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But recycling of storylines is not necessarily evidence of low artistic ambitions. Three films currently in production from admired directors – Mike Newell, Andrea Arnold and Joe Wright – might be billed, in line with Hollywood's numerical tendency, as Great Expectations 16, Wuthering Heights 17 and Anna Karenina 25, if we include even a rough estimate of the previous significant film and TV versions of these novels.Perhaps Lisa Lewis, known as the Victoriana Lady, would have something to say about this, given her passion for the Victorian World and her choice of Jane Eyre as one of her favourite movies in an interview with The Dispatch.
It's true that – with some exceptions, such as a 1998 Great Expectations, updated to modern New York – these remakes tend to tell exactly the same story each time. What a relief it is to the reader that the literary franchises do not follow the Elm Street/Friday the 13th habit of moving the action slightly on. Thus we have been spared Wuthering Heights XI: Great-Great-Grandson of Heathcliff or Anna Karenina XIV: The Train-Driver's Trial.
Yet the fact that the basic narratives have been told so often makes it even more striking that these 19th-century fictions should be the stories that some of the 21st century's leading cinematic talents want to tell next.
Few admirers of the dark contemporary dramas of Andrea Arnold – Fish Tank and Red Road – would have bet on a future project being the Emily Brontë story of ghostly romance made musically famous by Kate Bush. (Although this transition has an interesting precedent: Peter Kosminsky, best known for political and topical dramas and documentaries, also made a movie of Cathy and Heathcliff's story.) [...]
This surge of versions is also odd because, in one crucial and possibly ruinous sense, none of these 19th-century classics is well suited to cinema. In a standard edition, Wuthering Heights runs to around 300 pages, Great Expectations to more than 400 and Anna Karenina to almost 900. And yet a truly faithful movie can only be produced from a novella of around 100 pages. Filming a Victorian blockbuster automatically demands filleting, omission and simplification, which is why Dickens, Brontë, Austen and Tolstoy have traditionally been better served by television, which routinely offers multi-episode slots of between four and six hours, although even this medium is now becoming keener on the one-off film.
Despite this starting disadvantage, cinema keeps coming back to these same yarns. And the reasons for these frequent remakes reveal much about both the novels themselves and the culture of movie-making. [...]
It's also a proven rule of the entertainment industry that familiar material becomes even more appealing during economic difficulties: for obvious and understandable reasons, both producers and consumers prefer, when cash is tight, to risk it on projects that have already shown they can give value for money. In this respect, an additional advantage for producers in hard times is that a play by Shakespeare or a book by Dickens or Brontë will be out of copyright, avoiding an often expensive tussle for the rights. [...]
The cinematic canon is most apparent in the populist characters who have been reanimated by successive generations of film-makers – Frankenstein, Dracula, Sherlock, King Kong, Batman, Superman and so on – but there was also, from very early on, a clear shelf of literary set-texts that would periodically be offered for examination. Many of these overlap with the favourites of theatre and TV: Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen and the various Brontës, with the addition of Tolstoy as a pet foreign-language novelist. Apart from the many Anna Kareninas, War and Peace has also been filmed and there has even been a biopic about the novelist: The Last Station.
But the movie industry can also be seen to have copied from theatre the idea of canonical works as a benchmark against which new generations of directors and actors must be measured. [...]
So, in this context, it's necessary and even inevitable that Knightley should commit to film her interpretation of a Russian heroine previously played by Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh, while the young northern newcomer James Howson, Arnold's choice for her Wuthering Heights, follows Laurence Olivier, Ralph Fiennes and Timothy Dalton into the part of Heathcliff, just as younger theatre actors subsequently took over their roles as Shakespearean princes and kings.
The directors of the new films can also reasonably argue that they can bring to these stories advantages denied to their predecessors: whether the digital possibilities for convincingly depicting the supernatural in Wuthering Heights or the greater availability of genuinely Russian locations in a post-Soviet Anna Karenina.
But the fundamental reason that fiction from a pre-cinematic period has proved so attractive to the cameras is that these are compelling narratives filled with fascinating characters. It also helps that each of the books fits neatly into at least one genre that has become standard in Hollywood.
Brontë's gothic Yorkshire chiller is both a story of thwarted love and a ghost story, forms that occupy well-filled portions of the DVD store. The romantic element of that book – involving sexual attraction that is prevented or restricted by class or social conformity – overlaps with Tolstoy's novel, which, with a heroine who places her sexual fulfilment ahead of community approval, also contains a prototype for what has become a recurrent figure in films. [...]
However, beyond the narrative satisfaction of the stories, I think there's another reason why these 19th-century classics are so regularly revisited; and one that holds a warning for contemporary film-making and fiction. At their simplest level, each of these books features a couple whose union is impossible or dangerous: Cathy and Heathcliff face the bar of class and propriety, Anna and Vronsky challenge the adultery taboo, and Pip and Estella are thwarted not only by their starkly different social backgrounds but by her bizarre guardian.
That 1998 contemporary rewriting of Great Expectations tried to pretend that social barriers still exist – Pip becomes a poor artist called Finn who is looked down on by wealthy socialite Estella – but the jeopardy never felt real. In the modern world, there is little reason for an heiress not to marry a penniless artisan and, in fact, a cursory reading of Heat and Tatler suggest regular hitchings between Pips and Estellas and Cathys and Heathcliffs. Equally, a modern Anna Karenina could take Vronsky as her second husband with no more trouble than a decent divorce lawyer. [...]
Out of copyright, containing presciently camera-ready narratives and characters who may face social or actual death in pursuit of what they want, Wuthering Heights, Anna Karenina and Great Expectations give modern cinematic talent access to a world that is, in many ways, more appealing than their own.
"Whether I like it or not, my father has been an enormous influence in my life. I grew up surrounded by his books and stories. He filled the house with Dickens, Shakespeare and the Brontë sisters, to name a few," he says. (Andrea Nagel)The Times imagined James Joyce's tweets yesterday and today Management Issues imagines the tweets and social network activities of some classic characters:
What about Jane Eyre? She could have done a quick scan of Facebook for Edward Fairfax Rochester. Relation status: "it's complicated". That might have answered a few questions and I'm sure his insurance company would have been happier. (Wayne Turmel)The Telegraph has an article on the winner of their Gardening against the oods competition: Andrew Barnett whose garden is
860ft high, but now cocooned against the wind by the green walls. Ilkley Moor, famed for its bleak and windswept moments in Wuthering Heights, is two miles up the road. (Bunny Guinness)My Book-It List and Ecos de la distancia (in Spanish) post about Jane Eyre, Rinkly Rimes has written a poem inspired by a cover of the novel and Bang on a Milli has a brief post on the 2011 adaptation. For the Love of Lit continues posting about Shirley. And finally, The Squeee reviews Witches and Devilry in Wuthering Heights: A Call for Neo-Pagan Perspective by Jamie Freeman.