Under the Cover Lovers
Sara Veal, WEEKENDER | Fri, 01/06/2012 2:13 PM |
Romantic literary heroes sometimes lose their appeal when they come to the big screen.
At 14, I fell in love. He had jet-black hair, bright green eyes and a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. I followed his adventures closely, supporting him from afar and resenting the dull girls that caught his myopic eye.
Well, I did until Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone hit the cinemas, with the impossible-to-fancy Daniel Radcliffe in the role that was meant to visually and emotionally affirm all I had imagined about my literary love. He didn’t even have black hair or green eyes! I’ve borne a grudge against the adaptations ever since. (Radcliffe’s puberty brought no joy, and neither did seeing him in the buff in the London production of Equus.)
Although my friends may roll their eyes at my enchantment with a boy wizard, I’m certainly not alone in falling for a fictional character. Google the likes of Mr. Darcy (Pride and Prejudice), Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights), Edward Cullen (Twilight) – and Harry himself – and prepare for an onslaught of pin-up images, fan fiction and tribute sites.
The most popular tales tend to have a heartthrob at their center and, subsequently, many of the screen’s most memorable lovers – including Gone with the Wind’s Rhett Butler, who didn’t give a damn, and Dr. Zhivago, who definitely did – began life on words on a page. Some have proved so delectable that they seemingly reincarnate every decade, sometimes every few years.
There have been more than a dozen Mr. Darcys since his screen debut in 1938, the most definitive arguably being Colin Firth, who has played two versions of the inscrutable bachelor, first in the faithful 1995 BBC miniseries and then twice in modern retelling Bridget Jones’ Diary and its sequel (with a third reportedly in the works). Even if you haven’t seen the BBC miniseries (and if you haven’t, you must) you’re likely aware that Firth is rather fetching when wet (Robert Pattinson sparkling in the sun – not so much). Mr. Darcy is quite possibly the epitome of a modern romantic hero and has inspired many imitations. Where would today’s rom-coms be without the love–hate dynamic that Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, if not pioneered, certainly popularized?
He’s the One
It’s not hard to see why the appeal of such characters is so enduring. They represent the ultimate in romantic wish fulfillment. These are men that really are just that into you, even if they seem otherwise (Mr. Darcy, Edward Cullen). These are men who prize wit and personality over shallow beauty and family fortune (Mr. Darcy, Jane Eyre’s Rochester). These are men who can only be their best selves with the love of a good woman (Heathcliff). These are men who love forever even when all the odds are against them (The Great Gatsby’s Jay Gatsby, Heathcliff). These are men who know what they want and aren’t afraid to show it – and pursue it (Rhett Butler).
It’s a compelling formula, and one that Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight series, very successfully tapped into. When questioned about Edward’s endless perfection – he’s beautiful, wealthy, musical, athletic, etc. etc. etc. – Meyer confessed she created him for herself, drawing on Mr. Darcy, Heathcliff and Rochester for inspiration, even naming him for the latter. Her 200-year-old teenaged vampire is beloved by women of all ages, mothers and daughters alike. (My own mother impatiently thumbed through New Moon to get to the “Edward” parts – you couldn’t pay her to play for Team Jacob.) However, the happily married Meyer admits she herself has only ever had “very typical, normal, human relationships”.
Like Meyer, many writers likely created their romantic heroes as a form of escape from reality. Austen and the Bronte sisters had notoriously sheltered lives, and never married. But their characters are no less powerful and seductive – it’s these very flights of fancy that transport the reader to such romantic heights. Incidentally, Meyer is producing the film of Shannon Hale’s Austenland, a romantic comedy concerning an American woman (Keri Russell) dangerously obsessed with Pride and Prejudice who travels to a Jane Austen theme park in search of her own Mr. Darcy (Bret McKenzie). (Sadly, such a park doesn’t actually seem to exist.) Similar territory is explored in the 2008 British TV mini-series Lost in Austen, in which a contemporary Austen fan (Jemima Rooper) swaps places with Elizabeth Bennett (Gemma Arterton).
Of course, women writers don’t have the monopoly on romantic heroes, and while male writers can and do take a similar approach to their characters and ensuing romances, it’s interesting to consider the more “bromantic” sort of heroes, such as Jay Gatsby and On the Road’s Dean Moriarty, who are idealistically presented through the eyes of close male friends.
Their appeal may be a little less straightforward because we don’t get a direct sense of what their romantic partners feel for them – and thus may not be so easily able to imagine ourselves as such – but they are no less tragically romantic, captivating and memorable. Jay would probably have benefited from having Elizabeth Bennett in his life, rather than the flighty and insubstantial Daisy, while the feckless Dean probably needs a Scarlett O’Hara type to get him into line.
If like me, you anticipate, with equal parts hope and dread, seeing your literary crush made flesh – or at least on screen – then these will be particularly exciting times, with a slew of literary adaptations arriving in cinemas.
The versatile Michael Fassbender recently offered his interpretation of Rochester in Cary Fukanaga’s Jane Eyre – brilliantly in my view, although he’s far more handsome than I envisaged. I’m very intrigued to see James Howson as Heathcliff in Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, Garrett Hedlund as Dean in Walter Salles’ On the Road (the first adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s generation-defining tome), Aaron Johnson as County Vronsky in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina and Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit.
I’m a little leery of Leonardo DiCaprio as Martin Scorsese’s titular Jay Gatsby, because I find him overrated and unattractive (my Leo-mania began and ended with his portrayal of another legendary lover in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet). And while I only mildly felt drawn to Gale Hawthorne in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (the “new Twilight”), I’ll definitely be tuning in because Liam Hemsworth is almost diabetes-inducing eye candy.
For those who like their literary hunks more swashbuckling or deductive, there’s Logan Lerman as D’Artagnan in Paul W.S. Anderson’s The Three Musketeers and Robert Downey Jr returning as Sherlock Holmes in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.
All have diverse appeal to complement the smorgasbord of characters they are bringing to life. But whatever each does with his respective role, nothing can ever rival the intimate love affair between a reader and the sprinkling of words that can so effectively evoke the person of their dreams. I’m on the hunt for my next Mr. Write …
What if today’s romantic heroes posted a personals ad?
Michael Fassbender as Edward Rochester, Jane Eyre
Is love blind? Wealthy homeowner seeks Plain Jane for verbal sparring and long walks on the moors. Must love dogs, precocious French children – and putting out fires. Sanity a plus.
James Howson as Heathcliff, Wuthering Heights
Swarthy street urchin made good yearns for the soul he cannot live without. You will have bright eyes, dark hair and a wild side. I will love you to death – and beyond.
Robert Downey Jr as Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
Love is the one mystery I cannot solve. But if you have the face of the most beautiful of women and the mind of the most resolute of men, then you might just be the woman for me.
Bret McKenzie as “Mr Darcy”, Austenland
Single man, in possession of a good fortune, in want of a wife with a talent for backchat. Willing to tolerate awful in-laws.
Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty, On the Road
Rolling stone/road warrior seeks open-minded gal for adventure and a few home comforts.
Logan Lerman as D’Artagnan, The Three Musketeers
You are as clever with your needle as I am with a sword. We both reign in royal circles, and would die for justice. Let me pierce your heart, as you have mine.
Aaron Johnson as Count Vronsky, Anna Karenina
Dashing, equestrian count desires unavailable society woman for no-strings-attached passion. Your husband need never know. Meet me at the train station.
Liam Hemsworth as Gale Hawthorne, The Hunger Games
Wanted: A resourceful girl who loves the outdoors and can outrun her dinner. Offered: A tall, dark and handsome hunter, with a knack for setting traps and escaping enemies.
Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, The Great Gatsby
Solitary, self-made son of God seeks delicate flower to brighten up life and fill massive mansion. I will do all I can to become the man of your dreams.
Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit
What I lack in height, I make up for in feet, wit and fellowship. Will you be the girl to bear my One and Only Ring and share my Shire?