“For when a young lady is to be a heroine, something must and will happen to throw adventure in her way”
Masterpiece Classic, a series that runs on PBS, takes its subject matter seriously. In adapting classic works of fiction for television, there is an attention to detail that comes forth in everything from set design and costumes to establishing place and time. The Masterpiece Classic versions of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights are no exception, as they offer engaging and engrossing adaptations to works that have been interpreted many times before, all the while making them seem fresh and vibrant.
Northanger Abbey (2006) is the best of the bunch in that it is the story that is most probably the least well known to many viewers and as such, feels the newest and most spirited. Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones) leaves her family in the country to stay with the Allens, friends of her family, in the city. Catherine is young and naïve, ripe to be taken advantage of by those with an agenda.
As she soon meets Henry Tilney (J.J. Feild), and later his sister, she finds them to be kindred spirits and is clearly at home in their company. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for her friendship with siblings Isabella (Carey Mulligan) and John Thorpe (William Beck). Her fast friendships with the Tilneys and the Thorpes speak to how different those in society interact and Catherine’s difficulty in assessing their true intentions, as their respective loyalties are called into question at separate times, is at the heart of the story.
Mansfield Park (2007) tells a similar story of a young girl, Fanny Price (Billie Piper), sent to live with her much wealthier relatives, the Bertrams. Their inability to see past her lower social class, despite the years she spends with them, is a common Austen comment on status and class issues. The introduction of the Crawfords, Mary (Hayley Atwell) and Henry (Joseph Beattie), upsets the order of life they have all become accustomed to, as their outrageous behavior is more at home in London than in Mansfield. Their brazen attempts to marry their ways into the Bertram family are at odds with Fanny and her cousin Edmund (Blake Ritson), the only relative who treats her as an equal, even as Edmund becomes enamored of Mary. However, Edmund and the Bertrams finally realize Fanny’s undeniable importance in their lives, particularly in comparison to the Crawfords.
Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (2009) certainly serves as a tonal shift in comparison to the previous Austen adaptations. The dark, atmospheric mood that falls over the production feels as brooding as Heathcliff (Tom Hardy). The tumultuous tale of tortured lovers Heathcliff and Cathy (Charlotte Riley), Wuthering Heights is perhaps the most completely committed to showing the full consequences of doomed love.
Adopted by Cathy’s father as a child, Heathcliff is never fully able to shed his gypsy past. As Heathcliff is driven mad by his obsession with Cathy, his coldness and cruelty drive all others away from him, adding to his already very isolated existence. The secrets surrounding their love affair and Cathy’s subsequent marriage to Edgar Linton (Andrew Lincoln), are soon discovered by her daughter. The story is told in flashbacks and the shifts back and forth further lend the adaptation an air of confusion and mystery.
What these three recent Masterpiece Classics have in common is a strong central character in circumstances that place each one in unfamiliar circumstances. The new surroundings and the people within these surroundings can be welcome, as is the case for Catherine in Northanger Abbey, or they can be upsetting to the point of madness, as is true for Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Jones does an especially fine job of presenting Catherine as naïve and innocent, yet as it turns out, not so easily manipulated.
While Austen’s heroines share a genuine goodness that may be advantage of at times, they always persevere and in the end, are clearly the superior moral characters. With Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff is a more complicated character in that he’s not exactly likable, at least in traditional terms, but it’s to Hardy’s credit that he comes off dark and gloomy, but still charismatic enough to make the viewer understand why Cathy fell in love with him.
Masterpiece Classic has successfully taken material that is well known and well loved and done them justice. PBS may bring to mind stuffy and stilted versions, but these recent interpretations do an admirable job of making them feel new and exciting. They are filled with excellent actors, many of whom would go on to much more widespread success, and beautiful on location productions. The care and commitment to these classic works is evident, and it clearly shows.
The only DVD with any bonus material is Wuthering Heights with a standard behind-the-scenes featurette.
Masterpiece Classic: Mansfield Park
Masterpiece Classic: Wuthering Heights