Janeites, I know you’re getting impatient for Mr. Rochester. I fear he is off on one of his interminable travels, and like Jane and Adèle, we must patiently await his return. When he arrives, he will (I trust) be worth the wait. In this third post of this series, I discuss our five feature-length Jane Eyre movies from Helen’s death through Jane’s arrival at Thornfield Hall, and her meetings with Mrs. Fairfax, Adèle, and a mysterious woman named Grace Poole. (Here are links to Part 1 and Part 2.)
When we left Lowood, Jane had just lost her friend Helen to tuberculosis, a disease which also killed Charlotte Brontë’s two older sisters, and several other girls at the Cowan Bridge School for clergymen’s daughters in Lancashire. After their deaths, Patrick Brontë removed Charlotte and Emily from the school, and eventually the horrible conditions there were greatly improved. Something very similar happened at the fictional Lowood.
Jane remains at Lowood in relative happiness for eight years, the last two as a teacher. After Miss Temple, the headmistress, marries and leaves, Jane feels restless and places an advertisement seeking a position as a governess. She receives one reply, and secures references from Mr. Brocklehurst and the board who now supervise his work. On the eve of her departure, she has a visit from Bessie, the maid at Gateshead. Bessie observes that Jane “looks like a lady” but has not grown into a beauty; she is also very small for her age. She tells Jane that Mr. Eyre, her uncle, had called to see her at Gateshead, and left, disappointed, to board a ship bound for Madeira.
The five films pass over most of this history in silence, and only 1970 alludes to the change for the better at Lowood. The cinematic transition from young Jane to 18-year old Jane is usually accomplished through scenes of one or both at Helen’s grave.
1996 slightly alters the story, giving Jane a final conversation with Miss Temple, who sees her off in the carriage for Thornfield. The change seems acceptable, as it helps round out the character of Miss Temple, who is so important to Jane, yet so neglected in the films.
1943 takes a very different approach. Helen’s death is represented by a shot of Jane’s hand touching Helen’s now-cold one in the morning. We hear Jane’s scream of terror (Gothic enough, but not true to the book). Cut to young Jane sobbing at Helen’s grave.
She is found by kind Dr. Rivers, who represents “religion,” being as he is an adaptation of St. John Rivers’ character. He explains that “Helen is with God,” and when Jane refuses to go back to school, delivers a heavy-handed speech about duty and the need for Jane to prepare herself to do God’s work. So far as I can tell, we are supposed to take this pious claptrap seriously. It is especially offensive because Jane’s real spiritual teacher, Helen, has been robbed of that role. Instead, Jane is to be taught what God wants by an authoritative male. This is exactly what St. John Rivers does to Jane later in the book, but the whole point is that Jane rejects him and follows her own path. Screenwriters Houseman and Huxley thus subvert one of Brontë’s fundamental messages. (A minor point in their favor, I suppose, is that Rivers insists on the value of female education. But Jane didn’t “hate” her education as they suggest; she loved it.)
The passage of time is shown by a series of Jane’s report cards from Lowood, as we hear Brocklehurst discussing the desirability of hiring her (very cheaply) as a teacher. But Jane refuses the offer, drawing a flood of insults from Brocklehurst. He dishonorably withholds a letter which he guesses is for her, but as soon as he leaves the room, she snatches it up.
Our first look at Joan Fontaine as Jane is promising (though she is far too lovely to play the character). This is one of her best scenes, in fact. She stands up to Brocklehurst, and although she speaks quietly, there is fire in her eye. She accuses him of ten years of mistreatment. None of this is in the book, of course.
In the 1970 version, Helen’s death is similarly followed by a scene of Brocklehurst offering the adult Jane a position as teacher. She refuses, saying that she has “nothing but respect for the Board and all that they have done at Lowood,” but that she has none for Brocklehurst himself. “I have neither forgiven nor forgotten,” she declares (surely Helen would not approve!). A crestfallen Brocklehurst is left to ponder Helen’s gravestone in silence, and the next shot shows Jane’s first view of Thornfield.
1997 has a brief but well-directed sequence dissolving from dead Helen’s face to a drawing of Helen viewed by one of Jane’s young pupils. The girl asks if it is her friend, and adult Jane replies, “Yes, that was Helen.” She places the drawing in her portfolio and smiles, preparing to leave. The scene conveys something of Jane’s happiness in her latter years at Lowood, but then Jane’s voiceover adds, “I was desperate for change.” This is an accurate description of Jane’s feelings after Miss Temple’s departure.
2011 accomplishes the transition from young to 18-year old Jane through a flashback of Jane leaving Thornfield. First we see the young pupils from Jane’s perspective, bidding her goodbye. They are reprimanded for their enthusiasm by an older Miss Scatcherd. Suddenly face-to-face with Jane, she musters not a word of farewell. Jane bids her goodbye, and she stares after her, still speechless.
In the book, Jane is eighteen years old, tiny of stature, and plain-looking. Of our five Janes, Susannah York (5′ 6″) and Joan Fontaine (5′ 3″) were the oldest, both established stars when they took on the role, and both acknowledged beauties. Charlotte Gainsbourg is an accomplished singer and actress, but her roles have been limited (she is best known in the US for her role in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac). Her slightly jutting lower jaw gives her the plainest, and in many ways, the most interesting face of all the Janes; however at 5′ 8″ she is very tall for the role. Samantha Morton (5′ 3″) has also been limited mostly to supporting roles. Her onscreen persona is cool and self-contained (she reminds me a bit of Jodie Foster), and there is something slightly elfin or fey about her face which makes her a good choice for Jane. Mia Wasikowska (5′ 4″) came to fame playing Alice in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, and since then has consistently won lead roles in Hollywood films–usually a sign that an actress is considered beautiful. Her sober expression and pale complexion recall the Jane of the book.
Each film shows Jane’s carriage ride to Thornfield, though they don’t show Jane on top in the chill air, where the lower-fare passengers were obliged to sit. Brontë describes Jane arriving at the George Inn, where she settles by the fire after her wearying journey:
Finally, after dark has fallen, a man inquires for Miss Eyre. The six-mile journey from Millcote to Thornfield is about an hour and a half. Jane alights from the carriage and is ushered into a room where Mrs. Fairfax awaits.
All of the Mrs. Fairfaxes give fine performances, although they do not all receive the same degree of attention from the directors and thus do not have an equal opportunity to bring the character to life. Joan Plowright (Mrs. Laurence Olivier) and Judi Dench were both legends by the time they made these films, and both receive plenty of screen time and closeups. In the other films, middle-length and longer shots of Mrs. Fairfax with Jane are the rule, and closeups of the housekeeper’s face are rare. This is a shame because Rachel Kempson, the 1970 Fairfax, is very interesting. A stage and film actress, she married Michael Redgrave and became the mother of Vanessa, Corin and Lynn Redgrave, and the grandmother of Joely and Natasha Richardson. Gemma Jones, the 1997 Mrs. Fairfax, is familiar from the Kate Thompson Sense and Sensibility as well as Bridget Jones’ Diary and many a television role. The weakest Fairfax is 1943’s Edith Barrett (Mrs. Vincent Price), who had to be made up as an older woman (she was only 36 at the time she played the role).
For Jane’s first meetings with Mrs. Fairfax and Adèle, the screenplays stick reasonably close to the book and extract many of the same essential lines, but they compress the events and make minor rearrangements. In 1970, 1996, and 1997, for example, Adèle is brought in to greet Jane as soon as she arrives, rather than the next morning.
To my mind, it is the wonderful Margaret O’Brien (1943) who gives the most memorable and vivacious performance as Adèle. Her accent is a bit fake, but she is so full of life and so innocently feminine, dancing and delighting in cadeaux and frills, that one can only smile.
Joséphine Serre (1996) and Timia Berthomé (1997) both have better French, but they are too old for Adèle, who sat on Jane’s knee as she sang the canzonette her mother taught her before departing “to the Holy Virgin.” (Berthomé is more expressive and vivacious than Serre.) Sharon Rose is believable as a real little girl, but not a memorable Adèle (though this may be due to a lack of screen time and closeups). Romy Settbon Moore has good French, which the directors show off by using subtitles. She is very convincing as Adèle, though more serious, not as bubbly as Margaret O’Brien.
Shown to her room, Jane is delighted to reach this “safe haven” and sleeps soundly. The next morning she meets Adèle, who sings a love song and recites a fable of La Fontaine. After Adèle’s morning lessons, Jane questions Mrs. Fairfax about their employer, but learns little except that he has traveled widely and that “you cannot always be sure whether he is in jest or in earnest.” She receives a tour of the house, including the unused third-story rooms, the attics and the view from the roof. In the “narrow, low and dim” corridor of the attic, she hears a strange laugh: “distinct, formal, mirthless.” Mrs. Fairfax attributes the laugh to Grace Poole, one of the servants.
1943 includes a delightful scene of Adèle waking Jane with her music box, which has dancing figures on top. Jane learns nothing from Mrs. Fairfax about “Mister Edward” except that he is a “strange man,” and her first inkling of Grace Poole’s existence is delayed until after she meets Rochester. That night, she overhears Mrs. Fairfax cautioning Grace about noise.
In 1970, Jane hears strange laughter as she is being shown into her room. Mrs. Fairfax attributes the laugh to Grace Poole. “She works here. She’s a little… eccentric.” Hearing the laugh again, Jane opens her door and wanders outside. She suddenly turns to see the unsmiling face of Grace Poole.
Later, Jane is painting and Mrs. Fairfax is sewing. Jane asks what sort of man Mr. Rochester is, but Mrs. Fairfax only remarks that he is “unexpected,” that some might think him “peculiar.” He has traveled the world and seen a good many things; he is “a hard man to understand.” Jane asks about Grace Poole, why Mr. Rochester keeps her on. Mrs. Fairfax disclaims any knowledge and clearly wishes to change the subject. This is a very well-played scene, one of Susannah York’s best, and Rachel Kempson’s only chance for a few closeups.
1996 has the most extended treatment, including the tour of the house. Mrs. Fairfax even shows Jane “the Master’s chambers,” including his bedchamber, which would have been rather indiscreet by the standards of the time. The scene gives Mrs. Fairfax an opportunity to describe Rochester’s estrangement from his family (some lines, such as her description of Rochester as a “gentle” boy, are added to provide a fuller exposition). At this point, Jane hears the odd laugh, and receives the explanation about Grace Poole.
1997 plays up the Gothic aspect. After Jane is shown to her room, she hears the laugh. Uncertainly she investigates the source of the sound, but just as she tries a certain doorknob, Mrs. Fairfax interrupts her, saying loudly: “The door is locked!” She explains that Grace Poole enjoys a tipple of an evening and promises to “speak to her about it.”
We hear Jane’s voice as she looks up at Grace Poole’s chamber, where the window is being closed.
As usual, 2011 takes an original approach. There is no tour of the house, though Jane sees the servants keeping the rooms ready against the Master’s return. Adèle’s first lessons include a story of the spooky Gytrash, a lionlike goblin which roamed the hills and lay in wait for travelers. (As we will see, the Gytrash has been moved from a rather crucial point later in the book.) This goblin sets the stage for Adèle to tell a story she heard from her French maid Sophie.
In 2012, this overt reference to Bertha (not in the book) substitutes for the mystery of Grace Poole.
How do the five versions tally now that Jane is ensconced at Thornfield, and feeling the need for expanded horizons? It’s time for the rubric!
1943 is uneven; there are serious problems with fidelity, screenplay and casting, but the chemistry between Joan Fontaine and Margaret O’Brian as Adèle is excellent and O’Brien is a scene-stealer.
1970 is lackluster, but Fair to Good on most counts and boasts a fine set.
1996 is Excellent on every count.
1997 suffers from low budget but has excellent casting, acting and good direction.
2011 has high production values; casting and acting are Good to Excellent; screenplay is more daring and original than usual while remaining faithful in spirit.
So far, 1996 and 2011 are well ahead of the competition. Will Rochester’s arrival change all that?
Coming Soon to a Moor Near You: The Master of Thornfield!
I’m having a realization moment of how much effort was necessary to put all this together, watching each version, comparing them, pulling shots from the films, annotating, and pulling this excellent piece together for us. It’s fascinating reading and remembering these films, as of course, I’ve seen all of them. Your opening line grabbed me but I have to tell you, Linnet, you’ve made Jane much more interesting than she ever has been in the past.
About Dr. Rivers’ character and the 1943 version, I wonder if the God and duty aspect of the scripting came from the film being made during WWII, a bit of what the did a lot of back then, of mixing patriotism and duty into films? A good looking authoritative figure telling young women, and men to be prepared to do duty?
I agree fully with your evaluations of characters, especially about Maureen O’Sullivan as Adele. She was the right age, amount of animation, and spirit were perfect in her “cadeaux and frills”.
I hope whoever does the next version of JE, for surely there will always be future versions of JE, I hope they find this blog and use it as a reference for future films. It would be invaluable to them.
Thank you again for doing this project. It’s my personal favorite series of all yours so far.
Thank you, Ellen! I am glad that you are enjoying it. Yes, it is turning out to be a bigger project than I expected. Each installment requires many hours of work. But it’s very enjoyable work 🙂 I’ve been surprised at how different each version is, and it has given me some insight into how hard the job of adaptation is.
I’m sure you’re right about Dr. Rivers–the historical context of each film is something I haven’t taken into account, but surely the good Doctor was speaking to American audiences as much as to young Jane.
I believe one can see a feminist influence in the 1970 version, as well as in 1997, in the way they make Jane more assertive. But that’s for next time!
And yes, must agree with you and Esther, Amanda root would have made a good Jane.
Yes, I wish she had been able to play that role. She would have to show a little more spirit than in “Persuasion,” but I’m sure she would have been up to the challenge 🙂
I like your idea of a remake with older actors. Maybe she could play opposite Himself 🙂 But I favor Saskia Reeves or Iben Hjelje. They both have amazing chemistry with him.
Again, a great read, Linnet! Thank you! And oh my, yes, Amanda Root would have made a good Jane Eyre! My fave Jane Eyre of these really is Mia Wasikowska. However, I think my fave Jane Eyre ever (TV included) would be Ruth Wilson. Which makes me think: will you also do a TV series Jane Eyre comparsion? I would love to read that too, but don’t want to give you more work – this is already extensive!
Not sure which Adele I’d prefer. I don’t recall some of the older Adeles so well but have a suspicion I might side with you on Margaret O’Sullivan. She was really good anyway! Need to rewatch this old version to remind me, though.
As for Mrs. Fairfax – I think Judi Dench steals that one for me. 🙂
Thanks Esther! I have deliberately held off from watching the Ruth Wilson/Toby Stephens one, so as not to confuse my thinking with even more versions, but I plan to watch when I’m done with this project. Another series? Who knows? I seem to be conducting an experiment about whether it’s possible to Jane yourself to death. Come to think of it, an overdose of Rochester wouldn’t be a bad way to go 🙂
Judi Dench is great at everything she does. She makes an excellent Mrs. Fairfax!
I LOVE these write ups of yours, and I agree with midwestone that all future JE cast and directors would greatly benefit from reviewing this series.
1996 Jane Eyre for the win! I know you’re critical of a blonde Rochester but I’m looking forward to seeing your exegesis (gosh I hope I’m using that word correctly) of the Rochesters (personally, I love Himself to pieces but MR ROCHESTER SHOULD NOT SPEAK FLUENT FRENCH, regardless of whether the actor playing him has that skill in real life! Grrrr)
And I’m REALLY looking forward to hearing your thoughts once you watch the Toby Stephens version. They go waaaaaay off book and indulge in the stuff of erotic fangirlish fantasies…but Stephens is so marvelous growly-sexy-gorgeous-gingery that you may not mind. Of all the JE’s, that one probably most demands to be viewed while indulging in a bottle of wine (it just occurred to me that you could, if you so chose, give the most spectacular suggestions for wine pairings with each your film reviews…!)
The JE ’96 version was one of my favorite movies and I watched it many times in my high school years, but it’s been some time since I’ve seen it and did not realize until your post here that Amanda Root was Miss Temple (holy crap! though it shouldn’t surprise me…hell, Fiona Shaw and Samuel West are in it too. If only they had cast a mustacheless CH instead of Hurt it would have been, I think, a perfect adaptation). Amanda Root was very well cast as Miss Temple, with her gentle dark brown doe eyes and slightly worried brow, and I don’t think it matters that she’s too short or Charlotte Gainsbourg’s too tall as regards the character descriptions in the book. What matters for a film is that JE has to be of similar height when standing next to Rochester (it’d be too distracting otherwise—remember how far the camera has to pan down from Firth to Ehle during the marriage ceremony in P&P? psychologically unnerving, it’s like a rollercoaster drop), and C. Gainsbourg’s height also helps emphasize that she’s the adult governess and Adele is the child pupil since they chose an older Adele for the film (it’s just so damned hard to find really good child actors…the younger they are the worse they tend to be). Gainsbourg is satisfyingly waifish and (__is there a word for the opposite of buxom? let’s pretend there is and that I typed it here__), so even though she’s not short, it’s easy to believe that her time at Lowood curtailed her physical growth.
The only glaring problem I have with the ’96 version is that traces of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s native French accent are pretty unmissable once you’re alerted to the English-born actresses’ Parisian upbringing.
In any event, Brava! to you for your superb posts. I’ll take my seat and let you crack on 🙂
Thank you for this great feedback! You are absolutely right that casting has to be considered relative to the other actors with respect to age, height, etc. The reason I didn’t go there was because my task keeps getting bigger and bigger the more I consider it. It’s already nearly unmanageable, and still there are so many factors I am leaving out. Be that as it may, as someone who is very focused on the book, I think that Jane’s smallness is important to her character. Brontë was tiny, and I believe she “inhabited” that character in many ways such that Jane’s physicality was important to how she related to others. That’s why she made Rochester of middle height, not a tall man (I suspect). But for most people watching the films, as you say, what matters is relative height. Gainsbourg is tall, but Hurt is the tallest of the Rochesters. The only time her height really bothered me, in fact, was seeing her next to Amanda Root. And she is very slight, which is good.
I am glad to have at least one reader who is a 1996 fan. You are a rare breed! Yes, I am going to be critical of the casting and other aspects of that film, but the more I watch it, the more I am coming to appreciate Hurt’s performance. He really is a fine actor, even if miscast, and he creates a Rochester that works for him. At the same time I am becoming more and more disenchanted with Gainsbourg. I don’t think she keeps up with Hurt. And yes, she DOES have that French accent!
As for Mr. Hinds speaking French, Rochester does of course speak French in the novel (though not as much as Mr. H. in the drawing room scene) and he seems to know what he’s about. I’m curious, how come you think he should not be fluent, after all his time spent abroad and his *affaires de coeur*? The only thing in the book I can find on his skill level, other than the bits in French, is when Adèle exclaims to Jane “you speak my language as well as Mr. Rochester does!”
Love the idea of wine pairings for the different scenes. There would have to be a lot of Bordeaux 🙂
Karen Anspach said:
Wonderful, detailed analyses of the multiple aspects of the Jane Eyre films, Linnet! Thank you for the enjoyable reads and I’m looking forward to the next installment! I agree that the amount of thought, work, and time you have spent is evident. I recently reread the book (now on my second reread) and finally allowed myself to watch the 1997 version. 😆 My two comments (not much else to add to the above excellent comments): Although it might present some challenges to filmmakers or viewers I disagree that Jane should be the same or close in height with Rochester; one of Jane’s most mentioned physical characteristics in the book is that she is small. lt seems to be one of her appealing traits to Mr. Rochester, who mentions her small hands and describes her as “elflike.” Also, though I agree that this version’s Adele is older than she is in the book I wonder if she was cast because of her physical resemblance to Mr. H.? There seems to be a fairly strong inference that she is R’s natural daughter in this version, IMO.
Ooooh, thanks for the comments, Karen! I agree 100% with your remarks on Jane’s size. Maybe for the cinema they don’t think it’s important, but it was very important for Charlotte Brontë. And as you say, it attracted Rochester. I liked that in the 1997 version they have Rochester comment on her tiny fingers. What you say about Adèle in the 1997 version interests me greatly. I will have to take another look. He is definitely very paternal toward her, very affectionate–much more so than in the other films. I find it interesting that many of the literary and film critics who write about “Jane Eyre” assume that the child is Rochester’s, even though the book seems to leave things in doubt, and Jane says that she finds no physical resemblance. There is a lot of room for interpretation here.
A new installment is coming this week 🙂
Sorry for the late response but i really like to take my time with this 🙂 And guess what? We seem to be in full Bronte passion here too, just the other day we had a documentary on the Bronte sisters on BBC, and i just found that somebody uploaded it so you can watch too if you’d like 🙂
I too think Jane’s tiny size does make a difference because one of the important points is how strong and big a personality that tiny body contains 🙂 And certainly her physical delicacy appeals to Rochester later on in contrast to his wife.
I love the later bit of the her school years and the way she grows into a women and the whole arrival at Thornfield is such an exciting moment and one must feel the excitement Jane feels in the book 🙂
I agree with you in lots of ways, Adele is best in her 1943 version a bit coquettish, playful but spoiled 🙂
Aside from the longer series Samantha Morton is by far my favourite Jane of all, but i am probably a bit biased as i absolutely love her as an actress. Recently watched a new series just because she was one of the main characters. She’s really special and for me she really had than inner fire Jane has in the book. Now that you remind us in such a lovely way of the details i remember liking Gainsbourg, but i sadly don’t remember that version so vividly so i have no strong impressions.
With Mrs Fairfax i always remember being slightly afraid in the book (i think mostly because i read Rebecca before i read Jane Eyre ;-)) and slightly warming to her so i will probably like Dench in the role but in the book i think she is a wise women who certainly knows more than she says.
Another thing that is important for me in the book is Jane settling in her new home and starting to feel more free because Rochester comes crashing in 😉
Thanks for the link! One cannot have too much Brontëana 🙂
I love it that Samantha is your favorite Jane. I like her best too, because I think she captures something of Jane’s attitude toward Rochester that none of the other Janes have, that knowing quality. She knows instinctively how to handle Rochester, except that she has no counter for his deception.
I always wonder how much Mrs. Fairfax knows. The movies vary in what they suggest about it, but I’m going to study the text and address this point when we get that far. Eventually 🙂 That’s a very interesting point you made about “Rebecca,” because that novel is definitely inspired by “Jane Eyre.” And didn’t Joan Fontaine play Rebecca in the film?
Yes, Jane talks in the book about the change once Rochester arrives, and how the place is more busy and active. Thornfield “has a master” and she prefers it that way!
Oh, and guess what! I think because i was reading your impressions, coupled with an accumulation of really heavy plays and operas i’ve seen over the last week Jane Eyre was suddenly on my mind again. I was saying to a friend of mine last night after theater i really need some relief from the relentless bleakness of the stuff i’ve seen lately but unfortunately i’d seen both Pride and Prejudice and North and South on telly recently (both shown around Valentine’s day) and therefore there was only Mr Rochester left. I was saying to her how maybe i could find a DVD of the one with Fassbender and see if i could like him enough to delete the memory of his disappointing Macbeth 😉
And guess what?
shown the other night on the BBC, so i’ve downloaded it and will very likely watch it today or tomorrow 🙂
Speaking of the devil! LOL he’s just on telly , don’t know the name of the movie but obviously playing a spy pretending to be a Nazi officer, German a bit off… i think i better watch Jane Eyre 😉
Great–the 2011 version with Fassy isn’t bad. He’s too handsome of course, but somehow I can manage to overlook that flaw 🙂 He makes a sexy Rochester for sure. But a disappointing Macbeth? That’s terrible! And I was just planning to watch it!
Oh do watch Macbeth 😊 the scenery is all worth it! And me and my friends are in the definite minority of disliking the movie. To his honour he is the best in it we just all disliked the concept and didn’t think as a version of the play it was anything but average. Lady Macbeth we felt was too week and the PTSD ridden interpretation is modern and self-indulgent I felt. Not a feel of the times or the play. But I prefer a rather more violent and visceral Macbeth. McAvoy’s theatrical version was much more the real deal for me. It’s not a bad movie just not what I want from the play I like theatre much more unhinged than that. But worth a viewing 😊would love to hear what you think of it.
As to his Rochester I was surprised how un-handsome he actually appeared 😉his wardrobe in some scenes was too much for me but more of that when you get to it 😉 I thought he acted really really well 😊
Haha! They tried to uglify Fassy but that’s really not possible.
I have only seen one stage production of the Scottish play, so I don’t have as much to go on as you. I’m sure I’ll enjoy it though the PTSD thing doesn’t sound good–too anachronistic.
on the up, he does look stunning in PTSD mode 😉 probably too handsome for Macbeth too ;-)))