The three Brontë sisters—Charlotte, Emily and Anne—published only six novels during their short lives. First-born Charlotte, the most successful and popular in her lifetime, started with Jane Eyre, then followed with Shirley and Villette. Middle child Emily, probably the most highly regarded today, was then the most controversial due to her magnificent but unusual Wuthering Heights. From the pen of baby sister Anne came Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Each sister published her first novel in 1847. Emily died the next year at 30, Anne in 1849 at 29. Charlotte, the only one to marry, died in 1855 just before what would have been her 39th birthday. Despite their tragically short lives, Charlotte and Emily in particular have lived on, both in literary history and in the popular imagination.
The movies fell in love with Jane Eyre from the start, pumping out eight versions in the Silent Era, followed by at least 15 film and small-screen adaptations. Wuthering Heights, because of its more complicated plot, generated only one silent film; later came the many varied adaptations—including a Bollywood musical!
Though the Brontës have been the subject of much biographical speculation ever since their deaths, filmdom has, for the most part, avoided this. There have been only three major film biopics—the first was the 1946 Hollywood production Devotion with Charlotte (Olivia de Havilland) and Emily (Ida Lupino) sparring over Rev. Arthur Nicholls (Paul Henreid).
The cast, including Sidney Greenstreet as William Makepeace Thackeray and Arthur Kennedy as Branwell Brontë (the alcoholic brother), is supported by Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s impressive score. But the movie is derailed by a script so stupid and silly, it plays like an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther venomously dismissed the movie as “a mawkish costume romance” and “a ridiculous tax upon reason and an insult to plain intelligence.”
In 1979, French director André Téchiné fashioned a beautiful, brooding and melancholy valentine to the siblings in The Brontë Sisters (Les Soeurs Brontë). It starred three of France’s most talented actors in the lead roles: Isabelle Adjani is Emily, a haunted loner more at home on the wild moors than in the confines of her father’s parsonage, Marie-France Pisier portrays Charlotte as a reticent but still determined woman and Isabelle Huppert plays Anne as a subdued shadow. Téchiné frames the sisters’ story in an episodic display, almost like a series of visually striking postcards that capture the stark beauty of the heath and moors.
One of the early scenes shows Emily throwing away a winter blossom Anne has found on the moor. “You merely see the appearances of things,” says Emily. “Love only lasts as long as a bloom. I scorn and trample it. I spit on love and its vanity.” In place of the flower, she plucks a spring of holly, handing it to Anne as a token of their special relationship. “Holly stands for friendship,” she says, “and it will last into the winter of our lives.”
Very good, but very different stylistically from the 2016 BBC production To Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters, written and produced by Sally Wainwright. Viewers may find this version more accessible than Téchiné’s film because the straightforward narrative encompasses more of the actual writing of the novels.
The three lead actresses—Finn Atkins (Charlotte), Charlie Murphy (Anne) and Chloe Pirrie (Emily)—are as compelling as their French counterparts. Wainwright also gives considerable time to the sisters’ father, The Rev. Patrick Brontë (Jonathan Pryce) and to Branwell (Adam Nagaitis).
To Walk Invisible is more realistic and less dramatic than Téchiné’s work; the set for the parsonage in Haworth is an exact replica of the original. Whereas Téchiné was more purely cinematic (image and sound evoke and create the moment), Wainwright is matter-of-fact. She creates moments of real beauty on the heath and moor, and her conclusion—a graceful transition from the past to today’s Haworth Brontë Museum—is stunning.
Both films are truly affecting tributes to the enduring story—and art—of three remarkable writers.