Today, the final installment in an essay on Jane Eyre films is posted below. This exploration of screen adaptations of Jane was written by novelist Hannah Sternberg before the Mia Wasikowska/Michael Fassbender version aired, so it takes readers up to the last film iteration before that 2011 film appeared. Feel free to add your thoughts on that version in the comments!
The previous parts of this essay appear here (links also provided at the end):
Jane in the Land of the Midnight Sun
from the longer essay, “The Many Faces of Jane”
by Hannah Sternberg
On the other end of the artistic spectrum (from television versions previously discussed) is Italian director Franco Zeffirelli and his meticulously photographed 1996 feature Jane Eyre, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt, and supported by a sparkling cast: Anna Paquin as young Jane, Joan Plowright as Mrs. Fairfax, Fiona Shaw as Aunt “Petunia” Reed, Geraldine Chaplin as Mrs. Scatcherd, and British period drama regulars Amanda Root and Samuel West as Miss Temple and St. John Rivers. And then there’s Australian supermodel Elle Macpherson as Blanche Ingram: she doesn’t really need Rochester’s money, she can just launch her own line of Victorian lingerie.
Unlike the five-and-a-half-hour-long 1983 mini that took the viewer by the hand and walked her through the story, Zeffirelli’s version unfolds quietly, with the expectation that the viewer will follow tacitly down dark and sometimes unexplained corridors – the film opens with Jane being propelled forcefully into the Red Room, though the reasons for the punishment or her fear of it are not revealed.
Subtlety and quietness guide the script; that is, until the delicacy is shattered by an unexpectedly contrived moment – as when Jane reminds Adele at her sketchpad that “the shadows are as important as the light,” just as she chases after a conversation with Rochester. At other moments, the simplicity of the dialog is spot-on in establishing both mystery and eventual double-meaning, as when Fairfax (the housekeeper) pointedly chides Grace Poole (Bertha’s caretaker), “Remember instructions” – the uninitiated viewer, and Jane, interpret this as a warning to the servant to keep quiet, when in fact Fairfax alludes to Rochester’s edict to keep the maniac in the attic hidden.
While the earliest adaptations sought melodrama and omitted Rochester’s unappealing moral confusion, Zeffirelli’s film trims out coincidence, religion and the supernatural. The result is a story that is physically believable, and possibly more appealing to the crowd that easily tires of romantic stretches of the imagination. Instead of wandering the moors for three days, lost and hungry, Jane returns to Gateshead when she escapes Thornfield, and she takes the coach. The structure is similar to the circular construction generated in the 1944 adaptation, telescoping several scattered plot events into a short but logical sequence. The melodramatic flair is still echoed in her fainting spell and fever once she arrives, in this case apparently caused by her failure to pack snacks for the trip.
The acting, too, is understated – there are few passionate rages and even fewer rains of tears. Gainsbourg is a plain, inexperienced, intelligent-looking Jane, who expresses much in silence. But while her inquisitive face promises internal intricacy, her external restraint renders her aloof not only from other characters, but from the audience itself. Likewise, Hurt’s Rochester is bitter and depressed, but he lacks the spark and charisma that animates that passionate character. If every individual actor must select a handful of features to represent his character, Hurt seems to have chosen the supporting rather than the defining moods of Rochester.
Child Oscar-winner Anna Paquin is far more passionate and engaging as young Jane. Her fiery temper and acts of rebellion raise her above the level of the pity-grabbing abused child, and her affection for Helen Burns, her only friend, is sincere and tender. Unfortunately, Paquin’s portrayal has little reflection in the mature Jane played by Gainsbourg – though Lowood has supposedly tamed the rebellion out of her, it’s hard to believe that the strict school would have obliterated her personality so completely.
The lighting and cinematography in this film are brilliantly, chillingly beautiful – light often has a cold, hard quality that complements the crisp details of Jane’s least happy settings: the mathematical rigidity of doors and staircases at Gateshead, which seem to actively exclude and repel her, and the harsh, unforgiving bareness of Lowood. Like the 1971 film version, this feature also excels at establishing a sense of place, successfully connecting spaces within a single building, and giving them a convincing scale.
Because the shots are so carefully composed and lighted, it’s a surprise that one of the most noticeable flaws is the banishment of darkness. While each shot within itself is painstakingly executed, the continuity between them regarding the time of day and quality of light is spastic. Many night scenes are flooded with light that is far too pervasive and bright to represent the moon or a grated fire. But worse still are scenes that alternate between the appropriate darkness of night and this eerie brightness, like the sequence in which Jane and Rochester tend to the wounded Mr. Mason.
Mason arrives with dusk and is shown to his room – then a shot showing the pitch darkness outside is followed by the drunken Grace Poole stumbling away from the attic and down a hall across which the windows cast cold, clear and bright squares of light. Then there’s an exterior shot showing Thornfield Hall from a distance, indicating evening. This cuts to Jane, dozing at her dressing table and still in her daily clothes; in story-time, it is deep in the night, after all the guests have finally gone to bed. Jane hears a scream and runs first to Adele’s room, which is bathed in piercing light. Rochester rushes to find Jane in the corridor, and they hustle past barely dimmed windows to the attic, where it is bright enough for Mason’s blood to appear a vibrant orange-red. However, outside where the carriage is being readied, the courtyard is cloaked in thick darkness, highlighted by the bright circle cast by a lantern. Mason is ushered from his morning-bright room into the nighttime courtyard and rides away to seek a land where time makes sense.
Incongruity such as this may break the temporary suspension of reality that viewers expect from a costume romance, but it doesn’t entirely disqualify the film from merit. Like a difficult book, Zeffirelli’s Jane Eyre takes a couple readings and some thought to become clear, but the visual satisfaction and uniquely non-melodramatic approach to the story are worth the effort, focusing on the story’s aspects of quiet melancholy and nuance of character.
Hunk a’ Hunk a’ Burning Bed
Jane made a return to the small screen in the BBC’s 2006 Jane Eyre, featuring a script, penned by Sandy Welch, that is highly evolved from that network’s previous example 23 years earlier.
Sandy Welch is essentially God’s gift to Brit-actor fangirls, the breed that appreciates waistcoats and thinks tights can be manly. Welch already has a reputation with the army of squealers for actor Richard Armitage, star of the 2004 miniseries North and South (an industrial revolution-inspired romance, not to be confused with the American mini about the Civil War). In her adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1854 novel of the same name, Welch displayed an ability to fearlessly undo what an era famous for prudishness had left as its legacy. This distinction doesn’t necessarily rank highest on the list of many reasons that qualify Welch to take on Jane Eyre, but it’s the most memorable.
Joining screenwriter Welch in her Jane Eyre adaptation is BAFTA-winning director of Bleak House, Susanna White. This 2006 Jane Eyre marks the third attempt on the story by the BBC, and displays an interesting contrast in attitude from the previous two. Director Susanna White takes Welch’s already vivid and fast-paced script (blink and you’ll miss Jane’s childhood) and enhances it with cinematic technique and photography designed for the small screen, always with an eye for what makes historical drama click: intimacy, escapism, intensity, and sympathy. This increased attention to technical and artistic detail can be seen in other historical TV miniseries in the last ten years, including Granada/ITV’s 2002 The Forsyte Saga, A&E/United Television’s 1999 Horatio Hornblower series, and, as mentioned, BBC’s 2004 North and South. At last, British television period drama is no longer exclusively the realm of visibly meager budgets and photographic carelessness (though, like an annoying cousin, they do still tend to pop up, especially around holidays).
The new cast is packed with Masterpiece Theater vets in the many crucial minor roles, giving the parts of servants, nobility and provincial churchgoers realism and personality without verging too far down the chasm of Twee. In a Bronte reunion, three members of the cast of Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996) appear again in Eyre: Tara Fitzgerald, the reserved heroine of Tenant, is the aunt-of-reserved-heroine, Mrs. Reed, character actress extraordinaire Pam Ferris, Markham’s fussy mother in Tenant, is the slightly more frightening Grace Poole; and Toby Stephens, who played the kind and love-struck Gilbert Markham in Tenant takes on the stern (and lovestruck) Rochester here.
Stephens is no James Bond, but he was his nemesis in Die Another Day, which was close enough for this time around. On the Aspects of Rochester continuum, Stephens checks in at charming with extra points for tortured and abrupt. He’s a little easier for a modern audience to admire than his book counterpart – his deep frown and dismissive brusqueness in his first formal interview with Jane hint at a proud temper, but he never verges on the less appealing, more manipulative side of Rochester’s need to control.
At the same time, Stephens makes it believable that, even when Rochester plays cruel games on Jane, she will forgive and continue to love him. It’s less believable when he calls himself ugly or old, as the fangirls will be the first to admit – in real life Stephens is, in fact, nearly Rochester’s age, but he doesn’t look it. After his second close encounter with fire, he’s hardly more “ghastly” than Gerard Butler’s Phantom of the Opera, another film in which a pretty guy is cast in a role supposedly defined by a certain amount of unforgiving unattractiveness. Stephens plays an excellent Rochester; he just isn’t allowed to look like one.
Most impressive is newcomer Ruth Wilson as the mature Jane Eyre, who, with courageously ordinary looks and expressive, thoughtful eyes, manages to combine the book’s conflicting descriptions of ethereal charm and unfashionable plainness. At moments, her pale face and dark, sad eyes do seem fairylike; but she also suffers from blushes that dye her face a fierce red, and when she cries, her face twitches and distends in a distinctly unHollywood way. If the 1944 version was Rochester’s story, this adaptation most definitely belongs to Ruth Wilson’s movingly real Jane.
There is no first-person voice-over that allows Jane to describe her complex inner states – it all shines through Wilson’s eyes, the awkward clasping of her hands, the occasional and brief mischievous smile. She is believably Rochester’s intellectual and spiritual equal; and she’s also believably in love with him without the frozen closetedness of Charlotte Gainsbourg or the oozy puppy eyes of Joan Fontaine.
Wilson and Stephens have the natural, comfortable chemistry that makes the book’s knotty, endless dialogs feel like witty banter rather than enacted speeches. Welch reorders, slims down, and rewrites much of these famous interviews without losing a sense of their original interplay of power and vulnerability, swerving from teasing to confession. Verbal exposition (especially Rochester’s) is replaced with visual storytelling cleverly woven in by White’s direction.
The best example of this is when Rochester describes Adele’s origins. The story begins with his description to Jane of his sumptuous Parisian lifestyle, and while he speaks to her the camera cuts to a lushly decorated hotel room, wandering over its features like the actor of Jane’s imagination. Then, as the narrative becomes more intense, Rochester’s voice suddenly asks, “Are you still with me, Jane?” and without cutting away from the image of the flashback, Jane’s voice answers, “I’m here, sir.” Rochester continues to narrate, but the images complement rather than repeat what he says, so that only in combination does the full story become apparent. Rochester vaguely relates that jealousy had gripped him, and as he speaks his mistress enters with her other lover. Rochester stops narrating and the viewer overhears, as he did, their scornful discussion of him. Then the image and sound cut back to Rochester and Jane at Thornfield, as Rochester dryly sums up the pair’s fate and his acquisition of Adele.
In other moments, however, there are visual blunders just as bad as Zeffirelli’s midnight sunshine. When Jane and Rochester approach each other unknowingly for the first time on a foggy road, shots of each are intercut with gentle, innocent music on Jane and thundering music on Rochester, with a result more like Jaws than a Gothic fairy tale.
Similarly overdone is the scene near the end, where Jane hears Rochester’s voice supernaturally broadcast across the moors. The sound quality is beautifully real, but in an original flourish (there’s no imagery to this effect in the book) Jane’s rising passion and purpose is illustrated through quick cuts on shots of a rushing brook. I understand the metaphor, but the presentation is just as bad as any of 1983’s expository speeches – the only way to make it more painfully obvious would be to have Charlotte Bronte walk onscreen and start riffing, ala her sister in 1992’s Wuthering Heights.
These moments, and other small sell-outs – the attractiveness of Rochester, the softening of the story and characters’ harsher edges – aren’t as disappointing when considered in context. That’s because the 2006 Jane Eyre isn’t pretending to be anything more or less than it really is: corset-busting escapism. Its complexity is in emotion and not intellectual theme; it conforms to the current demands of its intelligent but melodrama-hungry audience, and in this way it’s the most tightly and purposefully constructed adaptation since 1944.
In fact, its exploitation of the sexual tension undercurrent in the original material resulted in a sometimes-hilarious conflict between new viewers and book-huggers when the series first aired. On one hand, outraged Bronteites ranted against the making out, hand-holding and embracing, as if Jane had never been “kissed repeatedly” or otherwise handled by Rochester in the original; but their opponents, a newly-founded league of Toby Stephens devotees, supported the embellished PDA a little too…hotly.
The truth is, Welch does take it a little too far. Just as her North and South, though elegantly adapted, probably owed its place in many fangirls’ hearts in part for Richard Armitage’s non-Victorian kissing demonstration, her Jane Eyre occasionally drops the façade of tasteful allusion and goes straight for sexual appeal. The unwritten caresses that generations of heated imaginations have placed at crucial moments are not forgotten here, although sometimes the rest of the crucial moment is.
Jane and Rochester’s spectacularly complex parting scene is reduced to heavy macking on Jane’s bed in this version. She doesn’t look like she’s going anywhere, but maybe that’s why Rochester is so surprised the next morning. This takes the dramatic rise and fall out of their dialog, but it also allows the scene to be broken up and seeded as flashbacks during Jane’s sojourn at Moor House, keeping the drama alive in that otherwise dry stretch of the story – the third episode ends with Jane removing her wedding gown, and the fourth opens with her wandering the moors, interjections of memory unraveling the mystery of what happened in between. In this case, clever presentation is cheapened by the over-simplified, obviously anachronistic material it contains, making this adaptation a good example of both what is satisfying and disappointing in the latest trends in bringing literature to film.
“Enchantment in the Very Hour”
“And where is the speaker? Is it only a voice? Oh! I cannot see, but I must feel, or my heart will stop and my brain burst. Whatever, whoever you are, be perceptible to the touch, or I cannot live!”
He groped; I arrested his wandering hand, and prisoned it in both mine.
“Her very fingers!” he cried; “her small, slight fingers! If so, there must be more of her.”
The muscular hand broke from my custody; my arm was seized, my shoulder, neck, waist – I was entwined and gathered to him.
“Is it Jane? What is it? This is her shape – this is her size –”
“And this is her voice,” I added. “She is all here.” Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
Avid readers see with their minds. The sensory experience of a novel is purely imaginative, the reader’s blind groping for perception answered by the author’s careful guidance. Film is also largely dependent on the viewer’s imagination, although the physical reality of visual and aural stimulation may lead some to believe it replaces the role of individual imagination in the experience of a story. That belief is intensely incorrect.
If film is the most physical way for devoted readers to plunge into Jane Eyre, they will be disappointed if they expect to find her “all here.” Film, like literature, is not just a medium for telling stories, but for inviting the viewer to experience those stories individually and imaginatively. It’s up to the viewer whether, like Rochester, he prefers the presence of Jane to the return of complete physical sensation.
I’ve been asked, while I conducted research on this article, whether I got sick of watching the same story over and over again. I never have, because none of these films creates the same experience. They aren’t copies of the same entity, but its offspring. This also means that none of them are capable of re-creating the exact tone of the original. Since the world of the novel exists slightly differently in the mind of each reader, film adaptation instead strives to communicate one such a world to a crowd of fresh minds, an enchanted few hours in which one person’s dreams blend slightly with reality to cross into the viewer’s imagination.
It’s just as easy to pick and choose which improvements would make Zelah Clarke, Joan Fontaine or Ruth Wilson into the ultimate Jane Eyre as it is to look in the mirror and rattle off the alterations one would make upon oneself to achieve physical perfection. The effectiveness of the exercise is about the same.
Jane Eyre, so firmly established in the imaginations of readers long before the invention of cinema, refuses to part from her original medium complete, revealing herself only piece by piece as she does to blind Rochester. And, like the best book, a good film will simultaneously lift a viewer out of herself, and plunge her more deeply into the world of imagination, the only place where Jane can be found complete.
For previous parts of this essay, go to: