The birthday celebration continues! Charlotte Bronte’s birthday, that is. She was born 200 years ago on April 21, 1816. So I’ve been focusing on her and her most famous novel, Jane Eyre, on my blog for most of this month.
Today, I feature more of the exploration of the many, many films made of Jane Eyre, in an essay written by talented novelist Hannah Sternberg. In this part, she looks at the 1971 made-for-TV Jane with George C. Scott and Susannah York. I actually remember watching this when it first aired on NBC. And she discusses a BBC miniseries that demonstrates why ultra-faithful adaptations don’t always capture the mood and power of their original sources.
If you missed the first parts of this film discussion, they are here (links are also provided at the end):
General Rochester, Sir and Attack of the Clones
by Hannah Sternberg
(from the longer essay, “The Many Faces of Jane”)
After 1944’s benchmark production of Jane Eyre, there were several relatively short made-for-TV stagings of the story in the ’50s and ’60s. The next widely recognized (and watchable) adaptation stars George C. Scott and Susannah York, and aired on NBC on March 24, 1971. It was shot on 35mm at 1.33:1 aspect ratio (television full screen) and screened theatrically in Europe and Asia, though it aired only as a television movie in the States. In 1972, it won an Emmy for Best Achievement in Music Composition with a score by the upcoming composer John Williams. Both stars were also nominated that year for their leading roles.
Despite the deterioration of age on many current copies available on DVD, this film’s beautiful sun-drenched landscapes and sweeping, melancholy shots across the moors bring the novel’s setting and imagery to life in a way rarely seen in the adaptations that were to follow it on TV in the next couple decades.
The late ’60s/early ’70s flavor of some details in costume and hair design are jarring, but don’t exceed by much the usual superimposition of current fashion onto historical dress apparent in many period films, made more noticeable by its removal from current style. Lapses in period detail are unfortunately hobbling to this otherwise carefully styled adaptation, though moderate enough to be ignored with some effort – Susannah York may be haunted by the ghost of blue eyeshadow, but “Low Rider” doesn’t haunt the soundtrack.
Filmed at Ripley Castle in Yorkshire and in London’s Pinewood Studios, the movie displays a coherent use of space that provides context for the story. Not only are the sets decorated to period satisfaction, but the editing and cinematography combine to create a sense of the castle’s layout that is consistent and realistic. The interplay of setting and editing allow the viewer to follow Jane through a realistic manor home, discovering its hidden secrets. The use of location shooting in this film is also a sign of that rising trend in filmmaking, a departure from 1944’s soundstage production.
Both Scott and York are old for their roles. In the book, Jane is 18 and Rochester is recently in his 40s, but York is 30 and Scott is a very weathered 44 – by his looks he could have easily been in his mid 50s. Instead of playing young, they use their not-unreasonable ages to their advantage, creating a much quieter and more mature dynamic between Rochester and Jane that reconciles the stormy passion of their courtship with their eventual peaceful end.
Scott’s accent is sometimes a little stretched, which is at least better than being grotesque, and his brusqueness only highlights a masculine tenderness: in one of the most moving scenes, after Jane slips away from Rochester and his mad wife in disgust, he slides down the wall and talks to Bertha in eerily calm tones: “What shall we do tonight? Shall I play for you, and sing? Will you sit with me and tell me the story of your day? Shall you hold my head on your breast whilst I sleep?”
This is an entirely fabricated piece of dialog, but it supplies the same emotional justification for Rochester’s crime that later omitted portions of their parting scene would have made clear, and it does so in an original and chilling way. In the parting dialog as it exists in this adaptation, when Scott roars, “Everything that’s mine is yours!” the sentiment is vulnerable, but the delivery is powerful, again filling verbal gaps with emotional intensity and meaning, which York’s silent acting complements just as potently.
The deliberate, quiet tone sets this adaptation up for the most natural and understated movie ending of the story. Other adaptations, like the 1944 film, maintain a tone just as passionate and thundery as the rest of the story for the final reunion, usually accompanied by a voice-over describing the couple’s happy marriage, a summary of the book’s final chapter. Rochester grasps Jane passionately into his arms, and cries out in angst-laden tones; the music swells; metaphorical language is deployed mercilessly.
Like the rest of the 1971 film, this ending is without voice-over, but the soothing unity of Rochester and Jane’s embrace says everything the viewer needs to know about their future. There is no storm of tears, though Jane quietly lets a few drops roll, and instead of a roaring, tempestuous confirmation of love there is a gently humorous exchange as Rochester attempts to discover whether Jane will still marry him, without bluntly asking her the question. This does in fact resemble facets of the book’s final chapters, but its interpretation on the screen is gentler and subtler, a refreshing way to end this adaptation – by remaining faithful to the established tone of the retelling rather than single-mindedly pursuing precision to the book.
Attack of the Clones
In the same decade, the BBC made its first miniseries adaptation of the novel, followed ten years later by its second attempt, both of which have inspired the lasting devotion of raging book fanatics. That’s their problem. The BBC Eyre attempts of the ’70s and ’80s prove why bringing the book, word-for-word, to the screen can be the least successful way to adapt a classic novel.
Victorian and other pre-film literature have a distinctly different flavor from modern writing trends, not just in the language and moral themes, but in the pacing and structure of the story. Even films of modern literature require alteration to ease the transition between mediums. Lifting a book’s plot and characters into a two-hour feature or a six-hour miniseries is often a thematically reductive process, and it takes courage to ruthlessly hack apart what fans for decades have known and loved. The confidence to do this springs from a thorough understanding of what made the original captivating, a dissection of the dramatically necessary, the currently relevant, and the visually promising elements from the verbal tissue that holds it together.
Just as a feature-length adaptation can crash by trimming too close, a miniseries adaptation can fail at capturing a book’s spirit by becoming mired in a scrupulous recreation of every detail of the original’s plot. This technique appeals to Brontephiles who only want to reread the book on the screen rather than see it sullied by another writer’s interpretation, but the resulting mimicry of “real” Victorian speech and etiquette is about as twee as the local Renaissance Faire, and bears as much resemblance to historical truth. This disturbing trend is evident in the book-fan-popular 1983 BBC Jane Eyre starring Timothy Dalton (for those who like their Rochester shaken, not stirred) and Zelah Clarke.
The 1983 adaptation (I use the term loosely here) is one of probably hundreds of ripped-from-the-book dramatizations produced by the BBC; those of the ’70s and ’80s are notable for their scrupulous faithfulness. “Faithfulness” might not be a strong enough word. These DVDs are SparkNotes desperate ninth graders can watch.
In this Jane Eyre, entire dialogs are lifted nearly word-for-word from the text, while the story’s progression is left so rigidly intact that episodes frequently end at awkward moments with neither a clearly suspenseful cliffhanger nor a fulfilling closure marking the end of an act. This method is surprisingly insensitive both to the subtlety of the original novel’s longer and more methodical story structure, and to the requirements of episodic television storytelling.
Another defining quality of the BBC-produced historical dramas of the ’70s and ’80s is their blissful freedom from any kind of redeeming production value. Mysterious thumps and creaks abound even at Gateshead scenes, where there is no crazy attic-dweller to provide an excuse for poor sound engineering. Outdoor shots have colder, paler color balance, which appears to be the unintentional result of mixing light sources. Sets and costumes are designed with a theatrical sumptuousness which may hold up well from a distance but appear clumsy and artificial when presented in the more intimate window of the small screen.
The camera itself is more passive than a proscenium. Shots are regularly anchored by safely symmetrical framing, following characters with short pans or spastic zooms to maintain the centrality of the subject. Depth is collapsed by consistently eye-level, horizontal camera angles, and the result is almost entirely two-dimensional, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere which obliterates any sense of scale, and for all the audience knows could be hiding an actor’s lack of pants.
The occasional use of extreme upward or downward angles, such as in the first interview between young Jane and Brocklehurst, results only in appearing cartoonish by contrast, and the angle is not maintained consistently in subsequent shots, creating a stranded, confused feeling of spatial relation between the characters. This confusion is increased by an agonizing monotony of shot-reverse-shot close-ups that strand characters with no sense of relative location.
To make composition an invisible part of the cinematography can be as acceptable an artistic choice as any other when well-executed, but in this case, rather than deliberate invisibility, the careless clumsiness of the composition appears only to be an the result of carelessness and lack of skill. It’s as if these adaptors tried to ignore cinematography as an intellectual tool for storytelling, as if trying to write wholly without adjectives because they distract from the verbs and nouns.
This, in my mind, is its most fatal flaw. The 1983 BBC Jane Eyre is not a deliberately cinematic work; it’s a life-sized puppet act caught on tape. Fans of its faithfulness tend to brush off its “dated” or “theatrical” feel as a minor drawback, as if the sole determinants for any quality adaptation must be the writing and acting. But the form (cinematography) becomes a part of the content in the same way that an author’s specific use of language contributes the distinctive tone of a book. Claiming that bad production technique is irrelevant in a miniseries like Jane Eyre is like saying a translator’s bad grammar is excusable if the material he’s working from is already a classic.
This miniseries is comfort food for the Cultivated Mind – not too artistically refined or that healthy in large doses, but a fun entertainment treat akin to reading a romance novel. Its fatal flaw is also its redeeming quality: it’s a treat for those who simply want to see their favorite scenes enacted, any way and any how. The 1983 miniseries features scenes nearly every other adaptation leaves out, such as the gypsy fortune-teller scene, and contains the most complete enactment of Jane and Rochester’s parting dialog that I’ve seen in an adaptation yet. Though like every other adaptation, it carefully leaves out Rochester’s account of the abandonment of his previous mistresses before Adele’s mother. No one’s that perfect.
In 1983, the BBC produced a Jane Eyre the viewer can sit back and absorb with little effort – every development is dropped in the viewer’s lap with a thorough explanation. This means, oddly, that one of the most accurate adaptations of this novel is possibly also one of the most dumbed-down (though it’s hard to beat 1934 for sheer, brain-imploding vapidity). But somehow, Bronte’s Jane eludes this scrupulous attempt at re-creation.
For Part I of Jane Eyre films, go here.
For Part II of Jane Eyre films, “Citizen Jane,” go here.