“MY LIVING JANE?”
“And there is enchantment in the very hour I am now spending with you. Who can tell what a dark, dreary, hopeless life I have dragged on for months past? Doing nothing, expecting nothing; merging night in day...and then a ceaseless sorrow, and, at times, a very delirium of desire to behold my Jane again.”
These are Edward Rochester’s words to Jane Eyre when she returns to him after a year’s unexplained absence, during much of which he was afflicted with blindness. Readers can echo his sentiments; Rochester’s longing for and rediscovery of Jane is a stormier version of a common longing among book lovers: to experience their beloved stories and characters beyond the realm of mental reflection, and to actually participate in the world created by a beloved book. This is externalized in Jasper Fforde’s 2001 novel, The Eyre Affair, in which an oddball invention enables detective Thursday Next to jump into the pages of Jane Eyre, in an effort to prevent archvillain Acheron Hades from kidnapping Jane and ruining the enduring story.
Film adaptation is the closest that readers in the real world can come to Thursday Next’s adventure inside Jane Eyre, and films like 2008’s Bronte biopic are another proof that, by using history to mimic fiction, readers continue to seek to plunge into the world those authors have created. The success of The Eyre Affair is one of many testaments to the enduring popularity of Charlotte Bronte’s original novel. While Jane Eyre is a major work critically and thematically, it also remains a popular favorite due to the escapist quality of its gothic romance, making it equally captivating on the intellectual and emotional levels.
Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre renders a different impression on every reader, and a new sensation on each successive reading; therefore there can be no definitive adaptation. However, the book’s popularity and sheer entertainment value have prompted a staggering volume of attempts. At least one eponymous English-language film or television adaptation of Jane Eyre has appeared every ten years since 1910.
Added to those are dozens of spin-offs, retellings, foreign language productions, and moments of genre-mixing genius, like the 1943 horror film based on the story, I Walked with a Zombie, in which characters will explain to you their romantic/gothic roots, in case you didn’t notice the frying pan hitting you on the face the first time: “Ah yes, our Paul, strong and silent and very sad – quite the Byronic character,” one supporting character says of the romantic lead. Also among the more unusual, there’s a Hindu twist in the 1954 Bollywood retelling, Sangdil, and the recent second film adaptation of Jean Rhyse’s 1966 prequel to the story, Wide Sargasso Sea.
Jane’s many incarnations have represented shifting values in film and television production, social expectations, and even fashion. It has been sexed up and toned down, condensed and sometimes so completely altered that it’s almost unrecognizable. And despite the contributions of some of the best creative talents of the last century (Orson Welles, John Williams, and Franco Zeffirelli, to name a few), each attempt to crack the barrier between film and fiction has only succeeded at realizing a small handful of the many aspects of this moving and complex story, inviting further directors, writers and actors to try endless new approaches.
For those who've never read it, here's a snapshot of the story -- the orphaned Jane Eyre has a childhood made to inspire years of consecutive Lifetime movies. Alternately abused and neglected, she is reared in her Aunt Reed’s unloving home, Gateshead, and then sent to the brutal Lowood Institution at the age of ten to be educated, where her only childhood friend, Helen Burns, dies of untreated consumption.
After eight years at Lowood, Jane becomes a governess at Thornfield Hall, tutoring Adele Varens, ward of her Byronic master, Edward Rochester. Naturally drawn together by their passionate natures and unpretentious habits, Rochester and Jane fall in love. Meanwhile, sinister things at Thornfield go bump in the night, the work of Rochester’s mad wife Bertha Mason, whom he keeps hidden in the attic under the care of a servant. Jane learns of Bertha when she and Rochester are at the wedding altar; heartbroken, Jane then flees across the moors, is taken in by long-lost relatives, and nearly accepts an offer of marriage from one of them. However, following her instinct and a mysterious voice that calls to her across the moors, she returns to Thornfield to discover Bertha Mason has burned it to the ground before committing suicide, leaving Rochester a chastened (and crippled) widower. Jane marries him legitimately this time, and somehow they manage to live happily ever after without the aid of a therapist.
Jane Eyre is a Gothic fairytale with proto-feminist undertones and enticing escapist qualities. (Though its political forwardness is lessened, in the eyes of some feminists, by the prominence of marriage in Jane’s happy ending.) It offers a wealth of genre possibilities: castles, moors, agonizing love, and violent crazies. But to this stew Bronte adds piercing emotional clarity and strength; and what screenwriters and directors choose to include or leave out reflects not only the story’s capacity for romantic fun, but its emotional resonance for different personalities and generations. Are these filmmakers trying to capture the perfect Jane for their time, or for all time? And is it possible for anyone to kidnap her, complete, from the pages of her book?
Silent Picture Shows and FrankenEyre
Jane Eyre was published in 1847, when female protagonists rarely supported themselves economically or cultivated their own morals without male guidance. While it was shocking in its own time, it’s hard to believe that later, more jaded and less sheltered generations would find the same discomfort with its less compromising details. Nonetheless, the earliest sound film attempts replaced darker emotional contention with escapist romantic fantasy, and presented an unsexed Jane and Rochester, making their attraction more sentimental than passionate. The previous silent adaptations, limited by lack of dialog, presumably also greatly simplified the tale, if the only surviving one of these eight films is representative.
The story went through eight silent picture iterations and its first talkie adaptation (in 1934, starring Virginia Bruce and Colin “Dr. Frankenstein” Clive) before a team of writers took the risk of intimating that Rochester’s ward Adele Varens was the product of an illicit affair, a detail made clear in Bronte’s original novel. In these first nine film adaptations, Adele is sometimes portrayed as Rochester’s niece, sometimes his legitimate daughter by his first marriage, or sometimes simply his legal ward of unexplained origins. Bronte’s original (and unflattering) tale of Rochester’s wild days with Adele’s mother, Celine, a French dancer, is carefully passed over.
Likewise, in many of the early versions, Rochester’s desperate attempt at bigamy – his aborted wedding to Jane – is “fixed” to present a more heroic image. In a 1918 silent version, Woman and Wife, Rochester actually believes his first wife to be dead, and it is her brother who has been caring for her in secret; the brother attempts to blackmail Rochester before his second wedding, and it is this scheme which reveals the truth to Jane, who flees. Too bad they didn’t reuse this plot for the ’34 version; it would have been the perfect opportunity for Clive to resurrect the most memorable line of his career: “IT’S ALIVE!”
1934 Bruce/Clive talkie, Rochester is in the process of obtaining an annulment when he falls in love with Jane, though he continues to hide Bertha from Jane anyway. Jane discovers the secret when Bertha drifts into the parlor where wedding preparations are underway, and announces herself with a vapid grin, addressing Rochester and the audience: “Edward, my husband, I’ve come such a long way! I’ve been searching for you everywhere. Oh, are we going to be married again?”
Jane runs despite Rochester’s explanations, but since she’s already in possession of her inheritance in this adaptation, she has enough cash for a safe ride and a nice place to stay for the night. At least one must assume this is what carried her to the next scene, where she is calmly and happily dishing out soup in a local mission. Why then did she seek employment as a governess in the first place? Probably because she’d heard it was a good way to meet people.
A quagmire of sartorial and narrative confusion, 1934’s Jane Eyre is a typically anachronistic and sugarcoated costume drama. One year earlier, in 1933, The Private Life of Henry VIII had brought the period drama back to the cinema, where it had been mostly absent since the advent of sound. The genre’s popularity at this time depended in large part on glamorization, so it’s no surprise that Virginia Bruce is a far cry from the “poor, obscure, plain and little” Jane of Bronte’s novel, or that Colin Clive is neither “stern” nor “past youth.”
This adaptation also enters the fine tradition of an opening shot on a portion of the “first page” of the novel, without actually reproducing the original’s first lines. The motif of the book’s pages returns again to complete the transition between Jane’s childhood and adulthood, rather than a first-person voice over. The transition is a welcome one, since Jean Darling painfully struggles to get her mouth around young Jane’s lines, though adult Virginia Bruce’s ever-present smile decimates the illusion of character equally well.
Thornfield is a merry place indeed, where the inhabitants are uniformly playful and attractive and content, and the occasional sourceless shriek won’t spoil their antics – it’s probably just the house settling anyway. Rochester’s “niece” Adele sets about filling her role as comic relief with all the frenetic aimlessness of a crack addict, getting stuck in trees and vases at the most convenient moments to provide everyone with a laugh and allow a tender, confidential glance between the hero and heroine.
After viewing the 1934 Jane Eyre, it is possible to conclude that the wealth of subsequent adaptations have all been part of a collective effort to forget that this one had ever happened. Fortunately, its successor was a more flattering testament to the standards of its own time.
The first artistically accomplished sound film of the story appeared in 1944, when Robert Stevenson directed a feature adaptation starring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles, and boasting a screenplay by John Houseman and novelist Aldous Huxley under the story editorship of Val Lewton.
Bernard Herrmann, composer for Welles’s most acclaimed films, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, and creator of the iconic music for Psycho, contributes a classically sweeping score. The product is an atmospheric and sophisticated Gothic fantasy reminiscent of the 1940 romantic literary thriller Rebecca, a comparison encouraged by producers with the employment of the two films’ common star, Fontaine.
Both adaptations also capitalize on the narrative shock value of their sources while painting the emotional conflicts that result with comfortingly broad strokes – these stories are meant ultimately to confirm the viewer’s fantasies about stormy passion, rather than to challenge them. Another film that inevitably draws comparison is 1939’s Oscar-winning Wuthering Heights, starring Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier, in which Heathcliff joins Cathy in death before his status as a romantic hero is degraded by his antagonistic treatment of the second generation of their twisted family tree, as witnessed in the original novel.
Relatively still one of the earlier adaptations (as only the second sound film), 1944’s Jane Eyre remains today one of the most accomplished, narratively and artistically. Black and white photography is used expressively, with instances of the dramatic camera angles, deep focus and pervasive chiaroscuro characteristic of Welles’s work – Welles admitted to Peter Bogdanovich, “Oh, I invented some of the shots.” Shots such as that of Lowood’s gate and sign, in which a canted camera peers up at the strong vertical bars of the fence in seething fog, are strongly reminiscent of compositions in Welles’s most well-known works, and capture the foreboding, Gothic atmosphere of the novel.
Welles was, in fact, the producer of the film, but explained, “I don’t think an actor should be a producer unless he directs, so I didn’t use the credit…And I don’t want to take credit away from [director Robert Stevenson], all of which he deserves.”
Welles certainly took control of his own role, filling it with the moodiness, cynical pride and physical power required of Rochester – but for some reason he failed to feign a convincing British accent, instead affecting a privileged drawl that nearly obliterates some of his lines. Corsets and dieting also played a part in facilitating Welles in his only role as a classic Hollywood romantic leading man. His blazing, dark eyes, however, are the most captivating participants in his performance, and with them he created an undeniably brooding and gravitational presence. This was the role he had intended to launch his Hollywood acting career, upon which he would depend to fund his many ill-fated independent projects.
The early segments covering Jane’s childhood are surprisingly moving and well-played, featuring Peggy Ann Garner as young Jane and Elizabeth Taylor in the uncredited role of Helen Burns. Garner has sufficient power on the screen for an actor her age, but it’s Taylor’s already mesmerizing presence that drives their scenes together. This era of Jane’s life is the portion of the book most often passed over in film, along with her long sojourn at Moor House (the home of her long-lost cousins), as dead weights on either end of the main plot involving Rochester. Condensation and insubstantial child acting sometimes rob these segments of their emotional strength, but Stevenson (who went on to direct Mary Poppins) eases a solid performance out of even his youngest thespians.
Jane’s adult life, however, gears down into classic ’40s Hollywood melodrama, with Joan Fontaine’s radiance once again conflicting with the book’s requirements of a small and plain girl, and her portrayal of suppressed passion reduced to shining puppy eyes. In the book, Jane’s modesty isn’t to be confused with meekness, but Fontaine’s heroine more frequently looks up to Rochester with awe than observant intelligence. The film’s tagline sums up its attitude toward translating the original’s thematic depth into popular appeal: it’s “a love story every woman would die a thousand deaths to live!”
Huxley and Houseman’s adaptation is intelligent and elegant, however. Unlike 1934’s illogical mess, Huxley and Houseman’s telescoping of events has a clever symmetry: for example, eliminating Moor House in favor of a second return to Gateshead after Jane’s escape. This adaptation repeats the device of highlighting “excerpts” from the novel onscreen to broach time transitions; this time, accompanied by Joan Fontaine’s first-person voice-over.
This adaptation maintains a strong and straightforward melodramatic tone that is a delight for those willing to escape into it, and represents an immense leap forward for visual and narrative style. Its foggy soundstages and painted castles are among some of the best of its time, and remain thoroughly entertaining today. However, with Orson Welles’s commanding presence in front of and behind the camera, ultimately this film is more Rochester’s story than Jane’s.
General Rochester, Sir
After 1944’s benchmark production, there were several relatively short made-for-TV stagings of the story in the ’50s and ’60s. The next widely recognized (and watchable) adaptation stars George C. Scott and Susannah York, and aired on NBC on March 24, 1971. It was shot on 35mm at 1.33:1 aspect ratio (television full screen) and screened theatrically in Europe and Asia, though it aired only as a television movie in the States. In 1972, it won an Emmy for Best Achievement in Music Composition with a score by the upcoming composer John Williams. Both stars were also nominated that year for their leading roles.
Despite the deterioration of age on many current copies available on DVD, this film’s beautiful sun-drenched landscapes and sweeping, melancholy shots across the moors bring the novel’s setting and imagery to life in a way rarely seen in the adaptations that were to follow it on TV in the next couple decades.
The late ’60s/early ’70s flavor of some details in costume and hair design are jarring, but don’t exceed by much the usual superimposition of current fashion onto historical dress apparent in many period films, made more noticeable by its removal from current style. Lapses in period detail are unfortunately hobbling to this otherwise carefully styled adaptation, though moderate enough to be ignored with some effort – Susannah York may be haunted by the ghost of blue eyeshadow, but “Low Rider” doesn’t haunt the soundtrack.
Filmed at Ripley Castle in Yorkshire and in London’s Pinewood Studios, the movie displays a coherent use of space that provides context for the story. Not only are the sets decorated to period satisfaction, but the editing and cinematography combine to create a sense of the castle’s layout that is consistent and realistic. The interplay of setting and editing allow the viewer to follow Jane through a realistic manor home, discovering its hidden secrets. The use of location shooting in this film is also a sign of that rising trend in filmmaking, a departure from 1944’s soundstage production.
Both Scott and York are old for their roles. In the book, Jane is 18 and Rochester is recently in his 40s, but York is 30 and Scott is a very weathered 44 – by his looks he could have easily been in his mid 50s. Instead of playing young, they use their not-unreasonable ages to their advantage, creating a much quieter and more mature dynamic between Rochester and Jane that reconciles the stormy passion of their courtship with their eventual peaceful end.
Scott’s accent is sometimes a little stretched, which is at least better than being grotesque, and his brusqueness only highlights a masculine tenderness: in one of the most moving scenes, after Jane slips away from Rochester and his mad wife in disgust, he slides down the wall and talks to Bertha in eerily calm tones: “What shall we do tonight? Shall I play for you, and sing? Will you sit with me and tell me the story of your day? Shall you hold my head on your breast whilst I sleep?”
This is an entirely fabricated piece of dialog, but it supplies the same emotional justification for Rochester’s crime that later omitted portions of their parting scene would have made clear, and it does so in an original and chilling way. In the parting dialog as it exists in this adaptation, when Scott roars, “Everything that’s mine is yours!” the sentiment is vulnerable, but the delivery is powerful, again filling verbal gaps with emotional intensity and meaning, which York’s silent acting complements just as potently.
The deliberate, quiet tone sets this adaptation up for the most natural and understated movie ending of the story. Other adaptations, like the 1944 film, maintain a tone just as passionate and thundery as the rest of the story for the final reunion, usually accompanied by a voice-over describing the couple’s happy marriage, a summary of the book’s final chapter. Rochester grasps Jane passionately into his arms, and cries out in angst-laden tones; the music swells; metaphorical language is deployed mercilessly.
Like the rest of the 1971 film, this ending is without voice-over, but the soothing unity of Rochester and Jane’s embrace says everything the viewer needs to know about their future. There is no storm of tears, though Jane quietly lets a few drops roll, and instead of a roaring, tempestuous confirmation of love there is a gently humorous exchange as Rochester attempts to discover whether Jane will still marry him, without bluntly asking her the question. This does in fact resemble facets of the book’s final chapters, but its interpretation on the screen is gentler and subtler, a refreshing way to end this adaptation – by remaining faithful to the established tone of the retelling rather than single-mindedly pursuing precision to the book.
Attack of the Clones
In the same decade, the BBC made its first miniseries adaptation of the novel, followed ten years later by its second attempt, both of which have inspired the lasting devotion of raging book fanatics. That’s their problem. The BBC Eyre attempts of the ’70s and ’80s prove why bringing the book, word-for-word, to the screen can be the least successful way to adapt a classic novel.
Victorian and other pre-film literature have a distinctly different flavor from modern writing trends, not just in the language and moral themes, but in the pacing and structure of the story. Even films of modern literature require alteration to ease the transition between mediums. Lifting a book’s plot and characters into a two-hour feature or a six-hour miniseries is often a thematically reductive process, and it takes courage to ruthlessly hack apart what fans for decades have known and loved. The confidence to do this springs from a thorough understanding of what made the original captivating, a dissection of the dramatically necessary, the currently relevant, and the visually promising elements from the verbal tissue that holds it together.
Just as a feature-length adaptation can crash by trimming too close, a miniseries adaptation can fail at capturing a book’s spirit by becoming mired in a scrupulous recreation of every detail of the original’s plot. This technique appeals to Brontephiles who only want to reread the book on the screen rather than see it sullied by another writer’s interpretation, but the resulting mimicry of “real” Victorian speech and etiquette is about as twee as the local Renaissance Faire, and bears as much resemblance to historical truth. This disturbing trend is evident in the book-fan-popular 1983 BBC Jane Eyre starring Timothy Dalton (for those who like their Rochester shaken, not stirred) and Zelah Clarke.
The 1983 adaptation (I use the term loosely here) is one of probably hundreds of ripped-from-the-book dramatizations produced by the BBC; those of the ’70s and ’80s are notable for their scrupulous faithfulness. “Faithfulness” might not be a strong enough word. These DVDs are SparkNotes desperate ninth graders can watch.
In this Jane Eyre, entire dialogs are lifted nearly word-for-word from the text, while the story’s progression is left so rigidly intact that episodes frequently end at awkward moments with neither a clearly suspenseful cliffhanger nor a fulfilling closure marking the end of an act. This method is surprisingly insensitive both to the subtlety of the original novel’s longer and more methodical story structure, and to the requirements of episodic television storytelling.
Another defining quality of the BBC-produced historical dramas of the ’70s and ’80s is their blissful freedom from any kind of redeeming production value. Mysterious thumps and creaks abound even at Gateshead scenes, where there is no crazy attic-dweller to provide an excuse for poor sound engineering. Outdoor shots have colder, paler color balance which appears to be the unintentional result of mixing light sources. Sets and costumes are designed with a theatrical sumptuousness which may hold up well from a distance but appear clumsy and artificial when presented in the more intimate window of the small screen.
The camera itself is more passive than a proscenium. Shots are regularly anchored by safely symmetrical framing, following characters with short pans or spastic zooms to maintain the centrality of the subject. Depth is collapsed by consistently eye-level, horizontal camera angles, and the result is almost entirely two-dimensional, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere which obliterates any sense of scale, and for all the audience knows could be hiding an actor’s lack of pants.
The occasional use of extreme upward or downward angles, such as in the first interview between young Jane and Brocklehurst, results only in appearing cartoonish by contrast, and the angle is not maintained consistently in subsequent shots, creating a stranded, confused feeling of spatial relation between the characters. This confusion is increased by an agonizing monotony of shot-reverse-shot close-ups that strand characters with no sense of relative location.
To make composition an invisible part of the cinematography can be as acceptable an artistic choice as any other when well-executed, but in this case, rather than deliberate invisibility, the careless clumsiness of the composition appears only to be an the result of carelessness and lack of skill. It’s as if these adaptors tried to ignore cinematography as an intellectual tool for storytelling, as if trying to write wholly without adjectives because they distract from the verbs and nouns.
This, in my mind, is its most fatal flaw. The 1983 BBC Jane Eyre is not a deliberately cinematic work; it’s a life-sized puppet act caught on tape. Fans of its faithfulness tend to brush off its “dated” or “theatrical” feel as a minor drawback, as if the sole determinants for any quality adaptation must be the writing and acting. But the form (cinematography) becomes a part of the content in the same way that an author’s specific use of language contributes the distinctive tone of a book. Claiming that bad production technique is irrelevant in a miniseries like Jane Eyre is like saying a translator’s bad grammar is excusable if the material he’s working from is already a classic.
This miniseries is comfort food for the Cultivated Mind – not too artistically refined or that healthy in large doses, but a fun entertainment treat akin to reading a romance novel. Its fatal flaw is also its redeeming quality: it’s a treat for those who simply want to see their favorite scenes enacted, any way and any how. The 1983 miniseries features scenes nearly every other adaptation leaves out, such as the gypsy fortune-teller scene, and contains the most complete enactment of Jane and Rochester’s parting dialog that I’ve seen in an adaptation yet. Though like every other adaptation, it carefully leaves out Rochester’s account of the abandonment of his previous mistresses before Adele’s mother. No one’s that perfect.
In 1983, the BBC produced a Jane Eyre the viewer can sit back and absorb with little effort – every development is dropped in the viewer’s lap with a thorough explanation. This means, oddly, that one of the most accurate adaptations of this novel is possibly also one of the most dumbed-down (though it’s hard to beat 1934 for sheer, brain-imploding vapidity). But somehow, Bronte’s Jane eludes this scrupulous attempt at re-creation.
Jane in the Land of the Midnight Sun
On the other end of the artistic spectrum is Italian director Franco Zeffirelli and his meticulously photographed 1996 feature Jane Eyre, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt, and supported by a sparkling cast: Anna Paquin as young Jane, Joan Plowright as Mrs. Fairfax, Fiona Shaw as Aunt “Petunia” Reed, Geraldine Chaplin as Mrs. Scatcherd, and British period drama regulars Amanda Root and Samuel West as Miss Temple and St. John Rivers. And then there’s Australian supermodel Elle Macpherson as Blanche Ingram: she doesn’t really need Rochester’s money, she can just launch her own line of Victorian lingerie.
Unlike the five-and-a-half-hour-long 1983 mini that took the viewer by the hand and walked her through the story, Zeffirelli’s version unfolds quietly, with the expectation that the viewer will follow tacitly down dark and sometimes unexplained corridors – the film opens with Jane being propelled forcefully into the Red Room, though the reasons for the punishment or her fear of it are not revealed.
Subtlety and quietness guide the script; that is, until the delicacy is shattered by an unexpectedly contrived moment – as when Jane reminds Adele at her sketchpad that “the shadows are as important as the light,” just as she chases after a conversation with Rochester. At other moments, the simplicity of the dialog is spot-on in establishing both mystery and eventual double-meaning, as when Fairfax (the housekeeper) pointedly chides Grace Poole (Bertha’s caretaker), “Remember instructions” – the uninitiated viewer, and Jane, interpret this as a warning to the servant to keep quiet, when in fact Fairfax alludes to Rochester’s edict to keep the maniac in the attic hidden.
While the earliest adaptations sought melodrama and omitted Rochester’s unappealing moral confusion, Zeffirelli’s film trims out coincidence, religion and the supernatural. The result is a story that is physically believable, and possibly more appealing to the crowd that easily tires of romantic stretches of the imagination. Instead of wandering the moors for three days, lost and hungry, Jane returns to Gateshead when she escapes Thornfield, and she takes the coach. The structure is similar to the circular construction generated in the 1944 adaptation, telescoping several scattered plot events into a short but logical sequence. The melodramatic flair is still echoed in her fainting spell and fever once she arrives, in this case apparently caused by her failure to pack snacks for the trip.
The acting, too, is understated – there are few passionate rages and even fewer rains of tears. Gainsbourg is a plain, inexperienced, intelligent-looking Jane, who expresses much in silence. But while her inquisitive face promises internal intricacy, her external restraint renders her aloof not only from other characters, but from the audience itself. Likewise, Hurt’s Rochester is bitter and depressed, but he lacks the spark and charisma that animates that passionate character. If every individual actor must select a handful of features to represent his character, Hurt seems to have chosen the supporting rather than the defining moods of Rochester.
Child Oscar-winner Anna Paquin is far more passionate and engaging as young Jane. Her fiery temper and acts of rebellion raise her above the level of the pity-grabbing abused child, and her affection for Helen Burns, her only friend, is sincere and tender. Unfortunately, Paquin’s portrayal has little reflection in the mature Jane played by Gainsbourg – though Lowood has supposedly tamed the rebellion out of her, it’s hard to believe that the strict school would have obliterated her personality so completely.
The lighting and cinematography in this film are brilliantly, chillingly beautiful – light often has a cold, hard quality that complements the crisp details of Jane’s least happy settings: the mathematical rigidity of doors and staircases at Gateshead, which seem to actively exclude and repel her, and the harsh, unforgiving bareness of Lowood. Like the 1971 film version, this feature also excels at establishing a sense of place, successfully connecting spaces within a single building, and giving them a convincing scale.
Because the shots are so carefully composed and lighted, it’s a surprise that one of the most noticeable flaws is the banishment of darkness. While each shot within itself is painstakingly executed, the continuity between them regarding the time of day and quality of light is spastic. Many night scenes are flooded with light that is far too pervasive and bright to represent the moon or a grated fire. But worse still are scenes that alternate between the appropriate darkness of night and this eerie brightness, like the sequence in which Jane and Rochester tend to the wounded Mr. Mason.
Mason arrives with dusk and is shown to his room – then a shot showing the pitch darkness outside is followed by the drunken Grace Poole stumbling away from the attic and down a hall across which the windows cast cold, clear and bright squares of light. Then there’s an exterior shot showing Thornfield Hall from a distance, indicating evening. This cuts to Jane, dozing at her dressing table and still in her daily clothes; in story-time, it is deep in the night, after all the guests have finally gone to bed. Jane hears a scream and runs first to Adele’s room, which is bathed in piercing light. Rochester rushes to find Jane in the corridor, and they hustle past barely dimmed windows to the attic, where it is bright enough for Mason’s blood to appear a vibrant orange-red. However, outside where the carriage is being readied, the courtyard is cloaked in thick darkness, highlighted by the bright circle cast by a lantern. Mason is ushered from his morning-bright room into the nighttime courtyard and rides away to seek a land where time makes sense.
Incongruity such as this may break the temporary suspension of reality that viewers expect from a costume romance, but it doesn’t entirely disqualify the film from merit. Like a difficult book, Zeffirelli’s Jane Eyre takes a couple readings and some thought to become clear, but the visual satisfaction and uniquely non-melodramatic approach to the story are worth the effort, focusing on the story’s aspects of quiet melancholy and nuance of character.
Hunk a’ Hunk a’ Burning Bed
Jane made a return to the small screen in the BBC’s 2006 Jane Eyre, featuring a script, penned by Sandy Welch, that is highly evolved from that network’s previous example 23 years earlier.
Sandy Welch is essentially God’s gift to Brit-actor fangirls, the breed that appreciates waistcoats and thinks tights can be manly. Welch already has a reputation with the army of squealers for actor Richard Armitage, star of the 2004 miniseries North and South (an industrial revolution-inspired romance, not to be confused with the American mini about the Civil War). In her adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1854 novel of the same name, Welch displayed an ability to fearlessly undo what an era famous for prudishness had left as its legacy. This distinction doesn’t necessarily rank highest on the list of many reasons that qualify Welch to take on Jane Eyre, but it’s the most memorable.
Joining screenwriter Welch in her Jane Eyre adaptation is BAFTA-winning director of Bleak House, Susanna White. This 2006 Jane Eyre marks the third attempt on the story by the BBC, and displays an interesting contrast in attitude from the previous two. Director Susanna White takes Welch’s already vivid and fast-paced script (blink and you’ll miss Jane’s childhood) and enhances it with cinematic technique and photography designed for the small screen, always with an eye for what makes historical drama click: intimacy, escapism, intensity, and sympathy. This increased attention to technical and artistic detail can be seen in other historical TV miniseries in the last ten years, including Granada/ITV’s 2002 The Forsyte Saga, A&E/United Television’s 1999 Horatio Hornblower series, and, as mentioned, BBC’s 2004 North and South. At last, British television period drama is no longer exclusively the realm of visibly meager budgets and photographic carelessness (though, like an annoying cousin, they do still tend to pop up, especially around holidays).
The new cast is packed with Masterpiece Theater vets in the many crucial minor roles, giving the parts of servants, nobility and provincial churchgoers realism and personality without verging too far down the chasm of Twee. In a Bronte reunion, three members of the cast of Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996) appear again in Eyre: Tara Fitzgerald, the reserved heroine of Tenant, is the aunt-of-reserved-heroine, Mrs. Reed, character actress extraordinaire Pam Ferris, Markham’s fussy mother in Tenant, is the slightly more frightening Grace Poole; and Toby Stephens, who played the kind and love-struck Gilbert Markham in Tenant takes on the stern (and lovestruck) Rochester here.
Stephens is no James Bond, but he was his nemesis in Die Another Day, which was close enough for this time around. On the Aspects of Rochester continuum, Stephens checks in at charming with extra points for tortured and abrupt. He’s a little easier for a modern audience to admire than his book counterpart – his deep frown and dismissive brusqueness in his first formal interview with Jane hint at a proud temper, but he never verges on the less appealing, more manipulative side of Rochester’s need to control.
At the same time, Stephens makes it believable that, even when Rochester plays cruel games on Jane, she will forgive and continue to love him. It’s less believable when he calls himself ugly or old, as the fangirls will be the first to admit – in real life Stephens is, in fact, nearly Rochester’s age, but he doesn’t look it. After his second close encounter with fire, he’s hardly more “ghastly” than Gerard Butler’s Phantom of the Opera, another film in which a pretty guy is cast in a role supposedly defined by a certain amount of unforgiving unattractiveness. Stephens plays an excellent Rochester, he just isn’t allowed to look like one.
Most impressive is newcomer Ruth Wilson as the mature Jane Eyre, who, with courageously ordinary looks and expressive, thoughtful eyes, manages to combine the book’s conflicting descriptions of ethereal charm and unfashionable plainness. At moments, her pale face and dark, sad eyes do seem fairylike; but she also suffers from blushes that dye her face a fierce red, and when she cries, her face twitches and distends in a distinctly unHollywood way. If the 1944 version was Rochester’s story, this adaptation most definitely belongs to Ruth Wilson’s movingly real Jane.
There is no first-person voice-over that allows Jane to describe her complex inner states – it all shines through Wilson’s eyes, the awkward clasping of her hands, the occasional and brief mischievous smile. She is believably Rochester’s intellectual and spiritual equal; and she’s also believably in love with him without the frozen closetedness of Charlotte Gainsbourg or the oozy puppy eyes of Joan Fontaine.
Wilson and Stephens have the natural, comfortable chemistry that makes the book’s knotty, endless dialogs feel like witty banter rather than enacted speeches. Welch reorders, slims down, and rewrites much of these famous interviews without losing a sense of their original interplay of power and vulnerability, swerving from teasing to confession. Verbal exposition (especially Rochester’s) is replaced with visual storytelling cleverly woven in by White’s direction.
The best example of this is when Rochester describes Adele’s origins. The story begins with his description to Jane of his sumptuous Parisian lifestyle, and while he speaks to her the camera cuts to a lushly decorated hotel room, wandering over its features like the actor of Jane’s imagination. Then, as the narrative becomes more intense, Rochester’s voice suddenly asks, “Are you still with me, Jane?” and without cutting away from the image of the flashback, Jane’s voice answers, “I’m here, sir.” Rochester continues to narrate, but the images complement rather than repeat what he says, so that only in combination does the full story become apparent. Rochester vaguely relates that jealousy had gripped him, and as he speaks his mistress enters with her other lover. Rochester stops narrating and the viewer overhears, as he did, their scornful discussion of him. Then the image and sound cut back to Rochester and Jane at Thornfield, as Rochester dryly sums up the pair’s fate and his acquisition of Adele.
In other moments, however, there are visual blunders just as bad as Zeffirelli’s midnight sunshine. When Jane and Rochester approach each other unknowingly for the first time on a foggy road, shots of each are intercut with gentle, innocent music on Jane and thundering music on Rochester, with a result more like Jaws than a Gothic fairy tale. Similarly overdone is the scene near the end, where Jane hears Rochester’s voice supernaturally broadcast across the moors. The sound quality is beautifully real, but in an original flourish (there’s no imagery to this effect in the book) Jane’s rising passion and purpose is illustrated through quick cuts on shots of a rushing brook. I understand the metaphor, but the presentation is just as bad as any of 1983’s expository speeches – the only way to make it more painfully obvious would be to have Charlotte Bronte walk onscreen and start riffing, ala her sister in 1992’s Wuthering Heights.
These moments, and other small sell-outs – the attractiveness of Rochester, the softening of the story and characters’ harsher edges – aren’t as disappointing when considered in context. That’s because the 2006 Jane Eyre isn’t pretending to be anything more or less than it really is: corset-busting escapism. Its complexity is in emotion and not intellectual theme; it conforms to the current demands of its intelligent but melodrama-hungry audience, and in this way it’s the most tightly and purposefully constructed adaptation since 1944.
In fact, its exploitation of the sexual tension undercurrent in the original material resulted in a sometimes-hilarious conflict between new viewers and book-huggers when the series first aired. On one hand, outraged Bronteites ranted against the making out, hand-holding and embracing, as if Jane had never been “kissed repeatedly” or otherwise handled by Rochester in the original; but their opponents, a newly-founded league of Toby Stephens devotees, supported the embellished PDA a little too…hotly.
The truth is, Welch does take it a little too far. Just as her North and South, though elegantly adapted, probably owed its place in many fangirls’ hearts in part for Richard Armitage’s non-Victorian kissing demonstration, her Jane Eyre occasionally drops the façade of tasteful allusion and goes straight for sexual appeal. The unwritten caresses that generations of heated imaginations have placed at crucial moments are not forgotten here, although sometimes the rest of the crucial moment is.
Jane and Rochester’s spectacularly complex parting scene is reduced to heavy macking on Jane’s bed in this version. She doesn’t look like she’s going anywhere, but maybe that’s why Rochester is so surprised the next morning. This takes the dramatic rise and fall out of their dialog, but it also allows the scene to be broken up and seeded as flashbacks during Jane’s sojourn at Moor House, keeping the drama alive in that otherwise dry stretch of the story – the third episode ends with Jane removing her wedding gown, and the fourth opens with her wandering the moors, interjections of memory unraveling the mystery of what happened in between. In this case, clever presentation is cheapened by the over-simplified, obviously anachronistic material it contains, making this adaptation a good example of both what is satisfying and disappointing in the latest trends in bringing literature to film.
“Enchantment in the Very Hour”
“And where is the speaker? Is it only a voice? Oh! I cannot see, but I must feel, or my heart will stop and my brain burst. Whatever, whoever you are, be perceptible to the touch, or I cannot live!”
He groped; I arrested his wandering hand, and prisoned it in both mine.
“Her very fingers!” he cried; “her small, slight fingers! If so, there must be more of her.”
The muscular hand broke from my custody; my arm was seized, my shoulder, neck, waist – I was entwined and gathered to him.
“Is it Jane? What is it? This is her shape – this is her size –”
“And this is her voice,” I added. “She is all here.”
Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
Avid readers see with their minds. The sensory experience of a novel is purely imaginative, the reader’s blind groping for perception answered by the author’s careful guidance. Film is also largely dependent on the viewer’s imagination, although the physical reality of visual and aural stimulation may lead some to believe it replaces the role of individual imagination in the experience of a story. That belief is intensely incorrect.
If film is the most physical way for devoted readers to plunge into Jane Eyre, they will be disappointed if they expect to find her “all here.” Film, like literature, is not just a medium for telling stories, but for inviting the viewer to experience those stories individually and imaginatively. It’s up to the viewer whether, like Rochester, he prefers the presence of Jane to the return of complete physical sensation.
I’ve been asked, while I conducted research on this article, whether I got sick of watching the same story over and over again. I never have, because none of these films creates the same experience. They aren’t copies of the same entity, but its offspring. This also means that none of them are capable of re-creating the exact tone of the original. Since the world of the novel exists slightly differently in the mind of each reader, film adaptation instead strives to communicate one such a world to a crowd of fresh minds, an enchanted few hours in which one person’s dreams blend slightly with reality to cross into the viewer’s imagination.
It’s just as easy to pick and choose which improvements would make Zelah Clarke, Joan Fontaine or Ruth Wilson into the ultimate Jane Eyre as it is to look in the mirror and rattle off the alterations one would make upon oneself to achieve physical perfection. The effectiveness of the exercise is about the same.
Jane Eyre, so firmly established in the imaginations of readers long before the invention of cinema, refuses to part from her original medium complete, revealing herself only piece by piece as she does to blind Rochester. And, like the best book, a good film will simultaneously lift a viewer out of herself, and plunge her more deeply into the world of imagination, the only place where Jane can be found complete.
 p. 175, Orson Welles & Peter Bogdanovich, This Is Orson Welles, revised and with a new introduction, 1998 Da Capo Press, New York
In addition to being an editor at Istoria Books, Hannah Sternberg is an author, whose debut novel, Queens of All the Earth, a retelling of A Room with a View, will be released this June.
In addition to being an editor at Istoria Books, Hannah Sternberg is an author, whose debut novel, Queens of All the Earth, a retelling of A Room with a View, will be released this June.