Great writing has inspired some great film-making and broadcasting. And with the bicentenary of Emily Bronte’s birth looming, we will doubtless be reminded of that many times.
Next Monday a ten-part adaptation of Wuthering Heights by prizewinning author Rachel Joyce (‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’) starts on BBC Radio 4 and there are numerous celebrations planned to remember Emily’s birthday on 30 July 1818 – though they are somewhat hampered by the lack of information about this, the least well-known of the Bronte sisters. We have no manuscript for the book, so we don’t know much about the actual writing of it, and there are few letters or any other documents, apart from Emily’s poems.
Wuthering Heights was her only novel, published when she was 29 and under the name of Ellis Bell – a nom de plume that disguised her female gender. She died the following year, so one can only speculate about what else she might have written. And it’s tempting to also speculate what Emily would have made of the modern world. Would she have been active on Twitter, robustly countering what she saw as injustice and prejudice, especially sexism? Had her own Instagram account perhaps? Or would she have ignored the world of social media entirely and still spent her time striding across the rugged landscape above Haworth, with only her hawk for company?
The latter seems more likely. But her moorland rambles today would no doubt be interrupted by fans who recognise her from that same social media and TV, doggedly following her across bog and mire, smartphones in hand. We can imagine her reaction when they ask for a selfie.
TV and Film Adaptations
Given the number of TV and film adaptations of their work, 21st century Brontes would have had to endure the glare of worldwide press and publicity – something that they would no doubt have hated. And if someone had told Charlotte, Emily and Anne of the dozens or possibly hundreds of films and TV series made from their work, they would have been astonished.
Modern novelists though, may well have an eye on the film or TV adaptation even as they are writing. Usually the original book is handed over to a professional scriptwriter and the storyline and characters are at the mercy of the film-makers. This is an area in which novelist Ian McEwan has some experience. Scriptwriters have been used to adapt all of his films to date, but he produced the script for the forthcoming film of his novel ‘On Chesil Beach’ himself.
He commented that: “if you want to have influence, you have to get your hands dirty.”
He also admitted that he had made revisions and additions for the screen: “I tinker – I can’t stop. There’s one scene in the movie I know that if it had occurred to me when I was writing the novel, I’d have put it in. What’s also not in the book is the ending, because cinematically it’s irresistible.”
This is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s involvement in the filming of the TV adaptation of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, the first series of which ended with the ending of her book. The second series of the Golden Globe winner has already aired in the US and returns to the small screen here soon. Atwood has been a consultant on the show and approved the scripts, as she did in the first series which introduced a number of changes from the original book.
It’s hard to imagine the reclusive Emily leaving her beloved moors to have meetings with producers and do interviews on breakfast TV. But possibly even worse – given her negative experiences of school, both as a pupil and a teacher – would be the knowledge that her novel regularly appears on lists of exam board set texts, along with those of her sisters.
Living writers have to endure that knowledge, as well as the knowing that their books are being studied in a way that they never intended when they were writing them.
A recent story in the press refers to Ian McEwan’s admission that he helped his son write a school essay on his novel ‘Enduring Love’. We don’t know if the young McEwan’s teacher was aware that this assistance had been provided by the author, but the essay was only awarded a C+. The older McEwan commented that he hadn’t read his son’s final essay: ”but his teacher disagreed fundamentally with what he said.” Which seems to suggest he disagreed fundamentally with the author!
Yet it is the author who is the primary creator of the work; the “onlie begetter” as Shakespeare puts it, and their imagination enables both literary criticism and dramatic interpretation.
We will never know what other novels Emily Bronte would have written, but the only one that she did publish – that complex story of love, hatred, jealousy and revenge – will doubtless continue to prove irresistible to film-makers and exam boards alike.
The BBC 15 Minute Drama Wuthering Heights page is at
and the first episode, ‘Earnshaw’, will be broadcast on Monday 14 May at 10.45 on Radio 4.
You can listen to Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the book in a broadcast of ‘In Our Time’ at