‘Emily’ and creative freedom in literary biopics
For nearly 200 years, readers have been swept up in the world of Wuthering Heights (1847), and the tale of the Brontë sisters—literary geniuses ahead of their time, publishing captivating, romantic Gothic literature under pseudonyms at a time when women writers were frowned upon.
On August 11, 2022, the trailer for Emily, a historical drama that explores what relatively little we know about Wuthering Heights author Emily Brontë, was released, with Emma Mackey of Sex Education fame playing the woman herself.
According to Warner Brothers, director Frances O'Connor explores "the imagined life" of Emily and what could have inspired her only novel. The trailer suggests Emily had an affair with William Weightman, an assistant curate, even though "there's no historical evidence of any romance between Emily and Weightman," as per reports. Logically speaking, themes of love and loss are brought into a film because they easily pique the audience's interest.
It got me thinking that we are fascinated by the behind-the-scenes lives of our cultural obsessions, and the personal lives of authors can come to feel like public possessions just as much as their works. It is this sense of ownership that can risk conflict over films about literary icons.
The Brontë family has long appealed to critics and readers alike 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 information that exists about the author, but blended it with the evocative environments and thematic elements that come through strongly in Wuthering Heights. As per 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.
Throughout decades, many literary biopics have used names of real people, but also taken liberties in the dramatisation and narration of certain events.
One film that Emily may be comparable to is Becoming Jane (2007), which depicts the early life of Jane Austen and her lasting love for the Irishman Thomas Langlois Lefroy.
It is true that Austen met and had a brief flirtation with Lefroy, but there's no evidence to show that their romance went anywhere near as far as it does in the film.
Although not historically correct, Becoming Jane respects Austen and her legacy. The film gets the spirit right if not the details, showing the literary icon as a bright, intelligent young woman, full of potential, facing a world where social constraints severely limit her possibilities. It depicts the challenges she faced, the difficult odds against her marrying for love and also being allowed to fulfill her writing aspirations. A montage of her penning words like "my feelings", "Pemberley", "Darcy" and "marriage" during the troubled time she spends in Lefroy's company at his uncle's house connects her own life experience to her Elizabeth Bennet's, providing a clear-cut reference to the fact that she is the heroine of her own future fiction.
Emily's Wuthering Heights is a multigenerational story of love and revenge that revolves around Heathcliff, an orphan boy, and the free-spirited Catherine Earnshaw. Despite the difference in their social positions, they fall in love.
But too often, literary biopics, particularly ones about female authors, tend to attribute their inspirations and ideas to men they fell in love with, rather than acknowledging that women can write for the sake of their love for writing and their own imagination. I would like to see Emily take a different route. The more interesting story to me is not of a fictionalised romance to make Emily more understandable and relatable but of the way a woman who was known to be so private outside of her home came up with the captivating world of 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; even though she is outrageously beautiful, she loves rough, outdoor play and can hold her own in any fight. She is a complex mix of hyper-feminine grace and loveliness and ultra-masculine anger and recklessness. Heathcliff, with his physical and mental toughness, has no such ambiguities—he is exaggeratedly masculine and scorns his wife Isabella for her overblown femininity. Emily favoured masculinity over femininity, even in her female characters.
The fact that a daring piece of literature like Wuthering Heights was penned by a woman came as a shock to many — and Emily needs to dig into the impact of this important and elemental novel.
In the trailer for the film, Emily and her brother Branwell are seen on the moors, yelling "Freedom in thought" into the wind – a phrase not drawn directly from the Brontës' work, but written in the essence of their creativity. It is reflected upon Emily's characters, such as Catherine Earnshaw, who breaks the hearts of men who yearn for her, and embodies the spirit of fighting to survive in a cutthroat patriarchal society. Having published her works under a male pen name (Ellis Bell), Emily knew this fight all too well.
The Apple TV series Dickinson (2019-2021) is also centred on a young woman's fight to get 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, besides the clothing and some societal rules, the series is very contemporary, with its soundtrack featuring the likes of A$AP Rocky and Billie Eilish. The way Dickinson and her peers speak is also modern: they use millennial slang that can be found on any social media platform. Every episode is named after a poem by Dickinson, and the audience sees what inspired the poet to write. There are fantasy elements to the characters or events. Death, from her poem, Because I could not stop for Death, and Nobody, from I'm Nobody, who are you? become characters that live around her, but that only she can see.
Such choices are a fun way to discover the poet's work while also moving the plot forward interestingly and unusually. What makes the show work is the fact that the way Dickinson wrote poetry — short lines with simple imagery to explain complex subjects— can be easily read today. There is no need for knowledge of the time period she lived in to understand what she is trying to say.
Nevertheless, the freedom with which some biopic makers discard what doesn't fit or add their own inventions to produce more sensational and commercially successful stories may be displeasing to those who are faithful to the facts.
But all facts are open to interpretation. And few sources are truly independent. Biographies, for instance, are only as reliable as their sources: they can be made up from letters and friends' reminiscences, which are less than objective.
Creative freedom is bound to play its part, because biopics tread a tricky line between fact and fiction, not promising anything too truthful, but still "based on", sometimes "inspired by", true events. The intention of filmmakers should be to entertain without offending an audience with invented 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. Wuthering Heights has already proved to be highly adaptable for cinema, but it may be that the world of the novel itself pulls focus away from its author.
That being said, Wuthering Heights is one of the only windows we have available to Emily's interior life.
Most of the characters in her novel are not particularly sympathetic. But they have a raw, painful honesty about them — a rubbing truth that has influenced literature into 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 too, when telling the enigmatic author's story.
Shababa Iqbal is a Media and Communications graduate from Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB). Email: [email protected].