Tag Archives: Gothic Romance

Jane Eyre (1943)

jane2I long ago reconciled myself to the fact that no film adaptation can really do justice to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and I’ve seen six of them so far. I think the musical actually comes closest to capturing the character of Jane Eyre, because it allows her to maintain her quiet exterior, yet still express her private thoughts and feelings in song. Which is not to say that I do not enjoy some of the film adaptations, particularly the 2006 BBC miniseries, with Toby Stephen and Ruth Wilson.

And last week I watched director Robert Stevenson’s 1943 Jane Eyre, starring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles and Margaret O’Brien as Adele, and I thoroughly liked it, despite its imperfections. It’s a gorgeous film, with its black and white photography and use of shadows, the fog and mist, the desolate moor, the moody atmosphere. The emphasis is definitely on the Gothic elements of the story, in a way that no color adaptation could ever achieve. Thornfield Hall is even a forbidding, brooding castle that looks like it would be perfectly at home in a medieval story.

One of the elements of the book that tends to get glossed over in most of the movies is the beginning, when Jane Eyre is a child. It is usually treated as a part of the movie to get through quickly because it’s in the book, but you can tell the filmmakers just want to get to the part where she grows up. But in this film, it is actually used to feed into the motivations of Jane Eyre, and even if those motivations are slightly different from what they are in the book, they are perfectly consistent in the film. Peggy Ann Garner plays Jane as a child, with a terrific blend of rebellion and anger with a touching desire to be loved. When Jane’s unloving aunt (Agnes Moorehead) sends her to a boarding school run by the righteously hypocritical Mr. Brocklehurst (Henry Daniell – the best, most memorable Mr. Brocklehurst I’ve ever seen), Jane meets the first person who ever cares about her, Helen Burns (Elizabeth Taylor). I was struck by the scene of the two children laughing and running near the school with the vast waste of the moor all around them; a lovely visual.

Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles

Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles

The movie Jane Eyre is often compared to Rebecca: Gothic story, Gothic house, mysterious leading man, Joan Fontaine stars in both films. They both even begin with a voice-over narration by Fontaine. And when people discuss Jane Eyre, they usually dwell on the similarities between Fontaine’s Jane Eyre and Mrs. de Winter. However, I feel equating all Fontaine’s quiet roles together is like assuming all of Barbara Stanwyck’s femme fatales are the same and it obscures real differences in her characterization. Quiet people are not all the same.

Fontaine’s Jane is certainly quiet (though Jane appears quiet to most people until they get to know her), and perhaps less rebellious, but she is not weak. She does what she intends to do and she speaks her mind, something Mrs. de Winter would never have dreamed of doing. She’s just not flashy about it. Her eyes don’t really flash with inner fire, either, but I’m not sure too many cinematic Jane Eyres manage that trick. Interestingly, the film doesn’t try to pretend that Jane Eyre is not pretty (since Joan Fontaine is clearly not plain). At an inn, a man openly admires her and in preparing to marry Mr. Rochester, several other people comment on her looks. Her own assessment of not being as beautiful as Blanche Ingram, though, is not inconsistent with a person who is neither fashionable in manner or in dress and who is used to being called drab. But she’s not a shrinking violet and she’s fairly no-nonsense; she’s just not spunky in the way we visualize heroines today. Mrs. de Winter has an entirely different ethos going on: intimidated, insecure, very young and naive.

Orson Welles is perhaps one of the more unexpected Mr. Rochesters in film. Not conventionally romantic (though Mr. Rochester isn’t supposed to be in the book), he makes for, at times, an intimidating presence, as he towers over Jane. With his fur-lined cloak, striding through his castle with his dog at his heels, he looks like a medieval lord. His Mr. Rochester could very well be dangerous, and yet when he’s not being volcanic and peremptory, his eyes suddenly turn pleading and tender. What threw me is how young he looks (he’s in his late twenties, Mr. Rochester is supposed to be in his late thirties). He’s the youngest Mr. Rochester I’ve ever seen and his face does not match his voice or his presence.

EYRE-JP-3-popupOne weakness of the film is that Welles and Fontaine seem like a slightly odd romantic fit and they don’t quite click. What they both do bring, though, to the film is a palpable desire and longing to be loved, which partially covers their lack of chemistry. That desire to be loved is the theme most prominent in the film, apart from the general Gothic mystery and sense of weird danger.

I did gain a new insight into the book while watching the movie. I always thought it was rather insensitive of Mr. Rochester to pretend to make love to Blanche Ingram and try to make Jane jealous, but I finally understood why (and I should have realized before). He is not sure if she loves him and he’s not really sure if anyone could love him. And he can’t tell because of how calm she is and he’s trying to elicit a reaction, any reaction, from her that would indicate how she feels. That’s why he keeps asking her questions and teasing her about her feelings on leaving Thornfield. In many ways, he’s more insecure than Jane is. She longs for love, but she’s fundamentally comfortable with who she is.

The ending is bit abrupt (I’ve always been slightly disappointing with the movie endings of Jane Eyre), but they don’t make the mistake of trying to rush through the portion where she meets her cousin, St. John Rivers. They wisely remove that entirely, turn her cousin into a Dr. Rivers and do not have him romantically interested in her at all, which keeps the movie fairly taut and consistent and prevents the film from having new characters introduced in the last fifteen minutes. In fact, the entire film is well paced and I liked how they adapted it, purist objections aside. I’ve been becoming more broadminded. Several years ago, I would have ranted about all the differences. Now, I think it is a lovely film that stands quite well on its own.


Posted by on August 7, 2015 in Movies


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Wuthering Heights (1939) – Obsessive, Destructive Love

2d12ebee08d87e1ad3836ff31ed48921I’ve wanted to see Wuthering Heights for a very long time. I’d heard about it and read about it and understood that it is one of those films that made 1939 the greatest year in film history. And because I like a good gothic tale (especially if it is a movie) I was predisposed to love the film.

So I was quite disappointed when I didn’t love it, though it had nothing to do with how the movie was made and everything to do with the story. It is a beautiful film, finely acted, but I could not view the film as a great romance, which seemed to be how the story was presented.

I have to admit here, however, that I have not yet read the book, so I cannot compare how well the movie follows Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel and don’t know if my difficulties with the story stem from her original book or from how it was adapted to film.

The movie is constructed as a flashback. A man named Lockwood (Miles Mander) has sought shelter at Wuthering Heights during a snowstorm and is told the story of the ghost who haunts the house and particularly haunts the master of the house, Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier). The story is told by Ellen (Flora Robson) who now serves Heathcliff, but used to serve the young lady who haunts the house, Cathy (Merle Oberon).

Wuthering Heights 1

Heathcliff and Cathy

Before everything went to rack and ruin, she says, Wuthering Heights was a fine house that belonged to Mr. Earnshaw (Cecil Kellaway), who had two children, Hindley and Cathy. He goes to London and when he returns he has a small gypsy boy who was starving in London. Mr. Earnshaw calls him Heathcliff and he and Cathy treat him like one of the family, but Hindley resents him and when Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley becomes the master of the home and relegates Heathcliff to stable boy.

As they grow up, Heathcliff puts up with all sorts of ill treatment and refuses to leave so he can remain near Cathy. The two of them are like flower children of the moor, retreating to their place on the moor called Peniston Crag, which they call their castle. However, as Cathy grows into a woman she becomes more interested in fine clothes and their elegant neighbors, the Lintons, especially Edgar Linton (David Niven).

As Cathy finds herself attracted to the world of Edgar, Heathcliff grows angry, possessive, and even physical, evening hitting Cathy several times when she insults him as being hired help with dirty hands (this man is definitely the type that would kill his wife in a rage of jealousy). However, they both tell Ellen at separate times that they need each other, that they are essentially one person. But Cathy comes to this realization a little too late, when Heathcliff goes off to find his fortune (which is what Cathy had been urging him to do all along so that he could come back and take her away). Convinced that he’ll never return, Cathy marries Edgar.

Cathy with Edgar

Cathy with Edgar

Ellen tells Lockwood that Cathy managed to forge a happy life for herself, not exciting or grandly passionate, but a good one. However, Heathcliff comes back a very wealthy man and acquires Wuthering Heights from the alcoholic and disintegrating Hindley by buying up all his debts. He also still wants Cathy, but Edgar’s sister, Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald) falls in love with him and pursues Heathcliff. Cathy begs Heathcliff not to marry Isabella because she knows he does not love her, but Heathcliff imagines that in doing so it will be revenge on Cathy, because, I guess, she will be jealous that she is not married to him.

The marriage is a tragedy, Isabella is so desperate for Heathcliff’s love that she welcomes the news that Cathy is dying. Hindley continues to drink himself into an early grave and the doctor (Donald Crisp) can only look on while people he helped bring into the world self-destruct, with Heathcliff the self-destructor-in-chief.

If it had been presented as being about destructive love, than I might have enjoyed it more. I don’t mind having a character like Heathcliff; I just mind being told he’s our romantic lead. He’s a narcissistic, jealous, obsessive stalker. If the movie acknowledged that, I’d be fine. But he comes back, like the Count of Monte Cristo, fabulously wealthy to wreak revenge on all people who did him harm in the past. And he blames Cathy for having rejected him and she even agrees with him when she is on her deathbed.

Even his love is narcissistic. When Cathy dies at the end, he says that now she is his. He says that she broke his heart, she’s a part of him, he can’t live without her. And because no one else, apparently, has even a fraction of the feeling, love and passion that he has, those people don’t count. Heathcliff has no sense of personhood, that perhaps people exist apart from him with their own feelings, motivations and lives. He doesn’t even see Cathy as a real person who exists apart from him, but just someone who’s one with him, who rejected herself when she rejected him and instead chose Edgar and society over Heathcliff and the moor.

Cathy and Heathcliff with their heather

Cathy and Heathcliff with their heather

I watched the film with my sister, who has read the book, and she tells me that there are children in the book. Cathy and Edgar have a daughter, Hindley has a son and Heathcliff and Isabella have a son. Cathy apparently dies in the middle of the book and the rest is taken up quite prominently with Cathy’s daughter. My sister felt that with removing the children, it changed the story significantly. Now, the story is just about Heathcliff and Cathy and not about Heathcliff’s attempts to control and destroy the second-generation, and how, despite his attempts, the second generation does achieve a kind of redemption at the end.

According to the critic John Sutherland the 1939 movie is largely responsible for the romantic interpretation of the book and that people in Brontë’s time might not have been likely to see Cathy as haunting Heathcliff because she was waiting for him to join her, but because she was angry and didn’t want him to steal her daughter’s inheritance. Interestingly, the director William Wyler did not want to include the famous ending with the ghost of Heathcliff and Cathy walking off towards Peniston Crag (I guess so they can be perpetual flower children with their heather), which cements the film’s romantic status. It is a rather upbeat ending for a man who destroyed everyone else’s lives.

I’m ranting a bit. As I said, it’s really not a bad movie; I was simply frustrated. Perhaps I will be able to enjoy it more on a second viewing now that I have gotten my rant out of my system. I am really curious, though, to read the book and see how Brontë portrays Heathcliff. I have it coming now from the library!

thCKCSG6YONotes: The score by Alfred Newman is simply lovely and haunting, with his theme for Cathy being especially notable. Here is a link to the violinist Itzhak Perlam performing the theme with the Boston Pops Orchestra.

Olivier credited Wyler with showing him him how to adapt his acting style for the stage to that of the screen. He helped him tone down some of the expansiveness of his acting and also to get over his initial contempt for the movies, as opposed to the stage. Wyler thought that making movies was a wonderful art form and Olivier apparently came to agree with him.

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Posted by on November 24, 2014 in Movies


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Rebecca (1938) – by Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca (1940)Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Manderley, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca

A somewhat forgotten book today, it was interesting for me to discover that Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, was one of the most successful books of the twentieth century, has been translated into many languages and has never been out of print. It has also been adapted into three film versions, most famously in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 version, starring Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson – a film version that du Maurier reportedly liked. She wrote many other books, several of which were also adapted into movies, but she would always be associated with Rebecca.

However, I might not have heard of Rebecca if I hadn’t watched the movie. I saw the Masterpiece Theater version from 1997 with Charles Dance and Emilia Fox and then I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s version, which I especially have grown to appreciate. It might possibly be my favorite Hitchcock and it is not a typical Hitchcock film. The accuracy is mostly owing to producer David O. Selznick, who believed that if a book were good, it ought to be adapted faithfully. Hitchcock, however, did not like to adhere to his source material; he preferred to use a book or short story as an inspirational spring board for his own vision. He did that with du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn in 1939 and du Maurier was not pleased. But when I began reading Rebecca, I was amazed at how closely the movie follows the book, in spirit, character, events and dialogue.

Of course, the first thing that happened when I sat down and opened the book was that I could hear Joan Fontaine’s voice narrating the opening words, just as she did at the opening of the film, and I could see Hitchcock’s opening scene and it took me forever to get off the first page because I was so busy seeing and hearing the movie. However, once I got going, my reading was much smoother.

Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again…

Daphne du Maurier in boat at her home

Daphne du Maurier in boat at her home

The book is narrated in the first person. We never find out the narrator’s first name or maiden name, but know her only as “I,” and Mrs. de Winter. But she is actually the second Mrs. de Winter. The first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca, was drowned ten months earlier.

She meets Maxim de Winter at a resort in Monte Carlo, where she is a paid companion to a Mrs. Van Hopper. She falls completely and rather desperately in love with him and, like a fairytale, is amazed when he asks her to marry him. But she is not sure if he loves her. She has heard repeatedly about his first wife, Rebecca de Winter, who he is said to have adored.

And when she comes to Manderley, she instantly feels how inadequate she is to the task of being mistress of the house. She feels that people are comparing her to Rebecca and she can see all around her evidence of Rebecca, at her desk, in the west wing of the house that has been shut up. People mention Rebecca frequently, except Maxim, and she hears about her from both the servants and the neighbors; how beautiful Rebecca was, how accomplished she was at all things. Rebecca becomes a constant ghost in the house that the narrator is comparing herself to and she believes Maxim is comparing them, too.

One of the great characters in the book is Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper. She was played in Hitchcock’s movie by Judith Anderson, who also would be known for playing Lady Macbeth several times, which gives one an idea of what kind of a person Mrs. Danvers is. She is part malign and chilling presence, always prepared to cow Mrs. de Winter and demonstrate how little she has a place in Manderley, and part tragic and pathetic figure who worshipped Rebecca and has been devastated by her loss. She is, from the beginning, an implacable enemy to Mrs. de Winter.

Joan Fontaine as Mrs. de Winter and Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers

Joan Fontaine as Mrs. de Winter and Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers

The book is an interesting combination of genres. It is part ghost story, part gothic romance and part psychological study of insecurity and jealousy. Her son, Christian, has said that du Maurier maintained that she was not writing a romance novel, but “a study in jealousy.” The ghost element comes in how Rebecca is, essentially, haunting the house, but she is haunting it in people’s memories and in their minds. The new Mrs. de Winter becomes so obsessed with Rebecca that at one point it completely skews how she is understanding the behavior of others, especially her husband. She becomes convinced that he regrets marrying her and is still grieving for Rebecca.

It is gothic in the mystery regarding Maxim and Rebecca and in the suspense and setting at Manderley, with the sea and the dark woods and the fog and rain and storms. Maxim also strikes me as a classic gothic hero; elegant, impatient, masterful in his treatment of people, and brooding.

But as Daphne du Maurier maintained, it was mostly about jealousy. I think that is a significant reason why the book has an enduring appeal; it taps into something that all people understand. We all know what it’s like to look at another person and think how inadequate we are in comparison to them. It is a story about insecurity and the narrator blames herself, several times, for her own timidity. It prevents her from understanding, both because she is too timid to ask and because her insecurity is distorting her understanding of things.

Daphne du Maurier does a remarkable job of portraying the inner life of Mrs. de Winter. Many people believe that it was partially autobiographical, but whatever the reason, it is almost painful to read at times, because the emotions are very recognizable: the shyness, awkwardness, discomfort with people and the role that she is expected to play as mistress of Manderley. There is the mortification she feels when she accidentally breaks a china cupid and, like a guilty child, tries to hide it only to have Mrs. Danvers accuse another servant so that Mrs. de Winter has to confess it. She is clumsy, her clothes are not chic, her manner shrinking and all the while the servants are looking on. And like many shy people who think inside themselves a lot, she has a tremendous imagination. She is constantly imagining how something is going to turn out or what a group of people are talking about and she draws on experience, expectation and the things she’s read to fill out her inner fantasy. When she believes that Maxim is going to jail, her imagination kicks into gear and she has it all figured out from when they take him away to the last time she will see him before he is executed. The irony is that her flights of imagination are almost always wrong.

Menabilly, the estate that Manderley was based on

Menabilly, the estate that Manderley was based on

Although du Maurier called it a study of jealousy, the book is also an expression of du Maurier’s own love affair with one particular estate called Menabilly, in Cornwall. She first had a sight of it while she was vacationing with her sister and would frequently come back to trespass on the land, once even slipping through a window to wander around the now shut-up house. Later, she received permission to walk on the land and even later rented the place.

Her love of the place is very central to the book. Maxim loves his home and lovingly describes the various scents of the flowers and the gardens and one particular valley and his love plays a central role in his story and is the cause of several of his decisions, unwise ones, that drive the plot.

It’s an interesting book in that a character who is dead should play such an important part of the story. In fact, much of the story is past by the time the book begins. Rebecca was never much admired by the critics, but du Maurier felt that they had missed the point. They took it at face value and didn’t look at it more closely. Most books celebrate, or at least are about, bold and impetuous characters and I’ve never particularly identified with them. Rebecca goes a little farther. It gives a wonderful portrayal of the inner life of a shy and insecure person and how they view the world.


Posted by on October 6, 2014 in Fiction


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