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Victorian Popular Fiction Association
7th Annual Conference: Victorian Authenticity & Artifice
13-15 July 2015, Senate House, London
Monday 13th July 2015
Neo-Victorian Fiction (Room 246)
Panel host: Jess Cox
Sex, Film, and the Brontës: Selling Victorian Eroticism in Modern Adaptations
Heather Williams, University of Cincinnati.
In anticipation of the film’s release in 2011, W Magazine devoted a cover story to Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation of Jane Eyre, featuring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender as Jane and Rochester. In the magazine’s glossy, stylized photo spread, Wasikowska and Fassbender wear vaguely modern clothing that reveal enough skin to make us think they might be ripping each other’s shirts off – or perhaps they are just putting them back on. Their bodies are intertwined and those might be droplets of sweat on their brows and heaving chests. Later that same year, Andrea Arnold premiered her adaptation of Wuthering Heights. The promotional campaign features photographs of the actors in striking weather-worn period attire, however, the sparse, windy West Yorkshire landscape dominates each shot, to a sexualized, fetishized degree. To use a term recently-coined in social media, the photographs present the film as “landscape porn” (or, for the Instragram crowd, #landscapeporn).
In my paper, I discuss the portrayal of sex and eroticism in recent film adaptations of both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, particularly how each novel’s sexual underpinnings are marketed prior to the film’s release. The ways the authors reveal and withhold details about their characters’ sex lives present certain challenges to directors and the modern film industry, whose audience has a relatively high tolerance for explicit visual representations of sex, yet hold directors responsible for preserving the “Victorian-ness” of the novels. On the other hand, marketing campaigns are only expected to sell the essence of the stories, and are not bound by a novel’s plot, characterization, or Victorian methods of coding erotic desire in order to entice the public. By analyzing a variety of promotional efforts used to advertise these films, my presentation will explore the dynamics between Victorian presentations of desire in literature and recent portrayals of sex in film translations.