To celebrate the 200th birthday anniversary of author Charlotte Bronte (born April 21, 1816), I’m posting many pieces about her most famous novel, Jane Eyre.
Today I continue with an exploration of the many film iterations of Jane, an essay written by the very talented novelist Hannah Sternberg (who happens to be my daughter). In this part, she explores perhaps the most famous film version of the book — the Orson Welles/Joan Fontaine dramatization.
This essay is chock full of interesting tidbits, from a minor role played by a young actress who’d go on to be a dark-haired cinema bombshell, a director who would coax great performances from child actors in a later Disney classic, and music by a composer whose most well-known snippet is associated with a horror-filled Hitchcock scene.
If you missed the first part, which dealt with silent screen iterations of Jane and the first sound version, you can read it here.
by Hannah Sternberg
(from the longer essay “The Many Faces of Jane”)
The first artistically accomplished sound film of the Jane Eyre story appeared in 1944, when Robert Stevenson directed a feature adaptation starring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles, and boasting a screenplay by John Houseman and novelist Aldous Huxley under the story editorship of Val Lewton.
Bernard Herrmann, composer for Welles’s most acclaimed films, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, and creator of the iconic music for Psycho, contributes a classically sweeping score. The product is an atmospheric and sophisticated Gothic fantasy reminiscent of the 1940 romantic literary thriller Rebecca, a comparison encouraged by producers with the employment of the two films’ common star, Fontaine.
Both adaptations also capitalize on the narrative shock value of their sources while painting the emotional conflicts that result with comfortingly broad strokes – these stories are meant ultimately to confirm the viewer’s fantasies about stormy passion, rather than to challenge them. Another film that inevitably draws comparison is 1939’s Oscar-winning Wuthering Heights, starring Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier, in which Heathcliff joins Cathy in death before his status as a romantic hero is degraded by his antagonistic treatment of the second generation of their twisted family tree, as witnessed in the original novel.
Relatively still one of the earlier adaptations (as only the second sound film), 1944’s Jane Eyre remains today one of the most accomplished, narratively and artistically. Black and white photography is used expressively, with instances of the dramatic camera angles, deep focus and pervasive chiaroscuro characteristic of Welles’s work – Welles admitted to Peter Bogdanovich, “Oh, I invented some of the shots.” Shots such as that of Lowood’s gate and sign, in which a canted camera peers up at the strong vertical bars of the fence in seething fog, are strongly reminiscent of compositions in Welles’s most well-known works, and capture the foreboding, Gothic atmosphere of the novel.
Welles was, in fact, the producer of the film, but explained, “I don’t think an actor should be a producer unless he directs, so I didn’t use the credit…And I don’t want to take credit away from [director Robert Stevenson], all of which he deserves.”
Welles certainly took control of his own role, filling it with the moodiness, cynical pride and physical power required of Rochester – but for some reason he failed to feign a convincing British accent, instead affecting a privileged drawl that nearly obliterates some of his lines. Corsets and dieting also played a part in facilitating Welles in his only role as a classic Hollywood romantic leading man. His blazing, dark eyes, however, are the most captivating participants in his performance, and with them he created an undeniably brooding and gravitational presence. This was the role he had intended to launch his Hollywood acting career, upon which he would depend to fund his many ill-fated independent projects.
The early segments covering Jane’s childhood are surprisingly moving and well-played, featuring Peggy Ann Garner as young Jane and Elizabeth Taylor in the uncredited role of Helen Burns. Garner has sufficient power on the screen for an actor her age, but it’s Taylor’s already mesmerizing presence that drives their scenes together. This era of Jane’s life is the portion of the book most often passed over in film, along with her long sojourn at Moor House (the home of her long-lost cousins), as dead weights on either end of the main plot involving Rochester. Condensation and insubstantial child acting sometimes rob these segments of their emotional strength, but Stevenson (who went on to direct Mary Poppins) eases a solid performance out of even his youngest thespians.
Jane’s adult life, however, gears down into classic ’40s Hollywood melodrama, with Joan Fontaine’s radiance once again conflicting with the book’s requirements of a small and plain girl, and her portrayal of suppressed passion reduced to shining puppy eyes. In the book, Jane’s modesty isn’t to be confused with meekness, but Fontaine’s heroine more frequently looks up to Rochester with awe than observant intelligence. The film’s tagline sums up its attitude toward translating the original’s thematic depth into popular appeal: it’s “a love story every woman would die a thousand deaths to live!”
Huxley and Houseman’s adaptation is intelligent and elegant, however. Unlike 1934’s illogical mess, Huxley and Houseman’s telescoping of events has a clever symmetry: for example, eliminating Moor House in favor of a second return to Gateshead after Jane’s escape. This adaptation repeats the device of highlighting “excerpts” from the novel onscreen to broach time transitions; this time, accompanied by Joan Fontaine’s first-person voice-over.
This adaptation maintains a strong and straightforward melodramatic tone that is a delight for those willing to escape into it, and represents an immense leap forward for visual and narrative style. Its foggy soundstages and painted castles are among some of the best of its time, and remain thoroughly entertaining today. However, with Orson Welles’s commanding presence in front of and behind the camera, ultimately this film is more Rochester’s story than Jane’s.
To read Part I of this essay on Jane Eyre films, go here.