I don’t even remember when I first read Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s sweeping novel of tormented love and fierce individuality. I remember more clearly reading Virginia Woolf’s assessment, in which she takes Bronte to task for being so polemical in her feminism—a view shared by some modern feminist authors.
I also don’t remember when I first saw a movie adaptation of the novel. It was certainly before my high school drama teacher had us watch the version with George C. Scott and Susannah York (I recall not liking it very much, not because of Scott, but because Susannah York didn’t fit my image of Jane). I think I must have had the Orson Welles/Joan Fontaine version in my mind, with its black and white gothic atmosphere, where Elizabeth Taylor plays the uncredited role of Helen Burns and a frothy Margaret O’Brien is the ward Adele.
But the adaptation I am most familiar with is the BBC series from 1983, with Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clark. This multi-part series is the most complete of any made to date, incorporating both the typhoid epidemic at Lowood and the character of the good principal, Miss Temple. It also fills out the relationships (a little fantastic and coincidental, but nonetheless part of the original novel) between St. John and his sisters and John Eyre of Madeira.
I enjoy that adaptation so much that I own it on DVD and rewatch it periodically. It always satisfies me.
But the siren song of a new adaptation, with the entrancing Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre, was too much to resist. As part of my preparation for this movie, I re-read the novel
(something I had not done for a very long time). I fell in love with it all over again, I must say. Bronte’s ability to delineate characters, the confessional tone of the first-person narration that sounds surprisingly modern despite a few telling details of style and grammar, the quality of Jane herself as a passionate, well-rounded, principled individual—these are just some of the things that make Bronte’s novel deserve its place in the canon. And doubtless, they are also a big part of the reason filmmakers try again and again to capture the brooding essence of the novel on screen.
Jane Eyre is a sprawling work of great emotional and moral complexity. It is not easily contained in a two-hour time slot. Although it lacks some of the cinematographic atmosphere of other adaptations, that’s why the lengthy BBC version is so successful. That, and the casting of the mouse-like but spunky Zelah Clark as Jane. And despite his critics, I think Timothy Dalton does a pretty good job as Mr. Rochester, a little too handsome though he is.
I was hoping that the director of the latest version, Cary Fukunaga, would discover some magical way to distill the essence of the story, even though I knew she would have to make choices that would eliminate some key scenes and themes in the novel.
The Welles/Fontaine version is hard to beat for choosing the bits that would most successfully translate into a feature-length film. No wonder, with a screenplay by John Houseman and Aldous Huxley. The school was ironed out into something completely inhuman, of course: it’s hard to include the sympathetic Miss Temple in a shortened version. The addition of a scene where Jane and Helen, as punishment, must parade around in the rain at night carrying flatirons was pure theater. And events are a little rearranged, but not annoyingly so. The filming is gorgeous, the lighting very atmospheric. Peggy Ann Garner as young Jane is fabulous. In addition, the balance of scenes of Jane’s youth and her maturity works, somehow.
Jane’s tenure as a teacher at Lowood is eliminated, and she goes directly from the end of her education to her position as governess—a thoughtful excision, I think.
The music is old-Hollywood dramatic, and hearing it fills me with nostalgia. The director emphasizes the darkness of the story, of course. And that is my primary complaint about all the 2-hour film adaptations. The Jane of the novel has wit and humor and a strong sense of self, with a generally positive outlook, despite the events that have darkened her life. These are qualities that are lost in every feature adaptation I have watched, including the latest one.
I won’t talk about the authenticity of the costumes in the 1943 version. Costume dramas were a very different matter then. There seems to have been an established “period” frock, worn for just about every film set in the 19th century. Fontaine is rather self-effacing and brooding, and perhaps a little too pretty for Jane. On the other hand, I may be one of the few who actually likes Welles in the role of Rochester.
Thornfield looks like the castle of the wicked witch of the west, an impression that is reinforced by the resemblance to Margaret Hamilton of the actress who plays Grace Poole. (And I’m thankful they got a real singer to perform for Blanche Ingram, even if it was unbelievably operatic—the voice in the recent version was positively painful.) The advent of Mason occurs earlier than in the novel, as well, exactly as it was in Fukunaga’s interpretation. Although this omits the scene where Rochester poses as a gypsy, it’s an understandable foreshortening, in my view.
The chemistry between Welles and Fontaine is palpable, which makes the accelerated timeframe somehow more believable. Several of those with whom I’ve discussed the Fukunaga version have pointed out that there isn’t much chemistry between Wasikowska and Fassbender. She seems far too young and girlish for the depth of passion necessary, although Jane in the novel is only 19.
The biggest changes in the story of the Welles/Fontaine version are the inclusion of a scene where Rochester puts Blanche off, and the complete omission of the episode where Jane runs away and is taken in by St. John Rivers and his sisters, eventually discovering that she is an heiress. Instead, she returns to Gateshead and Bessie, and—as with Blanche—Hollywood decided that Mrs. Reed had to be less evil, and stages a rapprochement on her deathbed. After her death, Jane actually starts to write a letter asking to be taken back as a teacher at Lowood. On a predictably dark and stormy night she hears Edward’s voice and races back to Thornfield, discovering the burned-out mansion and her now-blind lover.
Although the cuts in the story are broader and more drastic in the old version, what it achieves is a measure of space to develop Jane and Edward’s relationship, to make their intense, ill-fated love believable.
For the sake of those who have not yet seen the Fukunaga version, I won’t detail how the plot is manipulated. But the director tried to include more of the story elements, and in the process—for me, at any rate—hurried through emotional content so that ultimately, the movie feels a little empty.
And yet, I’m glad someone tried again to capture the magic of this remarkable novel on film. If nothing more, it only proves the enduring power of the written word, and how it works on an individual’s imagination to create an impression that’s different for each of us.