BRONTË’S THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL ON TV: WHY I WON’T SHOW IT IN CLASS

Among the myriad things we, teachers, do in July one is (re-)reading the set texts for the coming academic year and, in some cases, seeing the corresponding film adaptation (on DVD, self-financed) to check whether it might be of use to complement the book (also self-financed). I personally enjoy very much doing research on film adaptations and have frequently used film clips in class, teaching occasionally elective subjects on the adaptation of short fiction or drama.

Last year (2010-11), however, I didn’t use films at all in class for two reasons: a) students’ ability to understand the texts is fast diminishing and we have, therefore, less time for ‘extras;’ b) after reading an exam on High Fidelity in which Rob Fleming was called throughout Rob Gordon (as in the film) I must finally accept that too many students see adaptations instead of reading the books. Next semester we’ll be teaching Oliver Twist and I’m already bracing myself for getting songs from Carol Reed’s musical film instead of passages from Dickens quoted in student papers. Oh, well!

Actually, with Victorian novels the problem is the TV adaptation rather than the film version. The 1999 TV mini-series based on Oliver Twist, for instance, seems at 386 minutes complete enough to tempt students into not reading the text. And not only students. I’ve read somewhere that the TV version of Middlemarch (375 minutes, 900 pages) boosted enormously the sales of the book but not necessarily the size of its readership. For the other novel we’re teaching, Anne Brontë’s overlooked The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the choice is between 400 pages or 159 minutes… This is why I doubt I’ll even mention the TV version in class, much less show clips from it.

It’ll be easy, in any case, to catch students who haven’t read the book (yes, we have introduced reading tests –isn’t it appalling that we need them?). Even though the main actors are perfect (see https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115387/ -God bless the Brits for producing such great acting!) and so is the very English country house setting, Brontë’s secondary characters are mostly pared down to mere non-entities. More important, some key aspects have been rewritten in some cases to make up for apparent plot gaps (Helen’s odd ignorance of Gilbert’s brutal assault on Lawrence) or to dismiss uncomfortable gender issues –uncomfortable today, not for Brontë’s Victorian imagination: in the novel Gilbert hesitates to approach Helen again knowing she’s become a very rich woman; this is not even mentioned in the TV version. Also, the crucial religious subtext is sharply downplayed, possibly to make Helen less sanctimonious, which she is no doubt.

Poor Tara Fitzgerald, a real beauty and an inspired casting for Helen, was given a most unflattering Victorian hairstyle in the mini-series, corresponding to the decade the novel covers (1827-1837). I realise I could never have come up with that awful look as a reader. That ugly hairdo has certainly colonised my own visualisation of the novel… what an eyesore! In the end I might show just that –images to help students visualise the text, not necessarily from the mini-series but perhaps original Victorian fashion plates.

Deep breath. I just feel sad. Too much in our teaching Literature is becoming conditioned by students’ readiness to cheat on us rather than by our eagerness to teach them… Their loss as much as ours.

2 thoughts on “BRONTË’S THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL ON TV: WHY I WON’T SHOW IT IN CLASS

  1. I hear you, Sarah! If it is any consolation, the situation is not necessarily different over here. Lecturers now also feel the obligation to add clips to their slides in order to spice them up. The problem is that there is a compelling need to simplify things for students, to make them easier to follow so that they can take more information in. This is not purely a result of an excessively compact education, I remember my 25 contact hours in Barcelona and it seems like a joke compared to the 8-9 hours of contact here, but rather the fact that, since education is gradually turning into a business, we feel the need to please our customers. More importantly, we feel the obligation to entertain (and especially since what we teach is literature). I lectured on Gaskell recently and I remember going through the same moment of self-induced panic: will they find ‘North and South’ boring? If they do, will it be my fault for not including enough audio-visuals, for not making the contents more accessible? I decided to use clips for their instantaneity and also because I could then rely on the fact that I know what they had seen. The saddest bit is not that most students will watch the BBC adaptation instead, but rather that they won’t bother to so much as use wikipedia in preparation.

  2. Hi, Xavi!! This semester the UAB has given me a classroom with no computer (I’m supposed to bring my own…), and I have decided to make the most of this disadvantage and focus on READING. Considering I’ll be teaching at 15:00, this will be a wonderful feat… Yes, some years ago we lost it by deciding that teaching should be entertaining as we (my generation) were bored out of our pants by our own teachers. The result? We’re valued according to how much we entertain, not how much we teach.
    Thanks for the comment!

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