This post contains spoilers for Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (1996) and Jane Eyre (2011).
A good Jane Eyre adaptation is hard to find. Gingernifty has a great post here on the literary webseries, “Autobiography of Jane Eyre.” As you may have seen on Twitter, I’ve watched (or re-watched) a couple of Jane Eyre movies lately. Below are my thoughts on how well each of them translates the novel to a visual medium.
Jane Eyre (1993) does a decent job at smashing a 600-page book into a movie, but because of some odd story changes and William Hurt’s mediocre Rochester, ultimately it’s not one I would choose to rewatch.
The “childhood chapter” was one of the better parts of the movie, and possibly the best treatment of that section that I have seen. The child actors were really great (Anna Paquin plays Jane). It has to gallop through Jane’s growing-up years but it gives us at least one solid highlight at each stage of her young life to show us how she becomes the adult she does. Brocklehurst’s performance is a masterpiece of self-righteousness and deluded charity. I would have liked to see Miss Temple (played by Amanda Root <3) display even a tiny bit of agency, but the contrast between her and Miss Scatcherd was a nice sketch.
Speaking of nice character sketches, I adore Mrs. Fairfax in this version. She’s cozy, proper, and just a little bit ignorant. Mrs. Fairfax is one of those characters who knows just enough to make you think she’s fully-informed, and once you realize she isn’t, you’re not sure whether to be angry or not. She’s not a villain, and she’s not working actively for or against Jane.
William Hurt as Mr. Rochester did not fill me with the same joy as Mrs. Fairfax. He wasn’t bad, per se, he was simply mediocre and monotone. Did you even read the book? He should be Byronic and over-dramatic. There was almost no banter between him and Jane – even worse, scenes between them that are give-and-take in the book are more like lectures from Rochester to Jane. She has a healthy side-eye but that’s it.
Adult Jane (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) is probably the calmest, most reserved version of Jane Eyre I’ve seen. It’s accurate to the book, and I think she shows just enough in her face and voice to let us know what she’s thinking. Most Janes, because they’re trying to turn Jane’s narration into expressions on their face, wind up displaying different degrees of Distressed most of the time. Shout-out to the moment where she finds out about Blanche Ingram, and walks down the hallway, glances in the mirror, and whispers, “You are a fool” to her reflection. BOOM, 10-page monologue covered in a few seconds.
One of the most disturbing parts of this movie is Bertha, but not disturbing in the way you would probably think. I wanted to hug her so much in this movie. She seemed so sad and lost, and, occasionally, pissed off at her men-folk who locked her up. Even weirder (and more disturbing), the movie didn’t seem aware that it was making her so sympathetic. It was as if the movie relied so much on our shock making us hate her, that it didn’t bother to make her scary or threatening at any point. We see the results of her actions – the fire, Mason’s injury – but the connection is mostly implied. Bertha deserves better 2017. If you’re going to make her a villain,, at least do a compelling job of it.
I have mixed feelings about the overall look of the movie. The interior sets are great, but the exterior visuals seem to be matte paintings for the most part. The music is so understated that it’s almost unnoticeable, which I don’t appreciate but maybe some people do. It was too subtle.
There were many changes to the story, some small, some large. I appreciated some of them because they helped move the plot along and streamline the story to fit into a movie. However, others were really counter-productive to the pacing and plot. The primary example is St. John Rivers character and sub-plot. Jane’s flight from Thornfield isn’t desperate, it’s organized and safe, undercutting the suspense in the final third of the movie. St. John isn’t a clergyman, simply a solicitor, who serves no purpose and adds no suspense to Jane’s arc or the plot, except to inform her that she has money. Even worse, there is no catalyst for Jane to seek out Rochester again, so the story just seems to sit and wait at St. John’s until enough time has passed for her to move on. Yawn.
Jane Eyre (2011) has totally different problems, but I love the atmosphere and some of the acting choices. It falls short due to the confusing story organization, the lack of dialogue, and some very strange and detrimental acting choices.
Mia Wasikowska as Jane is wonderful. I love how shoe puts her hands on her hips when she is thinking about her life and her choices (usually thoughts like “what am I to do with this poor fool?”). I love her delivery of the “do you think I am soulless and heartless?” speech, and the way she says “God help me” when Rochester is being dramatic and clingy (literally clinging to her). If it wasn’t obvious, she’s my favorite adaptation Jane thus far in my life.
The soundtrack is understated for the most part, but it builds on the story and isn’t weak. It’s very atmospheric and good for this story. I adore the costumes in this movie, as well.
Rochester in this movie isn’t the best Rochester that could be, but at least Michael Fassbender makes him dramatic and emotional, as well as mysterious and occasionally selfish.
Judi Dench as Mrs. Fairfax is strangely antagonistic. I think they tried to make her tone foreshadow the darker parts of the story, but instead she comes across as really disapproving and melodramatic.
Jamie Bell as St. John Rivers is just a case of bad casting (although I do love Jamie Bell, I’m sorry, Jamie), and then the acting and directing conspire to make him one-dimensional and terrifying. The thing I like about St. John is that he is cold and rigid and perhaps hardhearted, but he also does a lot of good and thinks he is sacrificing himself for what is right. St. John in this movie is so unlikeable and tyrannical that he loses all depth.
The real issue with this movie is the frame-story structure. I have mixed feelings about it. I love that the movie opens with Jane fleeing Thornfield (with an appropriate amount of Distress) and then when she reaches the Rivers, flashes back to her childhood and what led her to this dramatic turn. However, the movie doesn’t clarify the progression and chronology of the story enough, making it very confusing and occasionally choppy. I’ve read the book several times and I still am surprised by the lack of explanation at several points that make the story difficult to follow. It relies on the albeit beautiful landscapes and imagery to tell the story rather than dialogue, except the visuals don’t tell a clear enough story, either. There are too many Meaningful Stares and not enough verbal interplay between characters to securely build the story.
Thanks for reading this post! It got longer than I expected.
I’ve been hearing lots of good things about the 1983 BBC miniseries, and I’d like to rewatch the 2006 film as well. What is your favorite Jane Eyre adaptation?