Lovers of all things Brontë will want to check out the DVD box set The Bronte Collection, which includes three television miniseries from the seeming inexhaustible vaults of the BBC. This collection includes the 1967 production of Wuthering Heights, the 1983 version of Jane Eyre, and the 1996 adaptation of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Taken together, they offer an interesting look at how the conventions of television adaptation have changed over the years but the viewer must be prepared for three very different productions in miniseries format (including introductions and closing credits for each episode) which don’t have much in common other than the fact that they were produced by the BBC and are based on source material written by the Brontë sisters.
The rarest gem in The Bronte Collection is the previously-unreleased 1967 BBC production of Wuthering Heights adapted by Hugh Leonard, directed by Peter Sasdy and starring Angela Scoular (Cathy), Ian McShane (Heathcliff) and Drewe Henley (Edgar Linton). It holds great interest for scholars of television history and literary adaptation while casual viewers may find it the least approachable of the three productions in the set.
This Wuthering Heights has a distinctly old-fashioned feel complete, with introductory narrations in the finest Queen’s English while the dramatic black-and-white cinematography works better in the exterior scenes than in the interiors which often seem distorted by tight framing. Somewhat surprisingly, Leonard reconfigures the source material to present the story in chronological order but in another way it’s more faithful to Emily Brontë’s novel than most film versions (including the 1939 William Wyler film starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon) because it follows the characters into the second generation and thus includes the stories of Heathcliff’s and Cathy’s children.
The 1983 Masterpiece Theatre production of Jane Eyre adapted by Alexander Baron, directed by Julian Amyes and starring Zelah Clarke (Jane), Timothy Dalton (Rochester), Sian Pattenden (young Jane) and Andrew Bicknell (Saint John Rivers) will please lovers of Heritage Television although to viewers not familiar with that style the beauty of the presentation may seem out of sync with the gothic elements of Charlotte Brontë’s novel. It runs over five hours in 11 episodes, and sticks closely to the original novel, including many events often omitted from feature film adaptations. The cinematography and attention to period detail are first-rate but dramatic tension is frequently lacking as the actors, particularly Clarke, often seem emotionally unengaged while Dalton is far too handsome and not nearly threatening enough to convince as Rochester.
The 1996 production of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as adapted by Janet Baron and David Nokes and directed by Mike Barker represents only the second screen adaptation of Ann Brontë’s novel (the other was a 1968 BBC miniseries) in comparison to at least 21 film or television versions of Jane Eyre and 15 of Wuthering Heights. The reasons for this relative neglect lie in the novel itself: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is primarily concerned with dramatizing the oppression of women in 19th century England and the domestic violence and child abuse which took place behind the respectable façade of many Victorian marriages. Psychological complexity takes a back seat to social realism and melodrama, limiting the material’s appeal to modern readers.
This adaptation features excellent production values (this series won awards for makeup and hair, production design, camera and original score) but is hampered by the melodramatic nature of the story which depicts the struggles of Helen (Tara Fitzgerald) to free herself and her son from the clutches of an abusive husband (Rupert Graves) and start life anew with the sympathetic Gilbert Markham (Toby Stephens).
The on-screen portrayals of domestic violence sometimes verge on the lurid (marital rape, alcoholic rages) and may upset viewers expecting soothing nostalgia while anyone thinking about showing it in a classroom should be aware than the British Board of Film Censors considers this series unsuitable for viewers under the age of 15. For older students, however, it could be useful in prompting discussions about changing legal and societal attitudes toward women, children and marriage.
Although it contains no extras other than English subtitles, The Bronte Collection offers good value (over 11 hours of programming) for those with a strong interest in the material. But because one of the productions (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) is based on a decidedly minor literary work while the other two stake no claim to be the definitive version of their often-adapted source material, this is ultimately a set of greater interest to Anglophiles, scholars of television history, and English teachers looking for something to show their classes than to the general viewing public.
Note to our UK readers: the BBC Bronte Collection advertised at bbcshop.com includes the 1978 production of Wuthering Heights rather than the 1967 version included in the collection reviewed here (which is available from bbcamericashop.com).