper satire The Front Page, were praised for being faithful to Brontë's story of doomed love but also for bringing some Hollywood snap to it.

Other versions were less successful. Spanish director Luis Buñuel was a huge fan of the Emily Brontë novel and had co-written a Wuthering Heights screenplay in 1930 (the year of his Surrealist classic, L'Age D'Or.) When he was finally able to shoot the movie in Mexico in 1954, it didn't turn out at all as he had hoped. Neither the 1970 version, with Timothy Dalton in his pre-Bond days as Heathcliff, nor Peter Kosminsky's 1992 film with Ralph Fiennes as Heathcliff and Juliette Binoche as Cathy, were big popular successes.

Hollywood continues to regard classic British literature as a useful resource. When it comes to making tasteful, high-end dramas that might win critics' prizes and earn respectful reviews, Thackeray, Dickens and Brontë are natural choices. Literary adaptations will appeal to older cinemagoers who don't necessarily want to go to see the latest Marvel spin-off. They often have plum roles: moody young leads jump at the chance to play Rochester or Heathcliff while leading actresses will always vie to play Jane Eyre or Becky Sharp. However, relatively few work at the box office.

David Lean's Great Expectations and Oliver Twist are regarded as two of the towering films of 1940s British cinema but audiences at the time much preferred the Gainsborough melodramas, bodice-ripping yarns like The Wicked Lady and The Man in Grey, which weren't striving for cultural respectability. Stanley Kubrick's Thackeray adaptation Barry Lyndon is a masterpiece boasting extraordinary cinematography by John Alcott (often using candlelight) and production design by Ken Adam, but it did only modest business. Mira Nair's lively version of Vanity Fair struggled to recoup its budget in spite of Reese Witherspoon's mercurial performance as Becky and Nair's sly references to colonialism and Anglo-Indian relations.

Advance word on the new Jane Eyre has been largely favourable. The New York Times called it "a splendid example of how to tackle the daunting duty of turning a beloved work of classic literature into a movie" while praising its vigour and "sense of emotional detail". The producers of the new Wuthering Heights are pitching their film as "a passionate tale of two teenagers whose elemental love for each other creates a storm of vengeance". If anyone can give the film emotional urgency and make it feel contemporary it is surely Andrea Arnold. Even so, this Brontë mania doesn't do the British film industry any favours at all. Surely it's time for the film-makers and their financiers to wean themselves away from yet more adaptations of Victorians novels, leave Haworth parsonage to the tourists, and look to the present instead.

'Jane Eyre' is due for release on 9 September and 'Wuthering Heights' on 30 September