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Screening the Gothic

Screening the Gothic

Exploring how the Gothic has been deployed in contemporary films.

April 2005
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188 pages | 6 x 9 | 10 b&w illus. |

Filmmakers have long been drawn to the Gothic with its eerie settings and promise of horror lurking beneath the surface. Moreover, the Gothic allows filmmakers to hold a mirror up to their own age and reveal society's deepest fears. Franco Zeffirelli's Jane Eyre, Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet are just a few examples of film adaptations of literary Gothic texts. In this ground-breaking study, Lisa Hopkins explores how the Gothic has been deployed in these and other contemporary films and comes to some surprising conclusions. For instance, in a brilliant chapter on films geared to children, Hopkins finds that horror resides not in the trolls, wizards, and goblins that abound in Harry Potter, but in the heart of the family.

Screening the Gothic offers a radical new way of understanding the relationship between film and the Gothic as it surveys a wide range of films, many of which have received scant critical attention. Its central claim is that, paradoxically, those texts whose affiliations with the Gothic were the clearest became the least Gothic when filmed. Thus, Hopkins surprises readers by revealing Gothic elements in films such as Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park, as well as exploring more obviously Gothic films like The Mummy and The Fellowship of the Ring. Written in an accessible and engaging manner, Screening the Gothic will be of interest to film lovers as well as students and scholars.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Gothic Revenants: A Tale of Three Hamlets
  • 2. Putting the Gothic In: Clarissa, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and The Time Machine
  • 3. Taking the Gothic Out: 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, The Woman in White, and Lady Audley's Secret
  • 4. Fragmenting the Gothic: Jane Eyre and Dracula
  • 5. Gothic and the Family: The Mummy Returns, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Index

Lisa Hopkins is Professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University in Sheffield, England.


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What is the Gothic? In literary studies, the term is generally applied primarily to a body of writing produced in England between about 1750 and about 1820. Often set in ancient, partially ruined castles or mansions haunted by the real or apparent threat of a supernatural presence, its cast of characters typically includes a mysterious and threatening older man, a vulnerable heroine, and a character who is poised ambiguously between good and evil. Although early Gothic novels were often set abroad, the sense of unease and the obsession with doubling that characterise the form also typically include the fear that it also had something profound to say about the reader's own condition. Its principal characteristics are a concern with the fragmented and often doubled nature of the self—Robert Miles remarks that "in its inarticulate way, Gothic worries over a problem stirring within the foundations of the self"—and a concentration on the gloomy, the mysterious, and the ruined:

Gothic signifies a writing of excess. It appears in the awful obscurity that haunted eighteenth-century rationality and morality. It shadows the despairing ecstasies of Romantic idealism and individualism and the uncanny dualities of Victorian realism and decadence. Gothic atmospheres—gloomy and mysterious—have repeatedly signalled the disturbing return of pasts upon presents and evoked emotions of terror and laughter.

Many of these characteristics are present in the films which I discuss in this book and label "Gothic," but I shall be suggesting that, above all, the classic genre marker of the Gothic in film is doubleness, for it is the dualities typically created by the Gothic that invest it with its uncanny ability to hold its darkly shadowed mirror up to its own age.

Fittingly enough, this emphasis on doubling can work in two ways. In the first place, Gothic tends to create polarities: extreme good is opposed to extreme evil, extreme innocence to extreme power, and very often extreme youth to extreme age. An aesthetic of violent contrasts in all possible fields seems to prevail in both Gothic books and Gothic films: think, for instance, of the classic scene from Bram Stoker's novel Dracula in which an enormously aged and utterly evil man in black preys on a very young, innocent girl in white, in the cliff-top grounds of a ruined abbey and by the light of the moon. Where a film adaptation has introduced such polarization into literary texts which previously lacked it, I have therefore identified this as a Gothicizing tactic. And yet, at the same time, there is an uncanny sense that the polarizations so beloved of the Gothic are not in fact as absolute as they seem—that things which appear to be opposite can actually be frighteningly, uncannily similar. In that famous scene in Dracula, for instance, the innocent-looking young girl secretly dreams of being allowed to have three husbands, just as Dracula apparently has three wives, and she grows more and more like him as the book progresses. For this reason, I claim that the blurring of previously secure polarities is as much a genre marker of Gothic as the introduction of radical polarization. This is not tricksiness or bad faith, but an attempt to allow for the complex, shifting nature of the Gothic and the fact that some of its most troubling effects arise precisely from such uncertainties about identity and the relationship of one thing to another.

One of the most notable results of this emphasis on doubling is that much criticism of and commentary on the Gothic has preferred psychoanalytic approaches to historicizing or materialist ones, a trend fed by the fact that, as Linda Bayer-Berenbaum points out, the Gothic tends "to portray all states of mind that intensify normal thought or perception. Dream states, drug states, and states of intoxication have always been prevalent in the Gothic novel because repressed thoughts can surface in them." The idea of repression takes us straight to the terrain of classical Freudian psychoanalysis, and this approach has been often and fruitfully deployed in reference to Gothic texts. Thus, David J. Skal introduces his account of Dracula in Hollywood Gothic by observing, "Modern psychoanalytic theory on the subject, as classically argued by Ernest Jones in On the Nightmare, finds the genesis of vampire legend in the universal experience of the nightmare." Ernest Jones was Freud's disciple, so it is no surprise to find him echoing his master's assumption that the dream is the royal road to meanings locked in the unconscious.

The link between the Gothic and psychoanalysis is by no means accepted as an universal truth. In The Biology of Horror: Gothic Literature and Film, Jack Morgan treats the horror generated by the Gothic as essentially physical and indeed biological in origin, and Markman Ellis, in his recent The History of Gothic Fiction, announces that "the gambit of this book is to offer an account of gothic fiction without recourse to the language or theory of psychoanalysis." However, Ellis's use of the word gambit clearly registers the unusualness of what he thus proposes. It is true not only that the Gothic has often been held to have a particular affinity with psychoanalysis, particularly with Freudian psychoanalysis, but also, I think, that while Ellis is right that the Gothic existed without psychoanalysis, psychoanalysis might well not have existed without the Gothic. It was to Gothic literature that Freud turned for some of his key ideas and phrases, and I am concerned here not with what the Gothic originally meant but with what it means in these adaptations. One of the central planks of my argument in this book is that many of the adaptations I discuss have introduced the motifs and discourse of psychoanalysis (usually, but not always, specifically Freudian psychoanalysis) to the stories they treat, even where—indeed particularly where—the original books on which they were based preferred to frame the events they represented in clearly materialist terms. This is, perhaps, an inevitable consequence of filmmakers' desire to ensure that the ensuing work can continue to speak to a contemporary audience, without being bound to the conditions of its own time. It does, however, often have the additional effect of introducing Gothicizing elements where none had been before.

All of the book's chapters discuss films which have been adapted from novels and which have had changes made to them in the process. The literary texts discussed were either originally written as consciously Gothic or have been adapted in a Gothic mode. My central claim is that, paradoxically, those texts whose affiliations with the Gothic were originally the clearest become the least Gothic when they are filmed. As I suggest in the book, this is partly because locating the origins of events in the mind rather than within society ensures a sense of the narrative's continuing relevance. It is also partly because cinema's focus on the face of the individual inevitably leads to an emphasis on the individual rather than the group, while its traditional language of visual symbolism causes things to be read in terms other than their own; this produces a modal affinity with both the Gothic and with the strategies of psychoanalytic interpretation, which is also manifested in the cinematic Gothicizing of a number of Shakespeare texts and in the paradoxical genre of family-oriented Gothic, which I explore in the last chapter. However, for a text which has already pre-empted these preferred filmic strategies by being obviously Gothic in the first place, other approaches become necessary, leading to an overcompensatory emphasis on backstory and consequences, since the psychologizing is felt to be already performed. The effect is generally that the Gothic logic of the original narrative becomes submerged under details and additions which often distract from the pattern of the original rather than complementing it.

The book has five chapters. The first, "Gothic Revenants: A Tale of Three Hamlets," looks at the three most recent film adaptations of Hamlet, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, Kenneth Branagh, and Michael Almereyda. In this chapter, I argue that although it was written long before the development of the Gothic mode proper, Hamlet nevertheless has many Gothic features. It is set in a gloomy and mysterious castle haunted by a ghost, it has a fragile young heroine who eventually runs mad and dies, and its plot centers on murder and incest. It is also riddled with doubles, with Laertes, Fortinbras, Lucianus, and Pyrrhus all offering comparators and analogues for Hamlet and Claudius and old Hamlet threatening to leach uncannily into each other. I argue, however, that in these three film adaptations of Hamlet, the greater the prominence given to the outward trappings of the Gothic, the less Gothicizing the ultimate effect. Ironically, therefore, it is Branagh's ostensibly un-Oedipal and resolutely un-Medieval adaptation which is the most truly Gothic of these three films.

The second chapter, "Putting the Gothic In: Clarissa, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and The Time Machine," discusses four texts which were all originally written to demonstrate the value and importance of a rationalist perspective and the dangers and shallowness of an overemphasis on emotion and on the darker corners of the mind. A key characteristic of the Gothic is the extent to which it focuses on the workings of the subconscious; however, Richardson wrote Clarissa because he was so stung by the critical response to his first novel, Pamela, which essentially argued that the text betrayed truths which its author had never intended it to (specifically, that Pamela was not a virtuous innocent at all, but a designing minx). In Clarissa, therefore, he set out to create a novel whose actions and characters could not be read "against the grain" as Pamela's had been. Jane Austen, who was so fond of Richardson that she celebrated the date on which the heroine of his novel Sir Charles Grandison was married, was deeply wary of the unbridled emotion so valorized in the Gothic novel and satirized it both in her juvenilia and in Northanger Abbey. Finally, H. G. Wells wrote The Time Machine as a demonstration of a scientific idea, Darwin's theory of evolution by means of natural selection. In the four adaptations discussed here, however, rationality gives place to pathology, and the materialist analyses advanced by the original books are replaced by psychoanalytical ones.

The third chapter, "Taking the Gothic Out: 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, Frankenstein, The Woman in White, and Lady Audley's Secret," argues that these texts, though Gothic when they were originally written, were comprehensively removed from the realm of the Gothic in being transferred onto the screen. 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, like Hamlet, focuses on incest and murder, and Ford's detached attitude and refusal to supply any kind of explanation for the behavior of Giovanni and Annabella leave his audience with an overwhelming impression of the impenetrable mysteries of the human psyche. Giuseppe Patroni Griffi's film, on the other hand, offers rather a quasisociological exploration of the workings of family life in introverted, hierarchical, religiously oriented communities. Mary Shelley structured Frankenstein in such a way as to draw insistent attention to the disturbing parallels between Victor Frankenstein and the Monster who is his ostensible opposite, but Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation, for all the proclamation of fidelity to the novel in its title Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, keeps Victor and the Monster firmly apart and offers not Gothic dreams and doublings but scientific rationalism. Similarly, Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret tells a complex and compelling story in which the secret of the title, so far from being revealed, acquires instead ever more layers of signification and resonance: is Lady Audley, as she claims, truly mad, or is she merely bad, or is her madness socially constructed, with the deepest and darkest level of the novel's meaning being that its heroine's crime is really to be a woman and, still worse, a mother? Donald Hounam's adaptation, on the other hand, cuts through all the suggestive ambiguities of the novel to provide a simple and clear-cut answer to that question which is rooted in social rather than psychoanalytic analysis. Finally, Wilkie Collins's novel The Woman in White asks some deeply troubling questions about the stability of the human psyche and the relationship between appearance and reality, but once again the TV adaptation is less interested in exploring the inner logic of its characters' experiences than in using them as a tool to expose the hypocrisies of Victorian culture (with Mrs. Thatcher's notorious advocacy of Victorian values giving a sharply political contemporary edge to the probing of Victorian inadequacies both here and in Lady Audley's Secret).

The fourth chapter, "Fragmenting the Gothic: Jane Eyre and Dracula," discusses three adaptations, two of Jane Eyre and one of Dracula, and argues that the strategies deployed in these retellings, while often Gothicizing in themselves, work to sharply contrasting effect in different cases, introducing the Gothic where it had not been before and banishing it from where it originally was. In Franco Zeffirelli's film of Jane Eyre, awareness of the ways in which the text may be made to speak to modern concerns produces an elegant piece of social commentary, but plays down the extremes of Jane's individuality; in Robert Young's 1997 ITV version, conversely, the danger of Jane's surroundings is played down but the dangers lurking within her own mind are significantly played up. Finally, Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula removes the Gothic element from the character of Dracula but finds it, instead, in fin-de-siècle London.

The fifth and last chapter, "Gothic and the Family: The Mummy Returns, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," looks at three films which were aimed primarily or largely at family audiences and argues that although elements of the Gothic are strongly present in all three films, they work in rather unexpected ways. These films feature mummies, ghosts, trolls, wizards, goblins, vampires, revenants, and a range of other monsters; but all of these together generate merely a pleasurable frisson. What these films find really frightening is, in fact, families. It is perhaps appropriate that only in the heart of the family, in the form of family-oriented viewing, can the dark, anarchic energies of the Gothic still be seen fully pulsing.


“Hopkins offers a remarkably fresh perspective on Gothic trends in both early modern and postmodern culture. . . . [H]er exploration of what constitutes 'the Gothic' has the potential to revolutionize the way we think about a genre that has too often been associated with horror.”
Courtney Lehmann, Associate Professor of English, University of the Pacific


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