Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then, I contradict myself;
(I am large—I contain multitudes.) –Walt Whitman
As regular readers can no doubt tell (and first-time visitors can likely glean from the quote above), I’m a lit nerd. I *heart* literature–the good, the bad, the trashy (hello, Harlequin romance) … I love it all (well, with the exception of Robinson Crusoe. Nothing can make me love that book. Blech). And I particularly enjoy seeing some of my favorites make their way onto the big screen.
In most cases of book-to-film adaptation, I am, admittedly, a literary purist. Wide-ranging changes to an author’s work for cinematic purposes tend to raise my blood pressure. And in many cases, I feel this is justified. When you invest part of yourself in a work of literature–fully adopting the mantle of “fan” (or, in the case of the Harry Potter series and yours truly, “rabid fan”)–there is a certain expectation that filmmakers will respect the author’s original vision and only make those alterations that are deemed necessary in the face of some visual limitation, time constraint, or (God forbid) gigantic hole in the plot or characterization.
Yet I contradict this attitude more often than I would perhaps be willing to admit. Sometimes, changing an author’s original intent can be a good thing. Pointing once again to the Harry Potter phenomenon, I feel the filmmakers did an excellent job, in general, of culling down the minutia of J.K. Rowling’s literary universe and presenting the spirit of the books on the big screen (I say “in general” here because I really disliked some of the changes made for the sixth film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. But that’s another topic for another blog). Did the movies precisely follow the model of the books? No. But did they present Rowling’s work in a visually appealing, entertaining manner that demonstrated a great respect for said books? Most definitely.
The same theory can, in principle, be applied to films that play with historical events. Sometimes, it’s difficult for me to put aside what I know of history and watch a movie through the “alternate timeline” lens–for instance, I had a particular problem with this in watching 2009′s Inglorious Basterds (the grammarian in me also took issue with the misspelled title, despite Quentin Tarantino’s attempted justifications. Hey, spelling is important, y’all). I tried–I honestly tried–to remember that I was watching a film that is set in a completely different universe. But I could not lose myself in the movie, because history lessons of the past continued to pound at my brain as I watched Adolf Hitler bite it in a movie theater, a full year before his actual death in a German bunker.
Somehow, though, I don’t really have a problem with most of the extreme liberties taken by 1946′s Devotion, a fictionalized version of the life of the Brontë sisters. And when I say “fictionalized,” I mean that practically the only thing the characters in this film have in common with the literary sisters is their shared names. So why doesn’t this bother me as much as Tarantino’s film? Perhaps it’s because I’m used to biographies exaggerating the lives of their subjects. Veracity in the biopic genre is, at best, a pipe dream. Most of the movies that I’ve seen that purport to be the “true-life” story of So-and-So tend to heighten the drama in lieu of focusing on that boring, pesky interloper, realism.
Devotion is no exception to this rule. To me, it remains the guiltiest of guilty-pleasure flicks, a so-wrong-that-it’s-almost-right journey into a skewed early-Victorian universe. I find it to be endlessly entertaining, if only for its beautiful staging, gorgeous (if sometimes incongruous, given the Brontës’ general poverty) costumes, and the performances of its lead actresses, Ida Lupino and Olivia de Havilland, who trudge through the sometimes maudlin material with grace and aplomb … though both women are way too beautiful to play a pair of sisters who were, by most accounts, rather plain and unassuming.
Charlotte (de Havilland) and Emily (Lupino) Brontë, along with their sister, Anne (played by Nancy Coleman, whose presence in the film is negligible), are aspiring writers living with their father (Montagu Love, in his final performance), a vicar, and their brother, Branwell (Arthur Kennedy), an aspiring artist who would rather get drunk than paint. The new curate, Arthur Nicholls (Paul Henreid), initially forms a tentative relationship with the brooding Emily, but soon falls in love with Charlotte. Meanwhile, both sisters have fallen in love with Nicholls, and each uses him as the model for the hero of her respective novel–Rochester in Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, and Heathcliff in Emily’s Wuthering Heights. Charlotte’s novel, which becomes the more successful of the two, eventually leads to her friendship with the noted author William Makepeace Thackeray (Sydney Greenstreet), who nonetheless admits his preference for Emily’s work. Meanwhile, Nicholls, unwilling to break Emily’s heart by confessing his love for Charlotte, leaves the countryside to work in London, until a double dose of tragedy brings him back.
I have read both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights numerous times over the years, and I agree with Greenstreet’s Thackeray–to me, Emily’s work is infinitely better. I don’t particularly care for Jane Eyre (I could go into the reasons why, but I doubt you came here looking for a dissertation on the subject). Wuthering Heights, on the other hand, has been a favorite of mine for years. It seems so much more authentically emotional to me than Charlotte’s book–which is all the more unusual because the real Emily Brontë was somewhat of a recluse, home-bound because of poor health, and by most accounts had no romantic life of which to speak. Damned if she didn’t have one hell of an imagination, though. To have created such a complex character as Heathcliff–a man by turns tortured, villainous, charming, sympathetic, and loathsome–with little basis in experience or actual acquaintance with a similar personality, is an impressive feat.
Which is why the casting of Henreid as the curate who supposedly influenced the creation of Heathcliff is so utterly curious to me. Henreid functions in the film as a steady, solid figure of masculine authority. Yet he lacks the fire and the energy that would indicate this man, Nicholls, could possibly influence the conception of a figure like Heathcliff, who is akin to the devil himself. There’s nothing solid about Heathcliff–he exists on the edge of madness, at times, unable to control his baser emotions and letting revenge and hatred guide his every move. On the other hand, Henreid, as an actor, tended to gravitate toward bland leading-man roles (Now, Voyager) or supporting characters (Casablanca) who were almost bloodless in their lack of passion and verve. Hard to believe, then, that Henreid’s Nicholls could indulge in, or even condone, flights of flaming fervor and intensity. Can you say “miscast?”
Lupino, on the other hand, was a great choice to play Emily, in my opinion. She captures the more repressed side of the writer without delving into depressive fits or hysterics, as some who tackled the role might have been tempted to do (ahem, Miriam Hopkins, I’m looking at you). There is a quiet dignity that Lupino brings to the part that contrasts nicely with de Havilland’s more lively presence in the film. Lupino’s performance demonstrates her innate skill at capturing the nuances of a character. But by the time Devotion was released, Lupino had already begun to express an interest in moving beyond acting to take up directing. To that end, when Lupino’s studio contract expired in 1947, she became a free agent, which allowed her the freedom to pursue interests outside of acting–writing, producing, and, ultimately, directing. In 1949, Lupino finally got her wish when she took over direction of Not Wanted, which was being developed through her own production company, The Filmmakers. Though she would continue to act through the late 1970s, Lupino ultimately directed half a dozen more films and untold hours of television programs including episodes of The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Bewitched, among numerous others. For a period of time from the late 1940s through the mid-1950s, Ida Lupino was the only female director working in Hollywood.
For her part, the notoriously difficult de Havilland does well with the more direct, controlling aspects of Charlotte’s character, and there’s little indication of any behind-the-scenes turmoil in her performance. But the movie came at a pivotal point in de Havilland’s career. Devotion actually finished filming in 1943, but was not released in theaters until three years later. This was due to de Havilland’s landmark lawsuit against the studio that controlled her contract, Warner Bros. When Olivia’s seven-year contract with the studio came to a close in 1943 after completion of Devotion, the studio tried to tack on an extra six months to make up for previous “suspensions.” She sued and won the following year, as the California courts agreed that contracts were only enforceable for a set number of calendar years, with no addendum allowed to make up for time when an actor was not working. The decision ultimately weakened the studio system–the movie studio giants had coasted along for years taking advantage of their contract players, forcing them into a kind of indentured servitude. The de Havilland law, as it came to be known, thereafter guaranteed performers much more freedom in their careers. And though de Havilland’s stand against the studio system could have spelled disaster for her career, it instead ushered in a period of great success for the actress, as she would go on to win two Academy Awards for Best Actress (1946′s To Each Their Own and 1949′s The Heiress).
If you’re looking for an accurate portrayal of the life of the Brontë sisters, you’d be better served to look elsewhere. But for sheer entertainment value, you can’t beat the combination of Ida and Olivia (with the ever delightfully droll Greenstreet thrown in for good measure). Just remember to take the “facts” of their lives with a couple hundred grains of salt …
This post is my contribution to the “Spread the Ida Love” blogathon hosted by Jen at the Ida Lupino blog. For more entries from other contributors, check out her site.