Today marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charlotte Brontë. I could not let the date pass without notice, and I plan to drink a toast this evening to the memory of the Brontë family. Many celebrations are planned, but one of the key events will take place at the Brontë Parsonage Museum at Haworth. This seems the right time for a bonus post in my Jane Eyre book/film series, with my observations on the state of the project so far.
In the first installment of this series, which compares five feature-length adaptations of Jane Eyre with Charlotte Brontë’s novel, I listed my criteria for evaluation and analysis. The task, however, has become much more challenging than I expected. When I began, I envisioned a six or seven part series, but to date we have only reached Chapter Fourteen. If you are one of the few-but-devoted readers who looks forward to these posts, never fear. I plan to continue, but I feel the need to describe the difficulties of the project.
First, I have had to modify and refine my criteria. “Fidelity to the book,” for example, is far more complicated matter than it seems at first glance. Does it mean “no significant deviations from the plot and events as outlined in the book”? I suspect that this is what most people mean by “fidelity.” But what about Brontë’s beautiful language? The 1943 version tampers with the plot, but it also has the virtue of lifting hefty portions of glorious dialogue (almost) straight from the book.
With a few glaring exceptions, 1996 is by far the most faithful to the book in terms of both events and dialogue–yet it is usually considered one of the least successful versions. And then there is faithfulness to the “spirit.” In my opinion, 1997 conveys the nature of Jane and Rochester’s relationship more accurately than any of the others. Yet the 1997 screenplay substantially reinterprets Brontë’s words for the modern viewer and foregrounds certain aspects at the expense of others.
The various forms of fidelity remain my most important criteria for judging an adaptation, but I have become more open to different strategies for adaptation, which have different goals. That’s why no single film of Jane Eyre will ever be “the one,” just as no translation of a great poem can be definitive. This brings me to my next challenge: casting and acting.
When the adaptation of a beloved book is at stake, most people compare the actors to the mental images they have formed by reading. If an actor doesn’t match the mental picture, the adaptation is rejected, sometimes quite vehemently. To give an example from my own experience, there is no way that Keira Knightley will ever be a convincing Elizabeth Bennett for me, no matter how good an actress she is. These mental pictures vary widely among individuals, of course. To try to get past my own prejudices in evaluating the casting, I applied some objective criteria. But if an actor (William Hurt, Michael Fassbender) is cast against type or miscast, does that mean we write the whole film off?
Surely not. In Fassbender’s case, we can easily pretend (as everyone in the film does) that he is not in fact a drop-dead hottie. We can say his Rochester is ugly, and at the same time, we get to enjoy his good looks (wink, wink). And yet as a stickler for the book, I think that in an ideal adaptation, we would find Rochester unattractive in the beginning, and fall for him somewhere along the way. Otherwise a fundamental aspect of the story is sacrificed. After all, can you imagine Céline Varens giggling with her lover and ridiculing the ugliness of Michael Fassbender? And yet Fassbender is a very good actor. He makes Rochester gloomy and Byronic and poetic and dominant. And maybe that’s enough.
But what about William Hurt? Not only is he cast against type, he portrays a Rochester quite different from the one in the book. After carefully examining 1996, I have concluded that the “gentle Rochester” is not of Hurt’s own making, but is a deliberate strategy shared by the screenwriter, director and actor. In the Hay Lane scene, for example, the script goes out of its way to make Rochester polite. His harshness is deliberately dialed back over and over (for example, he doesn’t test Jane’s piano skills and belittle them). Why? I think it’s because William Hurt, for all his talent, is never going to be Byronic, and it would be wrong to try to force that. Instead, he reinterprets Rochester’s character in a way that works for him. What emerges is a sensitive portrait of an wryly funny, lonely, eccentric man with a great capacity for love.
Something similar happens with George C. Scott. He fashions a cold, withdrawn, hypermasculine Rochester quite different from the one in the book. Admittedly the literary Rochester does show a capacity to withdraw, and to hide his feelings. He has fits of depression and ill-humor. But he is not so by nature. His nature is to be open and demonstrative of his feelings, except when he intends deception. Scott’s Rochester is the opposite, reserved by nature but occasionally volcanic. I wonder if this is to do with American stereotypes of the British aristocracy, the “stiff upper lip” and so forth. In any case, Scott’s performance is consistent throughout, and he creates a fully realized character who can be enjoyed on his own terms.
But all this creates problems for my rubric. I think I have sometimes punished the actors for giving the performance they were scripted and directed to give, simply because it differed from the literary Rochester or Jane (or at any rate, my understanding of them). After Jane’s first interview with Rochester, Joan Fontaine (1943) was clearly told by the script or director to “look worried,” because the music dramatically cues her negative emotion–even though she had no such worries in the book. In that first interview, Orson Welles/Rochester snaps his fingers and Joan Fontaine/Jane meekly does his bidding. Is she too submissive? Perhaps. But is that bad acting, or faulty direction and script?
Over the course of the project to date, my perceptions have changed. For example, my memories of watching 1996 were that Charlotte Gainsbourg was very good, and William Hurt was not. But the more I see the film now and review individual scenes, the more I find fault with her acting, and the more I admire his. Again, initially I dismissed Susannah York in the 1970 version as the “flavor of the month,” a piece of celebrity casting. I also thought she was far too old to play Jane. But the more I watch her, the more I find her portrait of Jane to be excellent, especially in relation to Scott’s performance. She captures much of Jane’s poise, dignity and wit. Even though Jane is supposed to be eighteen in the book, she has a powerful sense of self, and strong convictions that make her seem older than her years.
Onscreen, an eighteen-year-old actress playing Jane would be unlikely to convincingly match George C. Scott. Not that it couldn’t happen (look at the commanding 28-year-old Orson Welles as Rochester, after all), but I have concluded that the balance between actors is more important in casting than their individual traits. “Relative casting” for height, age, and looks wasn’t something I initially considered, but I now think it’s more important (at least for the two leads) than strict adherence to their descriptions in the book.
This issue of “relative casting” was brought up by a reader of this blog, and another mentioned the historical context of each film. For example, the 1943 deviations from the book are easier to understand if one looks at the year; “Mr. Rivers” gives young Jane a speech about doing her duty even when it’s very difficult. Surely this was well-received at the time, as the United States entered WWII. Is this kind of change, making a great work more “relevant” to an audience of another time and place, aesthetically justified? These are things I would like to investigate, but the project has already grown so large that I fear I’ll never finish if I add more topics for discussion.
There are rewards as well as challenges in the project. Reading the book so closely has revealed aspects of Brontë’s artistry that I never recognized before. And far from rejecting any of the films as inferior, I have come to appreciate the fine points in each of them.