Brooding Brontes replace Austen as 'bonnet drama' returns
In 1847 a pair of extraordinary novels appeared two months apart, apparently written by brothers.
Jane Eyre proved an immediate success while Wuthering Heights was sneered at as "wild, confused, disjointed and improbable". Today both are among the classics of English literature.
Next year the stories are to go head to head once more, in cinemas, more than 160 years after Charlotte and Emily Bronte published them under the pseudonyms Currer and Ellis Bell.
The books have already inspired a number of film and television adaptations, starring the likes of Orson Welles, Sir Laurence Olivier and Juliette Binoche. Despite this, BBC Films and Film4 believe that there is room for a fresh cinematic take on the Brontes. Their rival productions promise to bring the sisters to a new generation and to revitalise the "bonnet drama".
In the past two decades film and television audiences could not get enough of 19th-century dramas. Jane Austen, in particular, thrived, from the 1995 TV Pride and Prejudice, with a wet-shirted Colin Firth, to the Oscar-winning film of the same novel ten years later, starring Keira Knightley. Lately, audiences have dwindled, as shown by lacklustre viewing figures for the BBC's latest Emma last year.
Alison Owen, the producer of Jane Eyre (and mother of the singer Lily Allen), said: "There is something about the current situation that the world finds itself in where the Brontes more suit the mood of the moment [than Austen]. Jane Austen is a lighter cut than the Brontes, who are much more brooding and bleak."
BBC Films, with the American company Focus Features, is first out of the traps. Jane Eyre is five weeks into a nine-week shoot in Derbyshire. Film4's Wuthering Heights, made with Ecosse Films, the British company behind Nowhere Boy, is scheduled to start filming in Yorkshire next month.
Both have directors who are known for gritty productions about the modern-day poor rather than costume dramas about the middle classes. Cary Fukunaga, who is directing Jane Eyre, is a 32-year-old American with Swedish and Japanese parents. His acclaimed debut Sin Nombre was a Spanish-language thriller about Mexican gang members trying to escape to the United States; quite a jump, then, to the story of an orphaned Victorian governess and her love for the mysterious owner of a great house.
Owen said she believed that Fukunaga can pull off the same trick that the Indian director Shekhar Kapur managed with her 1998 film Elizabeth. "He is someone who is outside the culture, so he can shake it up, [meaning] we don't get the chocolate-box version that everyone is familiar with."
Andrea Arnold, who is directing Wuthering Heights, is a former children's TV presenter who is one of arthouse cinema's favourite new auteurs. Her first two films, Red Road and Fish Tank, were set amid grim British tower blocks and won prizes at the Cannes Film Festival.
Although the directors are certain to bring an idiosyncratic vision to the novels, Bronte enthusiasts should not be alarmed just yet. Fukunaga told The Times: "We are not reinventing the wheel here." Both projects are expected to stick faithfully to the books and have sent out early statements of intent by casting actors of roughly the right age to play the heroines, in contrast to many previous screen versions.
The title role in Jane Eyre will be taken by Mia Wasikowska, the 20-year-old Australian actress, who played another eponymous character in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. Mr Rochester will be Michael Fassbender, who played the lead in Hunger and had a memorable cameo in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. Jamie Bell and Dame Judi Dench have supporting roles.
For Wuthering Heights, Arnold is looking for an unknown actor with foreign roots to play Heathcliff, described by Bronte as a "dark-skinned gypsy in aspect". Arnold has cast Kaya Scodelario, the 18-year-old Skins actress, as Catherine.
Christine Langan, the head of BBC Films, acknowledged that revisiting classics is a fraught business. “There will be people saying, 'Why the hell are they doing that all over again?'." But the film industry is an uncertain place at the best of times and more than ever the search is on for stories with which audiences feel a familiar connection.
Six years ago 400 prominent women were asked which books had made the greatest difference to their lives. Wuthering Heights came second — just behind Jane Eyre.