“Emily” and creative freedom in literary biopics

For nearly 200 years, readers have been drawn into the world of The Wuthering Heights (1847) and the story of the Brontë sisters, literary geniuses ahead of their time, publishing captivating and romantic gothic literature under pseudonyms at a time when women writers were frowned upon.

On August 11, 2022, the trailer for Emilya historical drama that explores what we know relatively little about The Wuthering Heights author Emily Brontë, was released, along with Emma Mackey from Sex education fame playing the woman herself.

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According to Warner Brothers, director Frances O’Connor explores Emily’s “imaginary life” and what might have inspired her only novel. The trailer suggests that Emily had an affair with William Weightman, an assistant parish priest, even though “there is no historical evidence of a romantic relationship between Emily and Weightman”, according to reports. Logically speaking, themes of love and loss are brought into a film because they easily pique the audience’s interest.

It made me think that we are fascinated by the life behind the scenes of our cultural obsessions, and that the personal lives of authors can become a public good just as much as their works. It is this feeling of belonging that can risk creating conflicts around films about literary icons.

The Brontë family has long won over critics and readers not only because of their work, but also because they experienced so much tragedy: five of the six children died young. Four daughters died of tuberculosis and Branwell, the only son, turned to drugs and alcohol when his career as an artist failed.

In imagining what Emily’s life would have been like, O’Connor not only accessed the information that exists about the author, but blended it with the evocative environments and thematic elements that stand out strongly in The Wuthering Heights. According to reports, she even shot the film in and around West Yorkshire, where the Brontë sisters spent most of their lives and wrote their famous novels.

Over the decades, many literary biopics have used the names of real people, but have also taken liberties in dramatizing and narrating certain events.

A movie that Emily can be compared to is Become Joan (2007), which depicts Jane Austen’s early life and her lasting love for Irishman Thomas Langlois Lefroy.

It’s true that Austen did meet and have a brief flirtation with Lefroy, but there’s no evidence that their romance went as far as it did in the movie.

Although not historically correct, Become Joan respects Austen and her legacy. The film is right in spirit if not in detail, showing the literary icon as a bright and intelligent young woman, full of potential, facing a world where social constraints severely limit her possibilities. It depicts the challenges she faced, the tough odds of marrying for love and also being allowed to fulfill her writing aspirations. A montage of her writing words like “my feelings”, “Pemberley”, “Darcy” and “marriage” during the troubled time she spends in the company of Lefroy at her uncle’s house connects her own life experience to that of Elizabeth Bennet, providing a clear-cut reference to her being the heroine of her own future fiction.

from Emily The Wuthering Heights is a multi-generational story of love and revenge that revolves around Heathcliff, an orphan boy, and free spirit Catherine Earnshaw. Despite the difference in their social positions, they fall in love.

But too often, literary biopics, especially those about female authors, tend to attribute their inspirations and ideas to the men they fell in love with, rather than acknowledging that women can write for their love of writing and their own imagination. I would like to see Emily take a different path. The most interesting story for me is not that of a fictional romance to be made Emily more understandable and relatable, but of how a woman known to be so private outside of her home invented the captivating world of The Wuthering Heights.

Written when gender roles were far more rigid and defined than they are now, the novel examines stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. Catherine Earnshaw has many masculine characteristics; although she is outrageously beautiful, she enjoys rough outdoor play and can hold her own in any fight. She is a complex mix of hyper-feminine grace and beauty and ultra-masculine anger and recklessness. Heathcliff, with his physical and mental strength, has no such ambiguities – he is exaggeratedly masculine and despises his wife Isabella for her exaggerated femininity. Emily favored masculinity over femininity, even in her female characters.

The fact that a bold literary work like The Wuthering Heights was written by a woman came as a shock to many – and Emily must dig into the impact of this important and elemental novel.

In the film’s trailer, Emily and her brother Branwell are seen on the moors, shouting “Freedom of Thought” into the wind – a phrase not taken directly from the Brontës’ work, but written in the essence of their creativity. This is reflected in Emily’s characters, such as Catherine Earnshaw, who breaks the hearts of men who long for her and embodies the spirit of struggle to survive in a fierce patriarchal society. Having published her work under a male pseudonym (Ellis Bell), Emily knew this fight all too well.

The Apple TV series Dickinson (2019-2021) also centers on a young woman’s struggle to make her voice heard in a man’s world. Set in the 19th century, it is based on the life of the great American poet Emily Dickinson. However, aside from the clothing and some societal rules, the series is very contemporary, with its soundtrack featuring A$AP Rocky and Billie Eilish. The way Dickinson and his peers speak is also modern: they use millennial slang that can be found on any social media platform. Each episode is named after a Dickinson poem, and audiences see what inspired the poet to write. There are fantastic elements in the characters or the events. Death, from his poem, ‘Cause I couldn’t stop for death, and Person, of I am nobody, who are you? become characters that live around her, but that only she can see.

Such choices are a fun way to learn about the poet’s work while advancing the plot in interesting and unusual ways. What makes the show work is the fact that the way Dickinson wrote poetry — short lines with simple images to explain complex topics — can be easily read today. It is not necessary to know the period in which she lived to understand what she is trying to say.

Still, the freedom with which some biopic creators discard the unsuitable or add their own inventions to produce more sensational and commercially successful stories may displease those who stick to the facts.

But all facts are subject to interpretation. And few sources are truly independent. Biographies, for example, are reliable only through their sources: they may consist of letters and memories of friends, which are far from objective.

Creative freedom must play its part, as biopics walk a delicate line between fact and fiction, promising nothing too truthful, but always “based on”, sometimes “inspired by”, real events. The intention of filmmakers should be to entertain without offending an audience with made-up scenarios.

It will be interesting to see how O’ Connor brings Emily Brontë to the screen in light of the aforementioned literary biopics’ approaches to storytelling. The Wuthering Heights has already proven to be very adaptable to the cinema, but it may be that the world of the novel itself distracts its author.

That being said, The Wuthering Heights is one of the few windows we have into Emily’s inner life.

Most of the characters in his novel aren’t particularly likable. But they have a raw and painful honesty about them – an overwhelming truth that has influenced literature to the present day. Emily was a keen observer of human nature and she was determined to paint that nature with all its scars. I expect O’ Connor to embrace Emily’s scars as well as she recounts the story of the enigmatic author.

Chababa Iqbal graduated in Media and Communications from the Independent University of Bangladesh (IUB). Email: [email protected]

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