The novel was turned into a play by Jay Presson Allen that opened in London in 1966 with Vanessa Redgrave and on Broadway in 1968, with Zoe Caldwell in the title role, a performance for which she won a Tony Award. This production was a moderate success, running for just less than a year, but it has been a popular play since then, often staged by both professional and amateur companies.
The play was profiled in the William Goldman book The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway.
Allen adapted her play into a film, which was directed by Ronald Neame. Maggie Smith won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in the title role. There was also a notable performance from Pamela Franklin as Sandy, for which she won the National Board of Review award for Best Supporting Actress. It was entered in the 1969 Cannes Film Festival. Rod McKuen was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song for "Jean", but lost to Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" from another 20th Century Fox film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. "Jean" also became a huge hit for the singer Oliver in the autumn of 1969.
Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith) is a teacher in the junior-aged section of the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the 1930s. Brodie is known for her tendency to stray from the hard knowledge of the school's curriculum, to romanticize fascist leaders like Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco, and to believe herself to be in the prime of life. Brodie devotes her time and energy to her four special 12-year-old junior school girls, called the Brodie Set: Sandy (Pamela Franklin), Monica (Shirley Steedman), Jenny (Diane Grayson) and Mary (Jane Carr).
The set often go to art museums, theatre, concerts, and have picnics on the school lawn, among other things, which rather upsets the school's austere headmistress, Emmeline Mackay (Celia Johnson), who dislikes the fact that the girls are cultured to the exclusion of hard knowledge, and the Brodie girls seem precocious for their age. She seems to have a running grudge against Brodie, who has tenure and had been at Marcia Blaine for six years prior to Mackay being appointed headmistress. Miss Brodie boasts to her girls that the only way she will stop teaching is if she is assassinated.
Besides working with her girls, Jean catches the eye of music teacher/church choirmaster Gordon Lowther (Gordon Jackson), with whom she and her girls spend a lot of time at his home in Cramond, a seaside village on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Brodie sometimes spends the night with Lowther, although she tries to conceal this from the girls. Lowther wants to get married, but Brodie drags her feet. She still has feelings for her married ex-lover, Teddy Lloyd (Robert Stephens), who is the art teacher in the senior section of the school.
Also working with Brodie (and all somewhat disapproving of her unorthodox teaching methods and her influence on the girls) are Miss Campbell (Margo Cunningham), the physical education teacher; Miss Ellen (Helena Gloag) and Miss Allison Kerr (Molly Weir), two sisters who serve as the school's sewing teachers; Miss McKenzie (Isla Cameron), the strict librarian; and Miss Gaunt (Ann Way), the headmistress's mouselike, non-talking secretary. Miss Gaunt's brother, a deacon at Lowther's church, eventually asks for his resignation as church organist and elder because of his relationship with Brodie.
Over a number of years, Miss Brodie rises to her apex, but then spectacularly falls, given that Miss Mackay and most of the other teachers and staff at the very conservative school don't want her to continue teaching there. During her downfall, she loses Lowther, who gets engaged to Miss Lockhart (Rona Anderson), a chemistry teacher in the Senior School, and one of the few teachers at Marcia Blaine who tended to be more sympathetic towards Miss Brodie as a person and to her teaching style.
As the Brodie Set grow older and become students in the Senior School, Miss Brodie begins to cast her spell over a new group of junior students, particularly Clara who reminds her of Jenny. While Mary, Monica and Jenny become closer friends, Sandy becomes slightly distant from the set, although she is still part of it. Miss Brodie tries to manoeuvre Jenny and Mr Lloyd into having an affair, and Sandy into spying on them for her. However, it is actually Sandy (who grows resentful of Miss Brodie's constant praise of Jenny's beauty) who has an affair with Mr. Lloyd. Sandy ends the affair because of Mr Lloyd's overwhelming obsession with Miss Brodie.
Mary, influenced by Brodie, sets out to Spain to join her brother, who she believes is fighting for Franco. She is killed when her train is attacked shortly after crossing the frontier. This event serves as the last straw for Sandy, who betrays Miss Brodie's efforts to impose her politics on her students to the school's board of governors, who finally decide to terminate Miss Brodie's employment.
Sandy confronts Miss Brodie on her crimes, most especially her manipulation of Mary, her part in her senseless death (for which Brodie is unapologetic), and the harmful influence she exerted on other girls, adding that Mary's brother is actually fighting for the Spanish Republicans. Miss Brodie, on her part, makes some harsh but astute comments about Sandy's character, particularly her ability to coldly judge and destroy others. Sandy retorts that Brodie professed to be an admirer of conquerors and walks out of the classroom, with Brodie following her to the landing, screaming "Assassin!!" at Sandy.
After the confrontation, Sandy, Monica, and Jenny graduate along with the other girls. Despite knowing full well that she had betrayed Brodie to Mackay and the board of governors, Sandy did so out of concern for other girls who could have been targets of Brodie, and, perhaps, less commendably, personal resentment over Brodie's preference for Jenny, and Teddy Lloyd's obsession with Miss Brodie.
As Sandy leaves the school for the last time, her face streaked with angry and bitter tears, Miss Brodie (in voiceover) states her motto: "Little girls, I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders, and all my pupils are the crème de la crème. Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life."Maggie Smith as Jean Brodie
Robert Stephens as Teddy Lloyd
Pamela Franklin as Sandy
Gordon Jackson as Gordon Lowther
Celia Johnson as Miss Mackay
Diane Grayson as Jenny
Jane Carr as Mary McGregor
Shirley Steedman as Monica McLaren
Lavinia Lang as Emily Carstairs
Antoinette Biggerstaff as Helen McPhee
Margo Cunningham as Miss Campbell
Isla Cameron as Miss McKenzie
Rona Anderson as Miss Lockhart
Ann Way as Miss Gaunt
Molly Weir as Miss Allison Kerr
Helena Gloag as Miss Ellen Kerr
Heather Seymour as Clara
There were two married couples in the cast: Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens, and Gordon Jackson and Rona Anderson.
Relationship to novel and play
There is a complex relationship between the novel, the play and the film.
Although Allen did manage to create a successful play out of what may not have been the easiest of novels to adapt, some have questioned whether it is a particularly faithful adaptation. It turned an experimental work into a realistic one, and removed some theological issues, turning it into a story of failed love (and possibly also failed fascist politics).
The play reduced the number of girls in the Brodie Set from six to four (and discarded another girl not in the set) and some of them are composites of girls in the novel. Mary is a composite of the original Mary and Joyce Emily; although mainly based on the original Mary, in the novel it was Joyce Emily who died in the Spanish Civil War (Mary later dies in a fire instead) and rather more is made of this incident in the play than the novel. Jenny is a composite of the original Jenny and Rose; in spite of her name she has more in common with Rose, since in the novel it was she who Miss Brodie tried to manoeuvre into having an affair with Mr Lloyd.
The novel made extensive use of flash forward. The play largely abandoned this, although it did include a few scenes showing Sandy as a nun in later life. The film also made a few changes from the play, the biggest being that it discarded these scenes and was entirely linear narrative.
Upon its initial release, the film received positive feedback from critics. Review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes reports that 88% of 16 critics have given the film a positive review, with a rating average of 7 out of 10. On the Internet Movie Database as of January 2015 the film has a rating of 7.8 out of 10 based on 5,662 user votes.
Maggie Smith was singled out for her performance in the film. Dave Kehr of Chicago Reader said that Smith is "in one of those technically stunning, emotionally distant performances that the British are so damn good at."
The film was released on DVD in the UK by Acorn Media in July 2010.Winner Best Actress Academy Award (Maggie Smith)
Nominee Best Song Academy Award ("Jean") (Rod McKuen)
Winner Best Song Golden Globe (Rod McKuen)
Nominee Best Picture Golden Globe (James Cresson, Robert Fryer)
Nominee Best Actress Golden Globe (Maggie Smith)
Winner Best Actress BAFTA (Maggie Smith)
Winner Best Supporting Actress BAFTA (Celia Johnson)
Nominee Best Supporting Actress BAFTA (Pamela Franklin)
Nominee Palme d'Or Cannes Film Festival (Ronald Neame)
Winner Best Supporting Actress National Board of Review (Pamela Franklin)
Selected One of the Year's 10 Best Films National Board of Review
Nominee Best Actress National Society of Film Critics (Maggie Smith)
Nominee Best Supporting Actress National Society of Film Critics (Celia Johnson)
Nominee Best Adapted Screenplay Writers Guild of America (Jay Presson Allen)
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was adapted by Scottish Television into a seven episode television serial in 1978 that featured Geraldine McEwan in the lead role. Rather than recapitulate the plot of the novel, the series imagined episodes in the lives of the characters, such as conflict between Jean Brodie and the father of an Italian refugee student, who fled Mussolini's Italy because the father was persecuted as a Communist. It consisted of seven episodes of 60 minutes. It has been released on DVD in Region 1 and 2.