The list of my “favorite” books would likely fill a volume in itself, but Jane Eyre is my most beloved book. Each successive reading has revealed more of its artistry, and heightened my appreciation for the keen intellect of Charlotte Brontë. Jane Eyre (1847) is much more than a romance with a Gothic flavor, though romance it most certainly is. The novel examines gender and class, religion and hypocrisy, sexual desire and selfless love. It sharply satirizes the moral failings of Brontë’s contemporaries, and describes acts of heroic compassion and kindness, yet hers are no stock characters; each is drawn as if from life, and each is unforgettable. Most memorable and distinctive of all is Jane herself, who possesses much of Brontë’s own quiet dignity, together with her frank, unconventional opinions.
This is Part One of a series devoted to comparing Brontë’s most famous book with its feature-length film adaptations. I have limited my discussion to the feature films so as to make comparisons possible. What can be achieved in an adaptation of two hours or less, when it is necessary to cut significant portions of the story? (There have been several miniseries, notably those of 1973, 1983, and 2006, with Michael Jayston, Timothy Dalton, and Toby Stephens as Mr. Rochester, but it would not be an apples-to-apples comparison to include these, since their extended running time gives much greater scope for storytelling.)
Here, then, are the films I propose to discuss. For fun, I’ve included some notes on the sets for Rochester’s ancestral home, Thornfield.
The 1943 version starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine was one of the first feature-length productions on film. The screenplay was written by Welles’ collaborator John Houseman and Aldous Huxley (famed for the novel Brave New World) together with Director Robert Stevenson (Mary Poppins). The music was by Bernard Herrmann, who also wrote the score for Citizen Kane. The cast is awe-inspiring (Elizabeth Taylor! Agnes Moorhead!). In other words, this is the stuff of legend.
Jane’s Thornfield was probably not a real castle (“a gentleman’s manor-house, not a nobleman’s seat”). It was certainly an ancient hall, full of relics, pictures and heavy old Tudor furniture. And it did have battlements, so the use of real castles in the movie versions seems justified.
George C. Scott starred as Rochester and Susannah York as Jane in the 1970 version, which was made for television. The lush musical score for this version, by John Williams (Jaws, Star Wars) won an Emmy. In its “Trivia” section, IMDb notes that the Mandarin-dubbed version of this film is hugely popular in China, where it has been widely watched since the 1980s.
1996 saw a lavish prestige project, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, who is perhaps best known for his Shakespearean films including Romeo and Juliet (1968) and the Mel Gibson Hamlet (1990). It starred William Hurt as Rochester and Charlotte Gainsbourg as Jane. The 1996 version was the first to use Haddon Hall in Derbyshire as the set for Thornfield.
The A&E version with Ciarán Hinds and Samantha Morton was made for television and directed by Robert Young, who also did the Jeeves and Wooster series with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. The screenplay was by Kay Mellor (Coronation Street).
The most recent movie-length Jane Eyre was made in 2011, and starred Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska. It was directed by Cary Fukunaga, whose previous experience in feature films had been limited to Sin Nombre (which, however, won the Director’s prize at Sundance in 2009). The much-admired screenplay was by Moira Buffini and the costumes received an Oscar nomination.
Opinions of each of these adaptations vary wildly, and each has its partisans. Everyone who reads Jane Eyre forms a unique mental picture of the setting and characters, and every filmed version must either satisfy or offend against those expectations. There are no right or wrong opinions when it comes to matters of taste, yet critical judgments are not much use to others unless we can explain (at least in part) the criteria used to reach them. Here are mine:
Fidelity: No feature-length adaptation can retain every episode in the story; nor do I desire fidelity for its own sake. What makes riveting reading does not necessarily translate well to the screen. (If only it did!) An adaptation should capture the spirit of the original, not necessarily the letter. On the other hand, too free a hand in revision is disrespectful of the source material. Any film of Jane Eyre must be accurate enough to please devoted readers of the book.
Casting: (Note that this category refers to the physical appearance of the characters, and to their screen personas, not to the actors’ performances.) The novel clearly describes both Jane and Rochester as lacking in external beauty, at least from the perspective of outsiders. Most adaptations fall prey to the temptation to cast very good-looking people, thus jettisoning one of the key themes in the book: the deepest attraction is that between soul-mates, regardless of age or appearance. Ideally, both the principals should be played by actors who have interesting faces rather than good looks, and the viewer should find them increasingly attractive over the course of the film, just as Jane’s own perceptions of Rochester’s looks change as she falls in love with him. St. John Rivers, on the other hand, should be dazzlingly handsome, as a foil to Rochester. (But he usually isn’t.)
Acting: Performance is a highly subjective factor, and it can be difficult to separate from the screenplay. Movie actors have little or no control over the script (and should not be blamed for bad lines), but in addition to providing voice, accent, posture and movement appropriate to the period and situation, they interpret the characters’ emotions for us. In a given scene, is Rochester angry, haughty, or simply careless of his speech? Is he passionate and demonstrative or restrained and controlled? Is Jane calm and dignified, or slightly playful? Is the anguish she feels visible in her face? The book offers essential information here.
Chemistry: On this subject, opinions are diametrically opposed. There is simply no agreement on which pairings are successful. Even the much-maligned Hurt-Gainsbourg version has its partisans. I will share my own perceptions, for the little they’re worth. But I do feel that “chemistry” is increased (or decreased) under certain conditions. First, Jane and Rochester must have enough conversation to build a sense of their growing attraction. (The sexual tension and romantic attraction in the book, after all, is developed through several lengthy conversations.) Second, Rochester has to be allowed his passion. This is not a Jane Austen novel. Third, Jane has to tease him a little (more on this to come). The sexual dynamic in Jane Eyre is complex, and it changes over the course of the book. There are undertones of submission and dominance, but also movement toward a relationship of equals. One could argue that by the end, Jane has more power.
Screenplay (other than fidelity): The screenplay should include ample servings of lines lifted straight from the novel. These can be trimmed, but they should be recognizable. Certain bits, such as Jane’s “poor, obscure, plain and little” speech, or Rochester’s “cord of communion,” are essential. Yet a Jane Eyre screenplay is exceedingly difficult to distill from the wealth of dialogue in the book, nearly all of which feels indispensable. Screenwriters who fabricate truly extraneous speeches err grievously in forcing inferior material onto the characters, and we will consider several examples of this (the 1943 version is a major offender). The screenwriter also determines the order of the telling and whether voiceover is used. Certain episodes, like young Jane made to stand on a stool at Lowood, are universal. I give extra points for inclusion of less obvious features of the book which nevertheless have symbolic value–for example, the chestnut tree struck by lightning, or Jane’s paintings.
Costumes and set: As long as the costumes are reasonably true to period, I don’t think they make or break a Jane Eyre adaptation, nor do the sets. Still, these aspects can greatly enrich a film– or raise distracting questions. The 1970 version is notable for beautiful shots of the moors, but it also provides Jane with a very pretty pastel blue dress which resembles nothing in the book. I suppose the costume designer simply could NOT face the prospect of Susannah York (who was given reddish hair for this film) in nothing but dove grey or black.
Direction: The director’s contribution is at once the least obvious to the viewer and the most important. The director decides on the pacing, the camera angle, how each shot leads to the next (“montage”), whether we see closeups of faces or small figures in a landscape. Under this category I also include the lighting and color palette. The director is the visual storyteller, the counterpart of the novelist. Talented direction means that the film will be much more than a simple enactment of a narrative. Its images will stay in your mind, evoke emotions, and (if the film is good enough) threaten to replace the words of the book.
Music could be another criterion, but I am not knowledgeable enough to offer anything but the most subjective opinions. I will say that 1943 has an impressively detailed score which constantly reinforces the “Gothic” feel of the direction; the studio system gave filmmakers access to composers and full orchestras of very high quality. I am also fond of the 1997 score for its wistful main theme, and of 1996 for its tender piano.
Coming soon: Young Jane