Top 5 Depressing Historical Costume Movies on Repeat


Historical costume movies with depressing plots are a dime a dozen, I know. Tragic romance comes with the territory. But what makes it worse is that certain sad-sack stories keep getting made OVER AND OVER AGAIN. Every decade has yet another lavish adaption of the same old sorry stories of lovers torn apart, people dying for love or something equally annoying, all set against windswept moors or in grand country houses. I’m sick of it. I’d stave this for Snark Week, by let’s treat ourselves with some mid-year whinging!


5. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations (1946)

Look, I love a decaying wedding gown as much as the next goth gal. But good god Havisham girl, give it up! This story is as doomed as her wedding cake is stale. Pip has zero chance of getting laid with Estella, and in most productions, she’s a mega-bitch ice queen, so he’s a fool for having hope. It’s a story of lifelong blue balls, and for once, I have sympathy for the dude.

Versions: 2012 with Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham, 2011 with Gillian Anderson, 1999 with Charlotte Rampling, 1991 with Jean Simmons, 1987 with Jill Forster, 1981 with Joan Hickson, 1974 with Margaret Leighton, 1959 with Marjory Hawtrey, 1946 with Martita Hunt, 1934 with Florence Reed.


4. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

War & Peace (2016)

AKA, war and pointless romantic failures, often with shitty attempts at empire costuming. You get a ton of Russian-Napoleonic history and a ton of Tolstoy pontificating. It’s a long-ass book, and most adaptions make it just as tedious — you only get lucky if the costumes and set dressing are good. And if they aren’t (ehem, 2016), well, this is a cold, hard winter slog.

Versions: 2016 with Lily James as Natasha, 2007 with Clémence Poésy, 1973 with Morag Hood, 1966 with Lyudmila Saveleva, 1956 with Audrey Hepburn.


3. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina (1985)

Tolstoy, ugh. He said happy families are all alike and every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but I say depressing historical costume movies are all depressing in the same way. A) You have an unhappy marriage / infidelity. B) That leads to social disapproval. C) Everybody is unhappy. D) The woman dies. At least in some versions, you get pretty costumes, but that’s not enough for me to stick around.

Versions: 2012 with Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina, 2000 with Helen McCrory, 1997 with Sophie Marceau, 1985 with Jacqueline Bisset, 1977 with Nicola Pagett, 1961 with Claire Bloom, 1948 with Vivien Leigh, 1935 with Greta Garbo.


2. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights (2009)

I’m a huge Brontë fan, but I admit, we don’t need another filmed version of this story. Especially since they almost always get it wrong. The book is poetry, and when you boil it down, the plot is pretty melodramatic — plus there’s a complicated timeline and framing device that most filmmakers fuck up. This means that the movie/TV versions of Wuthering Heights bore people who haven’t read the book and irritate those who have. Just stop.

Versions: 2011 with Kaya Scodelario as Cathy, 2009 with Charlotte Riley, 1998 with Orla Brady, 1992 with Juliette Binoche, 1978 with Kay Adshead, 1970 with Anna Calder-Marshall, 1967 with Angela Scoular, 1939 with Merle Oberon.


1. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary

WHY, DEAR GODS, WHY?!?! This has got to be one of the most depressing stories around, yet it continues to be made into movies and TV series. Who are these masochists who enjoy watching this on screen? Not me, that’s for sure. I don’t care how accurate to the period it is, Flaubert (unlike plenty of other 19th-century authors) paints a nasty misogynistic depiction of women, what with Emma being totally shallow, obsessed with novels and shopping, and that leads to her affairs and thus her death. Fuck you, patriarchy. I’ll read whatever books I want, I’ll buy the clothes I like, and if that makes me crave a good boning, that’s my own damn business!

Versions: 2014 with Mia Wasikowska as Emma, 2000 with Frances O’Connor, 1991 with Isabelle Huppert, 1975 with Francesca Annis, 1964 with Nyree Dawn Porter, 1949 with Jennifer Jones.


What novels are you tired of seeing adapted into historical costume movies?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

43 Responses

  1. phlegmfatale

    Maybe it was only set a century ago, but the costumes are divine in the bleak but beautiful Henry & June. Also lived Mrs. Parker And The Vicious Circle for the same, but, damn.

  2. Lexi

    And fucking Jane Eyre. I do love the Mia Wasikowska version- Fassbender is my favorite Rochester to date, but, please Hollywood, NO MORE!

    • Sarah Lorraine

      I don’t really classify “Jane Eyre” as depressing, at least in the sense of the movies that Trystan listed. It’s angsty, sure, but it has a very stereotypical happy ending where Jane & Rochester live happily ever after.

      • Sarah Lorraine

        That said, I agree that it is overdone in Hollywood. Also, like “Wuthering Heights”, most every film version fucks it up — usually by making Jane a total milquetoast, ignoring her feistiness and rich inner life.

        (I love Jane Eyre)

        • Sarah Faltesek

          Jane Eyre is my favorite novel for a multitude of reasons. I didn’t care for Wasikowska’s portrayal for the reason you mentioned; it seemed like another instance of mistaking reserve for weakness and introspection for blandness. The best on-screen Jane (in my opinion) is Ruth Wilson. I loved how there was always intelligence and emotion visible under a seemingly controlled exterior.

      • Kristina

        I found myself liking Jane Eyre quite a bit less (although I DO still enjoy it – it’s such a classic and Jane is a wonderfully complex and likeable character) once I realized just how emotionally abusive Rochester is to Jane. He’s an improvement over the cold, controlling St. John Rivers (who also happens to be an emotional abuser), but that isn’t saying much. I feel that Jane deserves better.

    • phlegmfatale

      Same for me- I love the cut and paste editing, and the melancholy misty and soundtrack fit the story beautifully, but Fassbender is far too attractive, as I read the story. In fact, I’m reading it now to an elderly friend, and I’ve many times been struck by Jane’s description of the coarseness of Rochester’s appearance, which is at odds with the reality of el Fassbender (phwoar!).

      There is debate in literary circles as to whether Jane is a scheming manipulator or just a girl in the world trying to overcome unfortunate circumstances, and this disagreement may in part fuel the urge of filmmakers to give a new perspective. However, like Withering(thanks, autocorrect) Heights, JE seems done to death.

      On a side note, I thought Crimson Peak was a sexy re-hash of elements of Jane Eyre, even going so far as to crib snatches of dialogue. JE is a classical gothic tale, as is CP. The wardrobe in is worth the view, but the brief but welcome sex scene was the hotness.

      • Shirley

        I agree that Fassbender is too attractive for Rochester. I also think he plays the character as much less of a jerk than he is in the book or at least some of his meaner scenes/moments are omitted.

        So, for me, the Fassbender Jane Eyre doesn’t really succeed as an adaptation of the book, but I think that also makes it a much more enjoyable film to watch because I hate the character in the book. Fassbender is the only film Rochester I’ve ever actually liked, and I think part of the reason is because he’s not Book Rochester. Well, that and it’s Fassbender. ;)

      • missdisco

        I have never heard the argument that Jane is a scheming manipulator? Who started that theory? And what is that based on?

        • Sarah Lorraine

          Huh. That struck me as odd, too. I just re-read the book a few months ago after not having read it for probably 25 years, and several things did strike me about Jane’s character; namely, she’s WAY feistier in the writing than she’s ever portrayed on screen. Like, to such an extent where if I hadn’t known this was written in the mid-19th century, I would have rolled my eyes at the author trying to hammer a “strong, independent woman” trope to death in a historical novel.

          There’s definitely a strong part of her personality that appears to thrive off of extreme emotions. When she decides that she’s not worthy of Rochester and then it’s like her obsession with him just cranks into overdrive… that was really a bizarre way to go about falling in love with someone.

          Jane’s thought process goes something like this:

          “There’s this weird ugly guy who is kind of borderline violent all the time and I’m kind of unsure how to handle living under the same roof as him…”


          “I’m the most unworthy scum that ever existed, how could Rochester even stand to be in the same room with someone as unfit to breathe the same air as he?”



          And it’s all in about the span of about two pages.

          Don’t get me wrong, I love some good angst porn and JE is filled with it, but she just flips a switch and it took me by surprise.

  3. Val

    I think Vanity Fair is terribly depressing and Tess of the D’Urbervilles as well. They need to stop with those two films.

    • MoHub

      And no one has done Vanity Fair anywhere close to the way Thackeray wrote it. Which is a shame, because it’s one of my all-time favorite novels.

      And agree that I quite frankly don’t want to see any more versions of Thomas Hardy.

      • MoHub

        I’m including all Hardy, such as Jude the Obscure and The Mayor of Casterbridge. And it doesn’t get more depressing than Jude.

  4. Susan Pola

    I agree with you on no more Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Tess, Madame Bovary and all the Thomas Hardy novels. I would also add to this list Man in the Iron Mask, 3 Musketeers. These are not some much depressing as overdone. It seems like every time you blink another version has been made.
    The depressing costume movies I would add is Great Gatsby. Please. Daisy isn’t very sympathetic and is somewhat a drip as well as significantly lacking brains.

    • Val

      Thank you fro adding Gatsby! I’d forgotten how much I dislike that novel and all the characters.

      • Karin Wennerberg

        YES, this. No more Gatsby! As technically elegant as the novel is, the character drawings are kind of shit, no one is sympathetic and, the really fatal flaw, no one is interesting. I could not possibly care any less about any of those characters. It’s SO BORING, and it’s so sad that that, of all stories, is somehow the quintessential 1920’s story. There are so many better stories from the roaring 20’s. I would love to see Isherwood’s novelettes and stories from Berlin adapted for film as actual costume flicks and not Cabaret, for instance – Mr Norris Changes Trains is amazing.

    • Mina

      I absolutely agree with the 3 Musketeers.. Although I really like the period and their adventures, I find it extremely depressing that Constance has to be killed off for nothing.. I hate this!! So I think it can definitely be put on this list.

  5. Theresa Chedoen

    One of my favorite things in the Jasper Fforde Tuesday Next novels (and why doesn’t anyone film those?) is when the characters of Wuthering Heights all have to go to anger management classes.

    • Shirley

      YES! I loved that scene so much! :)

      I giggle every time I think of Wuthering Heights now because of that. I also can’t not think of Hamlet and picture him trying to order something a coffee shop because of those books.

      I think Thursday Next movies–or maybe a miniseries–would be a lot of fun.

      • brocadegoddess

        YES. Thursday Next needs an adaptation so bad! Just imagi e what a decent budget and good people in charge could docwithvthe bookworld! And I also love the anger mangement for WH – and the characterization of Miss Havisham!

        • Daniel Milford-Cottam

          The Thursday Next novels seem pretty nigh unfilmable to me – so much of what makes them amazing is reliant on them being in book format, particularly the use of the footnotes. I suppose you could use invision subtitles, but then they would need to be translated….

  6. Bess

    Why so much hate for poor Flaubert? Having studied in depth the book in French the story is actually pretty hilarious, like most of what he does, it has everybody ridiculed, and Charles gets it even worse than Emma. Also, it’s not a criticism of women who read, but of convent education (which admitedly was not so great for women) and romanticism. He did again pretty much the same thing with a male protagonist in the Sentimental Education, and was a big friend and supporter of George Sand, and he kind of was a feminist. Actually they are several universitarian articles, that study Emma as a feminist figure. But I agreed about the need to stop making this story because filmakers never understand it. They often read the book completely wrong and all the depth goes waaaay above their head….

    • phlegmfatale

      I agree with what you said here. It was a criticism of romanticism in popular literature. Flaubert was straining to point out the flaws of romanticized views of the world in the novels so much loved by the common person. The characters do not evoke a sense of sympathy in the audience, poor things. For sheer beauty, the (1990-ish?) French version starring Isabelle Huppert was superb, but I remember laughing out loud in the cinema when she burped up the inky black death-sauce at the end of the film. But I was ever the irreverent bawd.

    • Trystan L. Bass

      Flaubert totally doesn’t work on film, that’s for sure. And I can’t stand the way he wrote Emma. Threw the book across the room!

  7. red*razors

    All the Thomas Hardy haters, get thee behind me! I love Hardy and he hasn’t been overdone in the way those other novels above have. I totally get you on Flaubert, Bess – a dancing mistress once mentioned in class that Hardy was a misogynist and I couldn’t cope.

    I agree with Wuthering Heights, I tried reading it when I thought I was a teenage intellectual and I absolutely hated it. It took 5 years to go back and finish, and that was purely out of stubbornness.

  8. LE

    I have to disagree about Wuthering Heights, it’s only depressing (the way it seems to be qualified here) if you focus on Heathcliff and Cathy’s generation the younger generation that aren’t horrible get a happy ending in the end. I would love to see another version someone to actually read the whole darn book and do a movie that does justice to be he far more interesting Hareton and Cathy jr. (not to mention does Heathcliff’s ending right — it’s not supposed to be romantic! She haunting him to death to keep him from stealing her daughter’s birthright for goodness sake.)

    • MoHub

      It’s also important that Bronte closes a circle at the end by having Cathy Jr. ultimately become Catherine Earnshaw—as you say, her literal birthright— this is a major point in the novel, and I get tired of versions of Wuthering Heights that end everything with Cathy Sr.’s death and don’t allow us to see Heathcliff’s cruelty.

      And maybe it’s not right, but I always felt sorry for Edgar Linton.

  9. Adina

    Pride and Prejudice.
    It depresses me. Also Romeo & Juliet(not a novel, I know), I love Shakespeare but I am so sick of R&J

  10. Angelo Cappelli

    Why there are so many depressing love stories on the screen? Simply, because a love story without drama, happy from the beginning to the end, would be enjoyable for the two persons concerned, but of no interest to the public ; and also an happy ending would seem tasteless, if not preceded by at least same difficulties. As Manzoni says in the ending of “The betrothed”: “They had a so happy life that, if I tell it, you’ll be deadly bored.”

    • Trystan L. Bass

      Shakespeare’s comedies all end with happy weddings & so do most of Jane Austen’s stories! Not everything has to be a tragedy to be entertaining ;-)

    • MoHub

      There can be difficulties without resorting to absolute tragedy. Lizzie and Darcy go head to head and don’t much like each other to start with, and the relationship goes through an evolutionary process, but their love doesn’t have to turn tragic before they ultimately achieve their happy ending.

  11. ladylavinia1932

    This means that the movie/TV versions of Wuthering Heights bore people who haven’t read the book and irritate those who have. Just stop.

    I don’t mind that various movie and television versions of “Wuthering Heights” keep screwing up the novel. I’m not that fond of the latter. And only William Wyler’s 1939 version makes me tolerant of the story.

  12. Melly Sue

    Unrelated to depressing movies or historical costume, your closing statement, “Fuck you, patriarchy. I’ll read whatever books I want, I’ll buy the clothes I like, and if that makes me crave a good boning, that’s my own damn business!” fills me with absolute delight. I’m going to make this the central philosophy of my lifestyle.

  13. Whatever

    You judge the whole book of „Anna Karenina“ which has more than 1000 pages by it‘s first sentence.Of course, people like you are not capable of reading the whole book.Since your intelligence is limited.Everything about you and your kind is so limited it give me a headache.

    • Billy Shakes Pears

      You’re so funny I can’t even!!!!!

      Get out, now.