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The American Classic Film style was a popular form of making films in the western world between the 1920’s to 1960’s. Often they could be melodramatic, theatrical even and tended to reflect on societies values of the time which, nearing the end of the era, were becoming outdated and unpopular. Remnants of this style are still present in cinema after, however films are now being made drawing inspiration from a variety of styles.

Screencap: The Adventures of Robin Hood (Curtiz. US. 1938)


They were often shot in high key lighting on sound stages. If there were any exterior shoots they would have been shot on the studio back lot. It was unusual for a film to travel far for shooting. The Adventures of Robin Hood (Curtiz, 1938) starring Erroll Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, recreated Saxon England and its wooded land on the Warner Bro.s California lot. It was similar to watching theatre and was shot with smooth camera movements which made it clear that the audience were watching a movie. Rarely, did they experiment with framing, resorting to simple set ups that audiences could follow. Alfred Hitchcock, who became one Hollywood’s greatest assets during the classic era, was an exception to this, having studied in Germany, developing a more obscure, expressionistic approach. This can be seen in films like Spellbound (1945), which he even called upon artist Salvador Dali to create the surreal dream sequence. This was subversive from the usual Hollywood style, and yet the film and narrative itself remain very much American Classic.

Scene Break Down: Gone with the Wind

Screencaps: Gone With the Wind (Fleming, 1939)

The scene plays out simply There are lot’s of tracking shots, dynamic movements that sweep with the characters and follow them and their actions. It is very similar to theatre; however, the camera changes angle when a new mood, tone or change of events take place. Like here when Rhett refuses to kiss Scarlett, she then turns from him bitterly. The camera dances around them. Prior to this scene, there are action-reaction shots but the framing is conventional.

Narrative Style

A three act structure, once again similar to the theatre and a format that has worked for hundreds of years, is common in American classic cinema and corresponds with Todorovs Narrative theory. The theory that all stories are technically made up of the same narrative that the equilibrium is in place, then it is unbalanced and eventually restored. It could be considered simple; but even in the 21st century it is a form that is repeatedly successful. The plot almost always unfolds in chronological order and any deviation from linearity tends to be in the form of an obvious flashback or dream. Furthermore, the characters are all there for a reason and every action progresses the story. There are no random appearances or surreal events like the sort that can be found in a David Lynch film. Everything in the story must have a purpose, and characters remain active and busy (Cook, 2007: p.45). Even in their musicals, the characters do not break out into random songs but instead tunes that reflect their feelings during the action or event or in the case of The Sound of Music (Wise, 1965), is actually part of the unfurling of events. To escape German occupied Austria, they must perform as the Von Trapp family at the music festival so as not to cause suspicion.

Screencap: The Sound of Music (Wise. US. 1965)

The narrative style reflects the capitalist society of the time and the messages that they wanted to convey as the characters continually have goals and are constantly doing something. American Classic film begun around the time of the Great Depression, and the American Dream was everyone’s greatest desire. Not only was cinema an escape, it had influence on society’s ideal of the dream. It fed on the government’s own propaganda to get everyone contributing to society whilst also promoting the idea that if you work hard, you can be on top of the world.

Narrative Elements and Values

The common elements, Heroes vs. Villains and good conquering all perhaps particularly reflect on society during this period and post war. Box office numbers began to decline in the fifties, however, during it peak, the working class were the most avid cinema goers as it was fairly cheap entertainment (Abrams, Bell & Urdis, J,2010: p.142) The war years inspired a need for fantasy and escape and a belief in Heroes. This style, perhaps, did so well for the forty odd years it did because it was considered an escape from the harshness of reality. The public were aware that real life was not like it, but to have their favourite stars act out their dreams was enough during the depression and war years. Morals were strong following the codes introduced in the early 30’s, the bad were punished and the good got all they wanted and more in the end. This was what audiences needed. A restoration of the equilibrium. It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, 1946) is an optimistic attempt to inspire; its message that everybody’s life matters and influences countless others lives from day to day. Sometimes Hollywood even sway from original source material to avoid offending their conservative values and even to lighten the tone as A Street Car Named Desire (Kazan, 1952) did in attempt to ward off the strict censors.

Screencap: A Streetcar Named Desire (Kazan. US. 1952)

Not all of the films had happy endings. Gone with the Wind (Fleming, 1939) for example, has perhaps one of the most tragic finales in film history. However, many believe Scarlett O’Hara gets her just desserts in the end even though she works incredibly hard for her family following the war. She is still punished for her selfish, not so honourable behaviour throughout the film. Roman Holiday (Wyler, 1953), another classic romance ends with Gregory Pecks reporter, Joe Bradley, and Audrey Hepburn’s, Princess Ann, parting at the end. At the time, maybe duty was considered more important. It is a story that is repeatedly referenced, with 1994’s, Only You (Jewison, 1994) starring Robert Downey Jr. and Marisa Tomei, shaping its plot around it.

Screencap: Roman Holiday (Wyler. US. 1953)


The American Classic style particularly thrived during the peak of the Hollywood Studio System, when top companies such as Warner Bros, MGM and Universal would run film production like a factory. Stars were contracted to particular studios and loaned out to other companies at high price, or when the actor or actress had not behaved ‘correctly’. For example, Clark Gable was signed with MGM, but following a broken contract with them as punishment he was loaned to Columbia where he worked with Frank Capra, acting opposite Claudette Colbert to make the 1935 romantic Comedy It Happened One Night (Bilbow & Gau, 1995: p.139). To the two stars surprise, it was a success and actually paved the way for the Romantic Comedy genre.

Directors initially had no creative control, producers had the last say and films were being made at rapid pace. Many did not approach filmmaking as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles or Frank Capra did who left their mark and developed new methods in storytelling such as Welles deep-focus shot in Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941) and Hitchcock’s Trombone shot initially used in Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958). These are the most notable auteurs of the American Classic era along with Billy Wilder, who directed and wrote Some Like it Hot (1959), Howard Hawks, who made Rio Bravo (1959) and Bringing up Baby (1938) and John Ford, the iconic director of Westerns, the maker Stagecoach (1939) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and who often worked with the actor John Wayne.

Screencap: It Happened One Night (Capra. US. 1935)

Emotive musical scores were popularly used during this time that fed the emotions into a scene and up until the past few years, has been common in larger productions. The musicals like West Side story (Wise, 1961) and The Wizard of Oz (Fleming, 1939), the Epics like Gone with the Wind and Ben Hur (Wyler, 1959) and Westerns like The Magnificent Seven (Sturges, 1960) were full of iconic music and sweeping scores. On some occasions, the music has become more notable than the film; the constant referencing to classic cinema across media has ingrained the films into pop culture.

The end of the American Classic

In later years, they became more self-aware and were playful with the classic tropes or vicious with their criticisms of the Hollywood system. In later years, they would tackle bigger issues, such as racism in To Kill a Mockingbird (Mulligan, 1962), In the Heat of the Night (Jewison, 1967) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Kramer, 1967), the latter two starring one of Hollywood’s first Black leading men, Sidney Poitier. Also, ideologies began to change and some films reflected this and took advantage of the lax of the code that for years had permitted filmmakers from exploring certain subjects. Mike Nichols 1966 adaptation of Edward Albees play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? shocked viewers with its coarse language and frank sexual references; never had a such things been seen on the big screen.

Screencap: To Kill a Mockingbird (Mulligan. US. 1962)

By the 1960’s, box office figures were dropping dramatically and attitudes were changing. Protests against the Vietnam War, against the government and for civil rights were happening across the US. Realism and rebellion were what people looked for in cinema. As society became more pessimistic and the typical social constructs were stripped back, the old Hollywood messages were fast becoming irrelevant to younger generations. Foreign cinema, such as French New-Wave, were simply more relatable to the youths and the introduction of colour televisions to households changed the entertainment in the western world. It became harder to stick to the American classic style, and by the mid-60’s more foreign films were being released in America more than American productions, including British cinema such as A Hard Day’s Night (Lester, 1964) and Alfie (Gilbert, 1966). The American Classic has paved the way for film; it still influences key directors in this century whilst also being lovingly recycled for modern audiences.

Screencap: The Quiet Man (Ford. US. 1952)


ABRAMS, N. BELL, I. & URDIS, J. (2010) Studying Film. Second Edition. London: Bloomsbury Academic

BILBOW, T. & GAU, J. (1995) Lights, Camera, Action: A Century of Cinema. First Edition. London: Little, Brown and company

COOK, P. (ed.) (2007) The Cinema Book. Third Edition. London: BFI. Palgrave Macmillan


Gone with the Wind. (1939) Film. Directed by Victor Fleming. [DVD]. US: Warner Bros

The Adventures of Robin Hood. (1938) Film. Directed by Michael Curtiz. [DVD]. US: Warner Bros.

The Sound of Music. (1965) Film. Directed by Robert Wise. [DVD]. US: Twentieth Century Fox

A Streetcar Named Desire. (1952). Film. Directed by Elia Kazan. [DVD]. US: Warner Bros.

Roman Holiday. (1953). Film. Directed by William Wyler. [DVD]. US: Paramount

It Happened One Night. (1935). Film. Directed by Frank Capra. [DVD]. US: Columbia

The Quiet Man (1952). Film. Directed by John Ford. [DVD]. US: Paramount

To Kill a Mockingbird. (1962). Film. Directed by Robert Mulligan. [DVD]. US: Universal Pictures.

(Originally Composed 13/12/16 for a project on Film styles)

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The western film industry, as an institution, has certainly been guilty of lazy, ignorant and racist casting since its conception. It has been in common practise longer than its ‘new and improved’ cultural sensitivity. However, it is still getting it wrong. From an industry that is running itself into a multi-billion dollar grave of big set-piece action/thrillers in which all the cast are seasoned, big-name stars who have no longer been cast on their own merit but only their name, it is disappointing that with the influence it has over the average film viewer, they don’t take the initiative and try to change.

Screenshot from Birth of a Nation (Griffiths, 1915)

Racial diversity has, until recently, been overlooked in western cinema, particularly in older cinema, where it was rife but not unexpected. In a less tolerant age, they would often cast white actors in roles meant for people of colour. Birth of a Nation (Griffiths, 1915), which we can now look back on as an important piece of cinema history both technically and ethically, had an all-white cast in a film depicting black people in one of the most offensively negative depictions in western cinema. John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (Powell, 1956), being one of the most baffling, it is not the only extreme case. Jean Simmons in the powerful The Black Narcissus (Powell & Pressberger, 1947) is cast as the Tibetan maiden although not, in the slightest, resembling a person of middle-Asian descent. Micky Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Edwards, 1961) is an often considered a blemish in what is an incredibly pleasant film, playing an over the top neighbour and being a depiction of the offensive stereotypes that the Chinese were held to in American society at that time. It was used to comedic effect. Of course we must take into consideration our own modern outlooks on racism and stereotypes and not judge the old with the mind and hindsight of the new. These are only examples, and can be laughed at in their ridiculousness.

Screencap from Othello (Burge, 1965)

The most bizarre of the ‘Blackface’ was in Laurence Olivier’s depiction of the titular role in Othello (Burge, 1965). A seasoned Shakespearian actor, Olivier would have known the role inside and out but when it came to the big screen, certain artistic liberties should not have been taken to ensure his part in the role. He was already too old for the role, let alone racially incorrect. Even in 1965, this was rather egregious, what with the likes of big box office draws such as Sidney Poitier, the first African American to win the academy award for best actor two years prior, rising on the scene. However, he was still nominated for an Oscar as his credits as an actor protected him from vast majority of criticism that today’s climate would condemn him for. A review in the New York Times, at the time of release, reflected the criticism even felt at the inopportune time of the actor’s depiction. ‘He plays Othello in blackface! That's right, blackface—not the dark-brown stain that even the most daring white actors do not nowadays wish to go beyond… He looks like a Rastus or an end man in an American minstrel show.’ (Crowther, 1966). This was a choice made in a climate that did not think so much of sensitivity and were not aware of the cultural merging that would happen in years to come. However, it is proof that people were, even in the late sixties, beginning to shy away from such portrayals. Olivier was hesitant to depict such a role and it was decision among an entire production team that has stained the reputation of a film depicting one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. His merits as a performer should have not been the driving force for what is an uncomfortable interpretation. Segregation was still very much a common practise across parts of US and the UK and racial tensions ran high for many years after the Civil Rights movement. When we look back on these films that have made these miss-steps, we can still do with a fondness, but hold in mind that these are no longer acceptable decisions that we should see made in the 21st century.

It was not until the 1990’s that this style of casting began to wane a lot more and we could see a bigger shift in diversity in major productions. They were set aside as companions, side-kicks and villains. But things have not changed all that much since then. With the likes of Eddie Murphy, and Denzel Washington, Jackie Chan, Halle Berry and Angela Bassett one would have thought that the gates of Hollywood were opening up to people of colour allowing spaces for a diverse environment. The film industry has room for but a handful of actors at a time and these actors would often find themselves in similar roles.

In 2018, one would have assumed that the tradition of whitewashing would have slipped into obscurity and remained an embarrassing stain on the already dubious history of cinema. However, the debate has continued and risen to the forefront. One of the latest examples being the actor Ed Skrein, who in 2017 stepped down from a role in Hellboy. This was due to the original character from the comic being half Japanese. There has already been an adaptation, back in 2004 under Guillermo del Toro so it can be argued that they overlooked this detail once, surely it doesn’t matter all that much. But in an ever ever-growing multi-cultural society moving forward with a media that keeps it heel firmly in the past, representation is drastically needed.

“It is clear that representing this character in a culturally accurate way holds significance for people, and that to neglect this responsibility would continue a worrying tendency to obscure ethnic minority stories and voices in the arts,” - Ed Skrein on Twitter in 2017

Skrein can be applauded for his bold exit from the film, making it public and expressing his views on the topic clear. Hopefully more actors will think with their hearts rather than their pockets. It hasn’t gone away. Annihilation (Garland, 2018), was perhaps the most recent case of all. A film in which we saw Portman cast in an Asian role. She expressed that she did not know this and that she saw it as problematic (Bradley, 2018). Alex Garland, who wrote the original novel and directed the film found himself just as confused with his own characterization and the incidental backlash ‘I cast the film reacting only to the actors I met in the casting process, or actors I had worked with before. There was no studio pressure to cast white. The casting choices were entirely mine.’ (Crucchiola, 2018). Audiences are confused by this as subsequent books he released into the series specified the characters ethnicities. Therefore this case is both bizarre and ambiguous and yet another disappointing decision made.

We cannot blame actors for thinking like this, accepting roles that they are offered. Many actors, no matter how much they claim, do not research their role quite so thoroughly and will overlook such things. We must turn our blame to the studios ‘The usual response from the studios to whitewashing accusations has been simply to tough it out and limit the spread of the stain by denial.’ (Rose, 2017). In 2016, looking at the figures from the BFI, they concluded that there had not been enough growth within the UK industry as initially predicted. It was shown that a disappointing 59% of films did not feature named black characters at all and the films that featured more black characters in principal roles were Crime, Science Fiction and Fantasy. This is not ideal representation. And this was a study specifically for black actors. Breaking this down even more, they said ‘Of around 45,000 roles credited to actors in the UK in this period, only 218 were lead roles played by British black actors, which means only 0.5 per cent of all the credited roles were black leads’ (Hoyes, 2016). With figures such as these, the whitewashing concerns are even more upsetting.

We do not want a case where we still only see a handful of the same faces within the diversity pool. There is a no better time than now for the industry to start searching for more talent both in front of and behind the camera. The more representation that other races and cultures receive, the more likely we will see a rise in diverse filmmakers and actor’s. See is believing, as the old saying goes. The industry must work a little bit harder and instead of throwing lots of money at an average production, they could invest more time and thought into what they really want to sell. It is easy to take this debate into realms of who is to blame and bizarre deflections, as Tilda Swinton did in an interview with for Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016) claiming that her casting in the place of, originally, Tibetan man was less problematic than had it been an Asian man in a stereotypical role (Johnson, 2016). Political correctness comes into play here and perhaps may not be valid as a Marvel comic very much centred in Chinese culture, the absence of Asian leads is both distracting and worrying. The same issue arises in Netflix’s Iron Fist (2017-2018). Surely, one would hope that the casting of an Asian actor in an Asian role would be tackled sympathetically and sensitively, making for great opportunities to break the stereotypes attached to the role as argued in The Hollywood reporter, ‘…skilled filmmakers rewrite characterizations, not character.’ (Sun, 2016). Which makes Swintons argument a strange one. A positive spin would be that having a crucial character represented by a woman is a good thing, but not at the expense of racially diverse representation. As Rebecca Sun (2016) writes in a heartfelt and sincere open letter to Swinton, explaining the significance and weight her claims make;

"You [Swinton] told Margaret that there is “precious little projected on contemporary cinema screens that means a great deal to [your] life.” I don’t know if you meant that little of what you see reflects your experience, but if so, that is exactly the sentiment that so many Asians can relate to. When we look at Ghost in the Shell or Doctor Strange, we see cinematic universes that appropriate Asian cultural elements as literal set dressing, but do not allow Asian people themselves to be seen, much less to tell the stories." - Rebecca Sun for The Hollywood Reporter (2016)

The industry in diversity reports has improved over time, slowly. But one would hope for more on this. Big names have been the draw for studios, casting Tom Cruise in what was originally a Japanese role in Edge of Tomorrow (Liman, 2014). He is a bankable star and this was overlooked. We even had an egregious case of skin-colouring in 2013’s The Big Wedding (Zackman) in which White-British, actor Ben Barnes had the colour of his skin darkened to play a Columbian man. This is truly inappropriate and shocking as a recent case. There is a correlation between these white washing cases and box office returns, it seems. For the modern audience, who have been underestimated by the film industry constantly for the past ten years, it seems that white washing, cultural appropriation and lack of diversity are no longer being accepted. In an article exploring this idea‘…having Johansson in the lead role is a big reason why Ghost in the Shell earned $128 million overseas. But I don't think you can argue that Rooney Mara or Emma Stone brought more than a few bucks to Pan ($128m worldwide) or Aloha! ($26m).’ (Mendelson 2017). Aloha! (Crowe, 2015) And Pan (Wright, 2015) were also criticised for the white washing of an Asian and Native American characters, and although the writer of this article as no proof for diversity being a factor in these box office bombs, I think they are proof that audiences want to see accurate representations. Particularly in adaptations of much loved characters that are getting the Hollywood treatment, such as Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell (Sanders, 2017).

The industry could be changing; films can take years to make. We may only see the effects of the past few years debates in the coming future. This cannot be just the latest trend, however. We must continue to callout poor choices from studios and urge them to consider more thoroughly the films they choose to put. The rise of audiences and the input they have over the content they see has increased since the rise of Facebook, twitter and other social networking platforms. It means that we can criticise producer’s choices even in the early stages of the production when cast is announced. We have more of a say than ever before and this must be used to our best advantage. If everyone did this, the audience would have no other reason but to watch something for a plot. But as we all know the quality of film has slipped significantly in the past ten years. The idea of seeing a film for anything other than the cast now seems obscure. But we must keep pushing for representation. The argument that performance over accuracy can’t be made as talent is universal. In the coming years, one hopes that the industry will see the excitement with regard to casting ‘unknowns’ and exploring diverse, new stories that can be enjoyed by all.


BRADLEY, L. (2018). Annihilation. Vanity Fair [Online]. 14th February. Available from: [Accessed: 2nd January 2019].

CROWTHER, B.(1966). The Screen: Minstrel Show 'Othello':Radical Makeup Marks Olivier's Interpretation. New York Times Archives. [Online]. 2nd February. Available from: [Accessed: 13th January 2019].

CRUCCHIOLA, J. (2018). Annihilation Director on Whitewashing: There Was ‘Nothing Cynical or Conspiratorial’. Vulture. [Online]. 15th February. Available from: [Accessed: 2nd January 2019].

HOYES, M. (2016). Infographic: The true picture for black actors in the UK film industry. BFI. [Online]. 19th December. Available from: [Accessed: 2nd January 2019].

JOHNSON, J. (2016). Tilda Swinton Addresses Doctor Strange Whitewashing Backlash. E News Online. [Online]. 4th October 2018. Available from: [Accessed: 2nd January 2019].

MENDELSON, S. (2017). Whitewashing Doesn't Create Hits. Doing The Opposite Might. Forbes. [Online]. 11th May. Available from: [Accessed: 1st January 2019].

ROSE, S. (2017). ‘The idea that its good business is a myth’ – Why Hollywood Whitewashing has Become Toxic. The Guardian. [Online]. 29th August. Available from: [Accessed: 12th December 2018].

SKREIN,E. (2019). 28th August 2017. Available at: [Accessed: 1st January 2019].

SUN, R. (2016). An Open Letter to Tilda Swinton About Her 'Doctor Strange' Whitewashing Email to Margaret Cho. The Hollywood Reporter. [Online]. 21st December. Available from: [Accessed: 1st January 2019].


Birth of A Nation (1915). Directed by D.W. Griffiths. [DVD]. UK: BFI

Othello. (1965). Directed by Stuart Burge. [DVD]. UK: ITV Home Entertainment

(Originally composed on 18/01/19 for a study on the Film Industry)

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*Contains Spoilers*

Literary adaptations and costume dramas have been produced on film since the beginning of cinema. British cinema has become infamous in its handling of its own rich cultured history, that the term ‘Heritage cinema’ has been coined to describe them and market them, in particular those being made in the early 1980’s, such as the Merchant-Ivory produced A Room with a View (1985). The costume drama is a vast plane and covers a variety of genres under the heading. Most interestingly is to consider the literary adaptations and how they endure. One of the most recent films to conform to the original term for ‘Heritage cinema’ is Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; the social ‘rom-com’ about the Bennet sisters of lowly means, trying to find love and security. Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, is an independent period film and tells the tale of a strong-willed but plain orphan who takes the position of a governess at the mysterious Thornfield Hall. With such a firm place in Britain’s cultural identity and imaginations, many have attempted to translate the deeply emotive and timeless stories about independent women onto film. In 1944, the first silver screen adaptation of Brontë’s classic appeared, embracing the gothic elements; it is one of the more memorable attempts. Whilst Austen’s novel has seen many reinventions such as the 1940 production, the most slap-stick of them all, starring Laurence Olivier. However there has been a transformation of the use of history and literature in cinema: “…some recent romantic comedies like ...Bridget Jones's Diary (2001), Alex and Emma (2003) or Kate and Leopold (2001) literally rely on their heroines' recourse to period fantasy to fuel the romance in the postmodern present.’” (Ascheid, 2006). Each novel has received an assortment of treatments through film, television, theatre and even musicals with widely varying success. There are few that have stood the test of time, yet the stories have remained current.

Screenshot of Janes’ escape to the moors (Fukunaga, 2011

Narrative Form

Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice are examples of mainstream cinema, produced simply for the enjoyment of its viewer, to become a form of escape. The former is told in a non-linear narrative, a filmic decision by script writer Moira Buffini (2011) to heighten the mystery and intrigue for the audience as the original structure of the novel was chronological. Furthermore, it allows those viewers familiar with the book to experience the story in a new, compelling way. Pride and Prejudice is a simple linear narrative.

Screenshot of Darcy at Dawn (Wright, 2005)

The iconography of the British period drama is traditional in both films. Fukunagas film is more historically accurate, taking advantage of the restrictive dress codes to express further the austere society Jane lives in. Wrights’ film, on the other hand, takes certain liberties in its accuracy, choosing rather to modernise the Bennets costumes and under-dress the cast to portray how down-to-earth and care-free their lives are. One could go as far to say that the costumes, thin and light, sexualise the cast; an argument Camden makes in her analysis of this film (2011). The period drama would not be complete without the historical stately homes and Heritage sites which have become an advert for them to encourage the general public to visit the locations. Dario Marianelli, composer for both films, sweeping orchestral scores are perfectly fitting to the genre; a style used repeatedly to help create a sense of the periods being presented. A modern score or soundtrack would, generally, be considered ill-fitting although Marie Antoinette (Coppola, 2006) attempted it with mixed responses. Finally, Keira Knightley and Judi Dench, it could be argued, have become part of the iconography in the British costume drama. Starring in so many, it is common for the audience to associate them with the genre.

“Oh, heavens Lizzy! What a snob you are! Objecting to poor Mr. Darcy because of his wealth! The man can't help it.” - Mr Gardiner


Pride and Prejudice, initially, was a social comedy before it was labelled as a ‘rom-com’. Therefore, it covers a variety of deeper themes. Class divides between the Bennets, Darcy and Bingley are at the forefront of the conflicts in this story and particularly this adaptation which considerably lowers Elizabeth’s social status. Elizabeth at one point begins doubting her own worth to which her uncle replies, “Oh, heavens Lizzy! What a snob you are! Objecting to poor Mr. Darcy because of his wealth! The man can't help it.” (Pride and Prejudice, 2005) Ultimately, love conquers all. However, there is an unfortunate truth beneath the romance that concerns the themes, and binary opposites, of Duty versus Happiness. Not all of those in Wrights film are as strong-willed as Elizabeth and do not have the privilege to marry for love. Charlotte Lucas marries Mr. Collins shortly after Lizzie, her closest friend, rejects his proposal. She is evidence of the times in which she lived, modern audiences can understand her desperate decision, and pity her lack of a happy ending.

“Miss Ingram, she is the machine without feelings. It’s you, you rare unearthly thing, poor and obscure as you are.” - Mr Rochester

The themes of Jane Eyre are darker than those in Pride and Prejudice. At its romantic roots, under the original definition, the binary opposites are Nature versus Society. If Jane and Rochester represent the wild, Gothic, unruly landscape, Miss Ingram, the opposition for a time, is the embodiment of the tight-laced society they inhabit - “Miss Ingram, she is the machine without feelings. It’s you, you rare unearthly thing, poor and obscure as you are.” (Jane Eyre, 2011). With this in mind, modern audiences relate to this desire to not conform and yet still succeed. Her beauty is often remarked upon, whilst Jane is described as plain and a’ creeping creature’. There are aspects of Jane that are incredibly rebellious. Nature fuels Jane; she has no home when she flees Thornfield. So she spends the night on the moors; the ultimate statement that nature will embrace you, the return to beauty and simplicity. “Jane is searching for a home,” says Philip French (2011) in his review of Jane Eyre, “ and the defining of what that home might be for her, an intelligent, independent-minded Christian woman fuelled by ideas of romantic love, sexual fulfilment and equality within the constraints imposed on her…”

Jane has been wronged consistently through her childhood; from the cruelty at the hands of her aunt and cousins to the abuse and neglect at Lowood School. So a major theme within the film is deceit, or as the screenwriter Buffini (2011) would describe it, a fear of deceit. She is constantly in doubt of the volatile Rochester’s affections, unable to conceive how any man could see her as desirable as she finds him. When finally she trusts him, to the end of the scene in which they profess their love, it is short lived. On their wedding day, considered by many to be the day women dream of, it all comes to a gut-wrenching conclusion. He is wed to another. Worst of all, his wife, Bertha, is imprisoned in the attic. With this, comes Freedom versus Imprisonment which have been binary oppositions throughout the narrative. This is evident among the dialogue, in particular Rochesters comment about Jane, “I can see in you the glance of a curious sort of bird through the close-set bars of a cage, a vivid, restless, captive. Were it but free, it would soar, cloud high.” (Jane Eyre, 2011), One can only assume that at the sight of Bertha, feral and mad, stalking her cell, Jane considers that Rochester would cage her should she become an issue to him. She also must consider what is right. Jane is human and desires to remain with Rochester, but her conscience wins knowing that she will not be able to live with herself should she stay with him unmarried as he so requests.

Screenshot of Darcy and Elizabeth reuniting (Wright, 2005)

Both female protagonists are willing to resign themselves to spinsterhood, with little fear so long as their morals stay intact. They shall marry for love or not all as Elizabeth demonstrates, “Only the deepest love will persuade me into matrimony which is why I shall end up an old maid.” (Pride and Prejudice, 2005). A major reoccurrence in the costume drama is the forward-thinking, free-spiritedness of its female characters and with this comes a tailoring to the 21st century audience.


Joe Wright, of the two directors, conforms most to the auteur theory. Pride and Prejudice was his first feature film, having previously worked in TV. After, he worked with Keira Knightley twice more on Atonement (2007) and Anna Karenina (2011). From a working class background, Abeel (2005) reflects that his work seems to contradict the man himself, adapting classic literature that he admits to never having read. He is clearly intrigued by women as nearly all his films have female protagonists. One can go as far to say that he is a feminist filmmaker, who “gets women” (Wellham, 2011). He tends to tackle themes of forbidden or problematic love and independence, creating beautiful, touching films, solidifying his reputation in British cinema.

Screenshot of Jane and Rochester (Fukunaga, 2011)

Cary Fukunaga, on the other hand, would not be an auteur but more of a jobbing director. Jane Eyre was only his second feature. Roger Ebert (2011) describes his debut Sin Nombre as “…one of the best films of 2009. Its story, based on fearsome Mexican gangs, scarcely resembles Jane Eyre, but it showed an emotional intensity between characters who live mostly locked within themselves.” Looking at his filmography, Jane Eyre appears as an anomaly having followed it up with the first series of True Detective (2014) and Beasts of No Nation (2015). There is a similarity between Jane and Rochester’s relationship and the characters in his first film, the suppressed emotions appealing to Fukunagas’ storytelling but due to the few features he has made, it is hard to decipher whether or not he could be considered an auteur. It is interesting to add that both are male directors, taking on female-lead stories, written by women and adapted by women.


Of the two films, Pride and Prejudice received a wider release and relied on more bankable, international stars such as Donald Sutherland and Keira Knightley to make it an exportable product. In doing so, it grossed £14million in the UK alone (Cook, 2007). Meanwhile, besides Mia Wasikowska, Jane Eyre gathered its home-grown talent in the forms of Jamie Bell and Judi Dench and eventually grossed £5.07million in the UK (BFI, 2012). Many of the performers went on to stardom following their roles. However, Keira Knightley was already considered a star, having a variety of distinguished acting credits to her name. She was associated with the 21st century costume drama, and more followed. With Knightley’s name attached to a project, the audience almost always know what to expect and looking at her filmography, her most popular performances have been in historical pieces. Viewers of her films do not respond as well to her contemporary films, and she has become a marketable commodity around the world for her clean-cut, English-rose persona. Roger Ebert (2005) said of her role in his review of Pride and Prejudice, ‘Knightley's performance is so light and yet fierce that she makes the story almost realistic; this is not a well-mannered "Masterpiece Theatre" but a film where strong-willed young people enter life with their minds at war with their hearts.’ There is a connection between her characters; Knightley embodies the romantic, historical fantasy. The strong-willed woman who fights for her beliefs against the patriarchal society, all the while resisting the oppression of the time period she inhabits (for example, 2008's The Duchess). This fantasy appeals greatly to female audiences. Stars like Knightley appear across many genres and are ways to keep the stories familiar but fresh.

Screenshot of Knightley as Elizabeth (Wright, 2005)

Judi Dench stars in both films and has top billing for her roles. However, she plays incredibly different characters. Over the years, Dench has had a colourful career playing various matriarchs including Queens. She is so ingrained in British cinema, that she has become part of the mise-en-scene of the costume drama. There is a persona attached to her as prim and proper, the epitome of britishness, hailing from Shakespearian theatre. In Pride and Prejudice, Wright makes the most of her cinematic status. As Lady Catherine de Burgh, Dench lives up to her legacy, revelling in the villainous, aristocratic snobbery. So it is interesting that Cary Fukunagas handling of the British Icon is so different. Tim Robey (2011) jokes in his review of the film; “‘Have Judi Dench, won’t make a fuss’ might be his [Fukunaga’s] motto – she’s modestly wonderful as the Thornfield housekeeper, Mrs Fairfax”. Those who expect Dench to command the screen find her exposing her subtler talents, Fukunaga avoids the caricature she could have become and instead directs her towards a performance that is less product and more human.

Cultural Context

Pride and Prejudice was released during a colourful year for British cinema with the release of family fantasies Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-rabbit (Park, Box) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Newell). The British costume drama was fast being overshadowed by action and adventure. Joe Wright’s version took a new approach to the literary adaptation, revitalising the heritage film with his new vision and exciting cast. For Jane Eyre, although making less money, it was fifth in the most successful British independent films of the year, being topped by The Kings Speech (2010) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (BFI, 2012). These films have merged into our culture, and influenced out perception of history, romanticising it whilst also informing us, allowing the audience a nostalgic glimpse into the past and to fantasise about the pleasantries and excitement of the old.

Screenshot of Jane and Rochester reuniting (Fukunaga, 2011)

However, the reason, possibly, the stories themselves have maintained their popularity is that we live in a society where feminism is a leading debate in news and politics. Sophie Wing (2014) attempts to explore the endurance of Brontës classic, explaining that “For its time, Jane Eyre is a measured but radical protest against Victorian morality and the constraints that women found themselves in… the book is often lauded as a proto-feminist novel…”. We have come a long way from the time when women were considered the inferior sex but the fight many considered in the past, still goes on. The two films are ageless coming-of-age tales that empower the woman rather than degrade her, explore first loves without its protagonists losing their self-respect and it challenges the viewers’ ideas. They conflict with Mary Ann Doanes’ (1988) theory, as summarised by Turner (2001: p.137) that “…women are denied desires of their own, left only with the desire to be the object of masculine desire (the ‘desire to be desired’)...” and instead stress that the professional or emotional accomplishment of its women and “the desire for lasting love” (Ascheid, 2006) are their actual yearnings.

“I can see in you the glance of a curious sort of bird through the close-set bars of a cage, a vivid, restless, captive. Were it but free, it would soar, cloud high.” - Mr Rochester


Cinema would not be the same without the influence of these two classic tales that have continued to inspire. Pride and Prejudice changed the methods towards telling period pieces in a modest, bright, modern way. Whilst Jane Eyre was a resurgence of Brontë to the screen that proved that the story had not gone stale and that romance and costumes were far from outdated and could still enrapture audiences. Ultimately, I believe the intended meaning of the films, its ideology, is that love and independence can go hand in hand. That staying true to yourself and fighting for what you believe is right will eventually bring you all the best in the world. And the right person will respect that. These are the messages that have spoken to millions of people across generations and this is how it has endured.


ABEEL, E. (2005). Tackling A Classic: Joe Wright on "Pride and Prejudice". IndieWire [Online]. Available from: [Accessed: 12th October 2016]

ASCHEID, A. (2006).Safe Rebellions: Romantic Emancipation in the "Woman's Heritage Film” [Online]. Available from: [Accessed: 13th October 2016]

BFI. (2012) The UK Box Office in 2011 [Online]. Available from: [Accessed: 12th October 2016]

BRADSHAW, P. (2005) Pride and Prejudice. The Guardian [Online]. 16th September. Available from: [Accessed: 11th October 2016]

CAMDEN, J. (2007) Sex and the Scullery: The New Pride and Prejudice. Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal Online [Online]. 27 (2) Available from: [Accessed: 11th October 2016]

COOK, P. (ed.) (2007) The Cinema Book. Third Edition. London: BFI. Palgrave Macmillan

EBERT, R. (2005) Pride and Prejudice. Roger [Online]. 10th November. Available from: [Accessed: 10th October 2016]

EBERT, R. (2011) Jane Eyre. Roger [Online]. 16th March. Available from: [Accessed : 12th October 2016]

The Film Programme. Jane Eyre and Self Made. (2011). BBC Radio 4. 2nd September 2011.

FRENCH, P. (2011) Jane Eyre – Review. The Guardian [Online]. 11th September. Available from: [Accessed: 10th October 2016]

Jane Eyre. (2011) Film. Directed by Cary Fukunaga. [DVD]. UK: Universal Pictures.

Pride and Prejudice. (2005) Film. Directed by Joe Wright. [DVD]. UK: Universal Pictures.

ROBEY, T. (2011) Jane Eyre, review. The Telegraph [Online]. 8th September. Available from: [Accessed: 10th October 2016]

TURNER, G. (2001) Film as a Social Practice. Third Edition. London: Routledge

WELLHAM, M. (2011) Joe Wright and his female protagonists. Trespass Magazine [Online]. 13th August. Available from: [Accessed: 13th October 2016]

WING, S. (2014) By the Book: Jane Eyre. One Room with a View [Online]. 9th February. Available from: [Accessed: 12th October 2016]

Screenshots Pride and Prejudice. (2005) Film. Directed by Joe Wright. [DVD]. UK: Universal Pictures.

Screenshots - Jane Eyre. (2011) Film. Directed by Cary Fukunaga. [DVD]. UK: Universal Pictures.

(This article was originally composed 17/10/16 for a project on British Cinema and it's key Genre's)

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A Space for Reviews, World Cinema Appreciation, Essays and Reflections by Writer Kerry Chambers

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