Everyone knows about the “Janeites,” the Jane Austen fandom. But there is also another type of Janeite, those who love Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. This is Part Two of my series about five feature-length film adaptations (for Part One see here). Beware if you’re like Annika Barranti Klein, who described Jane Eyre as “the worst book I have ever loved so many adaptations of.” For me, an adaptation is subordinate to the book, and therefore I will quote liberally from the novel.
The first lines of Jane Eyre plunge us headlong into young Jane’s life at Gateshead Hall. To me the opening of the book has a surprisingly modern feel:
Quickly Brontë changes the scene: concealed behind a curtain by the window, ten year old Jane is reading Bewick’s History of British Birds. Her vicious cousin John Reed stalks her, discovers her, verbally abuses and strikes her. Jane fights back but is rebuked by her Aunt Reed. Bleeding from the forehead, she is locked into the Red Room as punishment. Jane feels anger at the injustice, but soon begins to fear a ghostly presence in the room where her uncle died. Begging frantically to be released, she falls into a sort of fit and loses consciousness.
In the book, the child Jane is thin, wan and unattractive, at least in the eyes of the Reed family and their servants. Even Bessie, the most sympathetic of the maids, finds her looks unappealing. Jane overhears this conversation:
I found something to admire in each of the five actresses who played Young Jane. None could actually be described as homely, but there is something slightly disagreeable in Amanda Clarkson’s (2011) looks, especially when she simulates anger. Laura Harling (1997) is both fragile and stubborn, with large eyes, like an elfin changeling. Peggy Ann Garner (1943) and Sara Gibson (1970) were both effective Janes, projecting lively intelligence and vulnerability (Peggy being the more demonstrative and rebellious of the two).
Young Jane must be outspoken and volatile, yet not whiny or screechy. For me, Anna Paquin’s was the performance which most captured Jane’s personality. She has a self-contained quality of calmness, yet she is also very passionate when her emotions are aroused.
Of the five versions, only 1996 and 2011 show Jane being abused by the Reed children. Both also have Red Room scenes.
2011 begins with adult Jane running away from Thornfield, and is the only film of the group to intercut her life thereafter with flashbacks of her childhood at Gateshead and Lowood. This front-loads the non-Rochester parts of the story, resulting in a quicker pace at the end. It’s efficient and well-executed, but the tradeoff is that the treatment of Jane’s early life and of her relations with the Rivers family feels fragmented.
The 1997 version is the only one to include the Gothic element of Jane’s terror at the fact that her Uncle Reed died in the Red Room. Eerie sounds and camera effects are used to make the scene frightening. There is even a quick shot of Uncle Reed’s corpse.
The other two films open quite differently. 1970 completely cuts out the Reed family and begins with Jane’s arrival at Lowood. 1943 opens with a voiceover of Joan Fontaine speaking the first lines of Chapter 1 of Jane Eyre… except that the “text” is a totally fake revision. This is an insult to every viewer, both those who have read the book, and those who have not.
Next we see Bessie and a manservant letting Jane out of a closet where she has been locked as punishment, and she is immediately conducted to the interview with Mr. Brocklehurst.
In the book, Mrs. Reed asks that Jane be treated severely at Lowood and advises Mr. Brocklehurst “to guard against her worst fault, a tendency to deceit.” Brocklehurst conducts his “pit of fire” interview with Jane, but after he leaves, an outraged Jane speaks her mind very plainly to Mrs. Reed, frightening her aunt with the directness and force of her reproaches. After the initial glow of triumph, however, Jane regrets her outburst (a nuance which is lost in all film versions).
Brontë uses the “pit of fire” interview not only to illustrate the cruelty of disciplining children with threats of Hell, but also young Jane’s lack of sound religious education. Her first exposure to real faith in God will take place only after she reaches Lowood.
According to the book, Brocklehurst looked like a “straight, narrow, sable-clad shape standing erect on the rug: the grim face at the top was like a carved mask, placed above the shaft by way of capital.” 1943’s Henry Daniell is the best of the lot, imposing and priggish (note how the director shoots him from below, giving us the ten year old Jane’s perspective). 1970’s Brocklehurst seems rather ordinary until the hair-cutting scene (see below), when he quickly becomes unforgettable. 1996’s John Wood makes the most believable and realistic Brocklehurst, and closely matches the description in the book, but is not as memorable in spite of Wood’s excellent acting. David Grant (1997) is the scariest-looking and angriest. Simon McBurney (2011) is miscast and seems more an insecure, silly man than a terror. In McBurney’s defense, however, there is more than a hint in the book that Miss Temple (the headmistress) and the pupils think Brocklehurst is a fool.
At Lowood, Mr. Brocklehurst forces Jane to stand on a stool while he warns the pupils and teachers that she is a liar. Jane is befriended by Helen Burns, an older girl who is constantly persecuted by the harsh Miss Scatcherd. Jane is indignant at this injustice, but Helen teaches her that Christ calls for forgiveness of oppressors, and gives strength to the weak. Both girls greatly admire Miss Temple, who invites them to tea and ultimately exonerates Jane from the charge of deceitfulness. After this, Jane says, ““I would not now have exchanged Lowood with all its privations for Gateshead and its daily luxuries.” Yet semi-starvation and lack of medical care lead to a typhus epidemic. Helen, a victim of tuberculosis, also grows severely ill and Jane visits her deathbed, where they discuss God and the afterlife.
1943 devotes a generous 23 minutes (from a total of 96) to Jane’s early life. After the promising beginning, however, 1943 strays too far from the book. The screenplay introduces “Doctor Rivers,” a composite of the sympathetic apothecary Mr. Lloyd, who tends to Jane after her “Red Room” fit, and St. John Rivers (entirely cut from this version). Screenwriters Houseman and Huxley patronizingly dismissed the St. John section of the novel as “a dull, shoddy and boring piece of writing.”* They thought they could do better. WRONG!
Dr. Rivers chides Mr. Brocklehurst for leaving the windows in the school open, after which Brocklehurst vents his fury on the girls (borrowing what in the book are Miss Scatcherd’s lines). The 1943 screenplay also expands a minor episode in the book where Brocklehurst expresses outrage that one of the girls has curly hair. Informed that the hair curls naturally, he nevertheless plans to have a barber cut off, as well as the hair of all the girls in the first form.
Houseman and Huxley inaugurated (?) a cinematic tradition in which Brocklehurst himself cuts the hair of Helen, Jane or both. This is an alteration I can approve, because it has a sound basis in the novel, because it works visually, and because it points to the sexual politics of a society which empowered fools like Brocklehurst because they were men, and maintained their privilege by demonizing female sexuality. Male lust was to be blamed on the “vanity” of women and girls.
In the 1943 version, Jane protests loudly at the cutting of Helen’s hair, leading to more punishment. A horrified Dr. Rivers finds Jane and Helen being forced to walk in the rain with flatirons. Needless to say, this heinous abuse leads directly to Helen’s death. Nothing in the book was quite this terrible. (Even the stool punishment was only half an hour, not “the rest of the day” as most of the films have it.)
The 1970 version has a good overall treatment of Lowood, to which it devotes a full 20 minutes.
The 1970 Brocklehurst is truly brutal. It includes a hair-cutting scene, but this time it is Jane herself whom Brocklehurst targets, and Scatcherd holds her down while he goes at her with a large pair of shears.
Miss Scatcherd (a terrifying Barbara Young) then multiplies the horror by putting Jane on a stool again, and for good measure banishes Helen to another stool in the cold schoolyard, thus bringing on her final illness. (This too seems to have been inspired by the abuse in the 1943 version).
None of the film versions really comes to grips with the importance of Helen as Jane’s spiritual teacher. No doubt Helen’s dialogue is considered too sophisticated for a fourteen year old girl, and too pious. Brontë was accused of making Helen manifestly implausible, yet she remarked in one of her letters that “Helen” was a real girl (apparently her own sister, Maria). Despite her youth and gender, Helen is a Christ-figure: a wise teacher who accepts persecution and forgives her tormentors.
1996 has the third most lengthy treatment of Lowood (about 17 minutes).
The persecution of Helen is similar to that in the book: Miss Scatcherd accuses Helen of having dirty fingernails, and flogs her with a birch (on the hands, not the neck as in the book).
1996 is unique among the films in the more extensive role it awards Miss Temple (though it seems to make her a junior teacher instead of the headmistress). In the book, Miss Temple was well-intentioned, but Brocklehurst controlled the money, so that she could do little to ease the girls’ privations.
The 1996 version earns points by focusing on Jane’s artistic skills. She draws a portrait of Helen, who has beautiful curly red hair. Not surprisingly, Helen is the child singled out by Brocklehurst to have her hair cut. Jane then removes her cap and Brocklehurst shears both girls almost to the scalp. This is not faithful to the book, but it makes for powerful viewing, especially as the girls look so frail and vulnerable after their haircuts.
The 1997 version has only a very brief treatment of Lowood (10 minutes), and speeds the exposition with a voiceover by Samantha Morton. 1997 does well by making Helen older than Jane– although she barely has any lines, and the few she does speak are trite. Her persecution is reduced to a few harsh words from Scatcherd during a lesson.
After Jane breaks a slate, a scarily angry Brocklehurst screams at her to get on the stool, but the episode is passed over quickly, and there is no hair-cutting scene. In a nice touch, the teachers are shown frantically dealing with the typhus epidemic.
In the 2011 version, as I mentioned, the Lowood scenes are Jane’s internal flashbacks while she stays with the Rivers family. Given the two-hour length of the film, Lowood receives comparatively short shrift, with a total of barely 11 minutes. The first flashback shows Jane being conducted into the dormitory and summarily stripped of her fine clothing, a cinematic way to foreshadow the coming humiliations.
In the second flashback, Helen Burns is punished by Miss Scatcherd (as in the book) with a rod to the back of her neck.
The 2011 Brocklehurst speaks very softly, and there is nothing threatening in his looks. I’m sure there was a deliberate decision to make him more restrained and subtle than past Brocklehursts (just as the 2011 Aunt Reed is less scary), but he ends up being forgettable. His lines are trimmed but well chosen: “You must learn how barren is the life of a sinner!” The hair-cutting scene is left out, for a change.
In the book, Jane asks Helen how she can stand to be flogged, and she is incredulous at Helen’s refusal to blame Miss Scatcherd.
2011 includes an excellent, if brief scene with a similar point. Helen insists that Miss Scatcherd is justified to correct her, for she has many faults. Then she assures Jane that she (Jane) is loved, and talks of the kingdom of invisible spirits.
Helen’s death is always one of the most memorable scenes in an adaptation of Jane Eyre. Every version uses at least a couple of the key lines from their conversation, in which Jane asks “What is God?” and questions whether Heaven exists.
Yet all the feature films cut Helen’s lines severely, and in most cases the religious content is carefully excised. In 1943, Jane is much more concerned about Helen’s lost hair than their spiritual futures!
1970 has Helen failing to recognize that she is dying (or perhaps shielding Jane from the knowledge). Jane asks if she is going away, and she says, “Yes, they are sending me home, to my guardian.” She promises to come back “when the heather is blooming on the moors.” All religious content is cut.
1996 does a better job of conveying the gist of their conversation, even if it is much condensed.
1997 also “sanitizes” out the religion. Was this done because filmmakers believe that religious themes limit the story’s mass appeal? Or is it simply that the constraints of time make it too difficult to include this aspect?
2011 gives Helen lines which echo those in the book, yet add an ambiguity. Nowhere does the Helen of the novel say “You have a passion for living, Jane” (indeed, in the book, Helen feels that Jane ought to curb her passion). When the 2011 Helen adds, “and one day you’ll come to the region of bliss,” it’s not clear whether she is predicting an earthly or a spiritual Heaven.
So, how do the depictions of “Young Jane” stack up according to the criteria I laid out in Part One? It’s time for the Rubric!
1943 varies the most wildly in quality, with some stunningly good aspects and some terrible ones. The meddling with St. John’s character is a fatal flaw.
1970 is Fair to Good, except for the excellent direction, which is worth a lot.
1996 is Excellent in most respects.
1997 is Fair to Good and skimps on screen time for Young Jane.
2011 is Excellent in many respects but skimps a little too much on screen time.
Coming Soon: Jane Arrives at Thornfield
*For Houseman and Huxley on the St. John section of Jane Eyre (and on the parts about Helen, which they also deplored), see “The cinematic reconstitution of Jane Eyre,” an essay by Jeffrey Sconce in Jane Eyre, A Norton Critical Edition, ed. Richard J. Dunn (2001), pp. 517-8.