Tag Archives: Libby Sternberg

Did I turn it off? Did I?

I have stick-straight hair, so, naturally, I curl it, using a curling iron. If the electricity ever went out for extended periods of time, I would become a stranger to friends and family.

Since I use the curling iron every day (sometimes more than once in a day), I regularly confront the existential question: Did I turn it off?

Before heading out to the store, hand on the garage doorknob: Did I turn off my curling iron or will it eventually burn down the house while I’m gone, leaving me to confront a smoking heap of ash when I return?

Or, two blocks from home: Did I turn it off and unplug it?

Or, staring at my husband over a candlelit restaurant table: Did I really turn it off? Really? Am I absolutely certain?

I’m sure anyone who’s used an iron, a stove, an oven, a coffeemaker or any other heat-producing appliance can relate. I’ve stopped backing out of the garage to go check on the curling iron’s status. I’ve turned around before leaving our development to come back and check on the curling iron. The curling iron must feel very loved with all the attention it gets.

And although 99.9 percent of the time, I did, in fact, turn off and unplug the thing, there is the occasional, very, very rare moment when I didn’t, which just affirms my obsessive need to double-check its status.

Over the years, I’ve tried to develop strategies to remember if I unplugged the thing.

I’ve looked at it and waved the plug in front of my face, thinking that visual image would surely stick in my mind.

Result: When the memory of that action comes back to me, I wonder, but was that just now or…yesterday?

I’ve stared at the plug and said out loud: “I unplugged the curling iron.”

Result: But was that just now or…yesterday?

I’ve stared at the plug and said out loud, using different accents: “Ja, ja, I unplugged ze curling iron, bien sure, n’est ce pas?”

Result: See above.

I’ve sung, in operatic tones: “I’ve unplugged the CURLING iron! It is in my hand, you see! Rodolfo! Alfredo! Siegfried! Ah! AH!”

Result: See above.

The curling iron unplugging. It is driving me crazy.


My hair. And a tiara.

So here’s my latest tactic: I tell my husband I unplugged it. Then, you see, the responsibility is shared. I can ask him later, “Did I unplug the curling iron, dearest one?” And he can answer, “Yes, you told me you did, my sweet, and I carefully listen to every dulcet word that you utter.”

Or, more likely, “I dunno.”

But if my husband isn’t around, I still have to deal with this anxiety, which I have labeled Anxiety About Appliances’ Remaining Good and Hot. Or AAARGH, for short.

I am now going to start using a tip from my oldest son, who suffers from a similar affliction–remembering if he turned the heat back in his apartment before leaving.

He snaps a photo of his thermostat.

So, that’s what I’m going to do. Snap a photo with my phone of the unplugged curling iron.

If I can remember…




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As I’ve noted before, I’m a fan of retellings of familiar tales. I also occasionally let my imagination roam after the words The End appear on the screen or on the page. I wrote a fan fiction piece, in fact, on what I envision happening after the series Mad Men finished spinning tales on air. It’s set on a sad day in September in New York City.

For many years, I’ve enjoyed imagining what a sequel to the movie The Best Years of Our Lives would look like. First, if you’ve not seen this Oscar-winning tale of three servicemen returning to their small town at the end of World War II and readjusting to civilian life, give it a try. It’s moving, bittersweet, and, ultimately, uplifting. The scene where Al Stephenson (Frederic March) surprises his wife, Milly (Myrna Loy), in their postwar reunion is an understated yet breathtaking moment that leaves you suppressing tears.

bookbannerAt the end of the movie, though, I wonder what would have happened to those characters? Would Al conquer his drinking problem and find the contentment he’d lost going away to war? Would former airman Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) and Peggy Stephenson (Teresa Wright) find happiness after getting together following his divorce from gold digger Marie (Virginia Mayo)? And would former sailor Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) and new wife Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) flourish on his disability payments after he’d lost his hands in the war?

I could think of all sorts of answers to those questions. I even thought of actually writing a story based on those answers.

But I’ll content myself for now by offering a narrative of what I think would happen in the future to the characters of this tale. I hope those familiar with the movie enjoy it.

Join in the fun and tell me what you imagine for characters from some of your favorite stories!


Thirty years later, in the 1970s, poor Al has given up drink, but the smoking is doing him in. He’s retiring due to a lung cancer diagnosis his wife, Milly, hides from him. Or thinks she hides from him. Al knows he’s not long for this world, and he’s decided his last days, months,  will be spent on a mission to reconcile with son, Rob. He and Rob broke when the young man joined in anti-Vietnam War protests, even landing in jail at one point. A campus radical in the 1960s, Rob did many things he now regrets. He stayed in touch with his mother, though, who knows he has a daughter out of wedlock with a hippie he hooked up with in California years ago, and he’s been trying to track down the whereabouts of his child.

Before leaving on this journey, though, Al and Milly have a dinner with daughter Peggy and son-in-law Fred at their beautiful rancher in a nearby suburb. Fred has done very well for himself and now owns  his own construction company. They’ve lived the American Dream except for the tragedy of losing a son in the Vietnam War, a loss that led Peggy to join her father in shunning her brother, Rob. Their two daughters are both away in college, and one wants to be a lawyer. Both Fred and Peggy are enormously proud of them. Fred is a member of the VFW and American Legion, and Peggy is active in social and community affairs. While Fred chats with Al, Milly takes Peggy aside and tells her that her father isn’t well, although she doesn’t divulge the full gravity of his situation. When she explains they are going to California to see Rob, however, Peggy guesses the truth — her father’s health condition is terminal. She doesn’t let on that she knows, but she sobs out her distress to Fred later, who suggests she might reconcile with Rob, too, as a gift to her father. She agrees to give her brother a call. Fred also suggests they try to plan a reunion with Al and Homer when Peggy’s parents return from their trip. Fred and Peggy had lost touch with Homer over the years when Homer and Wilma moved out of state after the death of Homer’s parents.

Wilma, in fact, is returning to Boone City from Chicago at that moment, but without Homer. The former sailor died of a heart attack in the past week, and she’s come back to tell his friends and to make arrangements to move permanently to her hometown. Sad and even a little bitter, Wilma resented Homer’s determination to move from Boone City. They’d been lured to Chicago by a navy buddy of Homer’s fifteen years ago. The buddy had promised Homer a partnership in a restaurant, but it turned out to be a front for a mob-related money-laundering operation. Homer was lucky not to land in jail–in fact, Wilma hides the secret guilt that she is glad he passed away before being ensnared in a federal probe of the operation that began right before his death. She was unhappy the entire time they lived in Chicago, not comfortable with the sprawling city, fearful for her children, especially during the 1968 riots, afraid to drive on the new highways springing up. Their children left as soon as they were able. Three daughters moved back to Boone City and married, two became teachers, one a part-time librarian, raising families of their own. Their son is a test pilot in Texas, a career Homer encouraged but one that upsets Wilma.

Back in Boone City, she stays with her oldest daughter, sees friends, and prepares herself to visit Al and Milly and Fred and Peggy to give them the bad news about Homer. She begins to regain her equilibrium, feels she can breathe again. Before seeing friends, her first stop, though, is back to the old tavern her husband loved to frequent. There, she learns the place is up for sale, and she breaks down at the news. If they’d stayed in Boone City, this is the place Homer would have loved to have owned, a legitimate business that would have made him — and her — proud. After a good cry, she makes her way to see Peggy. Fred’s at work, but Peggy is glad to welcome Wilma, asks her in…and learns the sad news of Homer’s passing. Wilma learns, meanwhile, that Al and Milly are away. They’ll be back in a couple weeks, Peggy tells Wilma, and she also lets her know of Fred’s plan to have a reunion. They plot together to make this happen at the tavern.

Meanwhile, Al and Milly’s reunion with their son is strained at first as they adjust to staying in his small apartment, all he can afford as a part-time reporter for an alternative newspaper.As the stay wears on, though, he peppers his father with questions about his life, his war experiences, and, when Al opens up, Rob decides he’ll use the material for a book about his father and his friends, their life, in particular, after returning from the war. In the midst of the visit, Rob gets great news–the private investigator he’d hired has found his daughter, Grace, in a foster home, her mother having passed away from a drug overdose a year ago. Rob and Milly and Al have a tearful get-together with Grace, a shy and beautiful child. When Milly confides in Rob that his father is “not well,” Rob gets the meaning just as Peggy did. He pledges to come to Boone City with Grace soon for a visit, telling his father “this isn’t goodbye.” He looks forward to seeing them all, including Peggy, who wrote to him recently. Milly is happy her children are reconciling..

When Al and Milly return to Boone City after their heart-wrenching visit, they join Fred, Peggy, their two daughters, home on spring break, Wilma, her three girls, and their various spouses and children, at the tavern for a bittersweet reunion. The reunion is elevated to happier levels when Rob walks in with Grace holding his hand. He tells his mother he couldn’t stay put knowing his father was so ill, that his ties to California are scant, and he’s committed to living in Boone City…at least until “Dad’s health crisis is over.” A tearful Milly knows he’s telling her he’ll be there until the end of Fred’s life.

When Wilma tells her girls how much she’d wished their father had known the tavern was up for sale, they talk to her about the possibility of her buying the tavern, but she says she’s too old for that sort of thing. They say they’re willing to invest in her, in her business. She’s the one who ran the household for years as Homer drifted further into memory and drink. She’s a good manager, and she’s committed to Boone City’s future. Al, too, is willing to write a check. When she demurs, he insists, saying he’ll be her partner. Milly overhears him telling Wilma he’ll make sure she inherits his share should he predecease her. Now Milly knows he knows his diagnosis. They share a sweet kiss and telling glances as the party continues around them. Fade to black.


Two other stories I like to think of sequels for are…Oklahoma and The Graduate. Yes, I know, you could hardly get more different. Oklahoma intrigues me, though, when thinking of its characters, because the young couples in it would all face the Dust Bowl, right, if they stayed in the Sooner State? How would they have fared?

And The Graduate…well, you tell me what you think happened to Ben and Elaine after they ran out of that church….





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In communion with Jane’s first readers

This month, I’ve featured many posts about Charlotte Bronte and her most famous novel, Jane Eyre, in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Bronte’s birth (April 21, 1816). You can find a round-up of those posts here.

Not only was Charlotte Bronte an inspiration to me as a woman writer. Jane Eyre inspired me to write an homage to this well-known tale, a book titled Sloane Hall.

Yesterday, I was thrilled to receive the news that Sloane Hall was one of only 14 Bronte/Eyre-related books featured at “Off the Shelf,” a sight where Simon & Schuster employees highlight favorite backlist books, regardless of publisher (Sloane Hall was first released by Five Star/Cengage, a publisher that produces quality hardcovers for the library trade). You can find the “Off the Shelf” post here — I’m excited to be in the company of such well-known, esteemed authors!

I’ve written before about Sloane Hall and its inspiration, but I wanted to explore a little more the reason I enjoy retellings of familiar stories.

As I said in my previous post about Sloane Hall, imaginative, well-done retellings of well-known stories achieve two goals: they let you see afresh the story you know so well; and, they bring you into communion, for brief moments, with the first audiences for those stories.

Think of the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? It’s an imperfect re-imagining of the Odyssey, yes, but it makes the story come alive as you root for Ulysses McGill to find his way home, as you see how the Sirens’ song seduced his fellow travelers to linger, as you watch him overcome mishaps and bad deeds to find the hero within himself. Somewhere along the line, in the midst of this storytelling, it hits you: I’m experiencing this story with the same sense of wonder and excitement that its original readers might have felt! Even though I know the major plot points, I don’t know how it will unfold here in this new version, and I’m eager to find out…just as those first readers and listeners were probably eager to see what happened to Odysseus next.

51LJWn26G5LThat was the effect I was after with Sloane Hall. The plot points of Jane Eyre are so familiar now, even to those who’ve not read the book, thanks to its many film adaptations. And although I knew fans of the original might enjoy anticipating the high and low points of the familiar story even as they made their way through my reconstruction, I wanted to give them more than that. I wanted to give them that “communion” with readers of the original tale, that sense of coming upon climactic moments with an inner gasp shared in the 1800s, as if they hadn’t known what would take place, despite their knowledge of the story.

This was a challenge, and, as I’ve pointed out, I decided one of the best ways to help readers experience the story, as if they’d never read Jane Eyre, was to reverse the genders. The poor and obscure role in Sloane Hall is given to a young man, John, with a tortured past. The larger-than-life part of thundering Mr. Rochester is now played by a woman, not too much older than John, who towers over John in celebrity — she’s a silent film star about to make her first “talkie.” (As an aside, what fun it was to delve into this part of film history–I hope readers come away from the novel with a deeper understanding of that industry’s turmoil during a technological turning point.)

And the lunatic spouse in the attic of Jane Eyre? Not what you might expect, in Sloane Hall, but a secret that still should evoke the feelings of horror, shock, and even sympathy for both characters that the unveiling of Rochester’s first wife, Bertha Mason, might have ignited in the original readers of Jane Eyre.

As I thought about that scene and secret, in fact, I first pondered those reader reactions. What must the first readers of Jane have felt upon the revelation that Rochester was married? Probably overwhelming sympathy for Jane and disgust at Rochester. But then when it was revealed he was shackled to a madwoman? Perhaps some of their sympathy might have turned to him, as well. I tried to use those emotions–of the readers–to construct my own revelation.

When Sloane Hall was released, I knew it wouldn’t be everyone’s cuppa. But I was thrilled when two Bronte-devoted outlets praised it, recognizing the new story it tells and completely comprehending the effects I was after as I told my own tale. Both the Bronte Blog and the Bronte Studies journal gave Sloane Hall glowing reviews. Here are some snippets, along with one from the site Fresh Fiction:

“Libby Sternberg’s intelligent and intriguing Jane Eyre reimagining has achieved two of the most difficult goals in a novel: being a page turner and paying a worthy tribute to Charlotte Brontë’s immortal story.” —The Bronte Blog (A link to the review is here.)

“An original story with complex character development…(Sternberg) knows how to tell a story and she does it well….a refreshing tale.” Carolyne Van Der Meer, Bronte Studies journal, September 2011

“Sternberg never loses sight of the story she’s re-telling, but this novel is definitely her own. Readers have things to figure out and look forward to. Her prose flows beautifully with vivid descriptions of people and places, bringing to life a Los Angeles of times gone by. Fans of historical fiction and Jane Eyre in particular will relish this novel, and readers who enjoy a love story should definitely pick this one up.”—Katherine Peterson, Fresh Fiction

Sloane Hall is now available in trade paperback and digitally. I hope fans of Jane Eyre will enjoy experiencing the communion with its original readers I wanted to accomplish, and new readers will become engrossed in this fresh story.

You can find the book at Amazon here.

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Happy Birthday, Charlotte

Two hundred years ago, a novelist was born. She was, by many descriptions, as “plain, poor, and little” as her most famous fictional character, Jane Eyre. But unlike her, she would never be “obscure.” Her imagination and writing skill propelled her into literary stardom.

CBRichmondHer most famous novel, Jane Eyre, keeps her name alive for countless people who’ve never even read the book. Film and TV adaptations appear like clockwork, it seems, introducing new audiences to the honest-to-a-fault contrarian Jane, her rags to riches story, her sweeping Gothic romance with Mr. Rochester.

So, happy birthday, Charlotte Bronte! And thank you, for inspiring many “authoresses” to try to humbly follow in your footsteps.

For those who want to know more about her life, I highly recommend Claire Harman’s recent biography of Charlotte Bronte.

In honor of Bronte’s birthday, I’m including below a round-up of the articles I’ve posted about her and Jane Eyre over the past month:

Two Hundred Years of Charlotte

Podcast – Jane Eyre, Romance Novel Template

Podcast – Jane Eyre, the Rebel

Jane Eyre Films, Part I

Jane Eyre Films, Part II – Citizen Jane

Jane Eyre Films, Part III – Jane on TV

Jane Eyre Films, Part IV – Zeffirelli, the BBC, Conclusions

Jane Eyre Poems by Rita Maria Martinez

Podcast – Charlotte Bronte, Feminist Author

Tomorrow…a postscript, how Jane Eyre inspired me to write my own retelling of that tale.

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Jane Eyre films, Part III: Jane on TV

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):

Jane Eyre films, Part I

Jane Eyre films, Part II

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. JaneEyre

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.

JaneEyre1983_180PyxurzVictorian 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.

Next: Franco Zeffirelli’s Jane, the BBC tries again, and conclusions.

For Part I of Jane Eyre films, go here.

For Part II of Jane Eyre films, “Citizen Jane,” go here.

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Jane Eyre Films: Part I

A multi-part look at film iterations of Charlotte Bronte’s most famous novel, Jane Eyre. If you enjoy this series, check out the works of its very talented author, Hannah Sternberg!

by Hannah E. Sternberg

“And there is enchantment in the very hour I am now spending with you. Who can tell what a dark, dreary, hopeless life I have dragged on for months past? Doing nothing, expecting nothing; merging night in day…and then a ceaseless sorrow, and, at times, a very delirium of desire to behold my Jane again.”

These are Edward Rochester’s words to Jane Eyre when she returns to him after a year’s unexplained absence, during much of which he was afflicted with blindness. Readers can echo his sentiments; Rochester’s longing for and rediscovery of Jane is a stormier version of a common longing among book lovers: to experience their beloved stories and characters beyond the realm of mental reflection, and to actually participate in the world created by a beloved book. This is externalized in Jasper Fforde’s 2001 novel, The Eyre Affair, in which an oddball invention enables detective Thursday Next to jump into the pages of Jane Eyre, in an effort to prevent archvillain Acheron Hades from kidnapping Jane and ruining the enduring story.

Film adaptation is the closest that readers in the real world can come to Thursday Next’s adventure inside Jane Eyre, and films like 2008’s Bronte biopic are another proof that, by using history to mimic fiction, readers continue to seek to plunge into the world those authors have created. The success of The Eyre Affair is one of many testaments to the enduring popularity of Charlotte Bronte’s original novel. While Jane Eyre is a major work critically and thematically, it also remains a popular favorite due to the escapist quality of its gothic romance, making it equally captivating on the intellectual and emotional levels.

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre renders a different impression on every reader, and a new sensation on each successive reading; therefore there can be no definitive adaptation. However, the book’s popularity and sheer entertainment value have prompted a staggering volume of attempts. At least one eponymous English-language film or television adaptation of Jane Eyre has appeared every ten years since 1910.

Added to those are dozens of spin-offs, retellings, foreign language productions, and moments of genre-mixing genius, like the 1943 horror film based on the story, I Walked with a Zombie, in which characters will explain to you their romantic/gothic roots, in case you didn’t notice the frying pan hitting you on the face the first time: “Ah yes, our Paul, strong and silent and very sad – quite the Byronic character,” one supporting character says of the romantic lead. Also among the more unusual, there’s a Hindu twist in the 1954 Bollywood retelling, Sangdil, and the recent second film adaptation of Jean Rhyse’s 1966 prequel to the story, Wide Sargasso Sea.

Jane’s many incarnations have represented shifting values in film and television production, social expectations, and even fashion. It has been sexed up and toned down, condensed and sometimes so completely altered that it’s almost unrecognizable. And despite the contributions of some of the best creative talents of the last century (Orson Welles, John Williams, and Franco Zeffirelli, to name a few), each attempt to crack the barrier between film and fiction has only succeeded at realizing a small handful of the many aspects of this moving and complex story, inviting further directors, writers and actors to try endless new approaches.

For those who’ve never read it, here’s a snapshot of the story — the orphaned Jane Eyre has a childhood made to inspire years of consecutive Lifetime movies. Alternately abused and neglected, she is reared in her Aunt Reed’s unloving home, Gateshead, and then sent to the brutal Lowood Institution at the age of ten to be educated, where her only childhood friend, Helen Burns, dies of untreated consumption.

After eight years at Lowood, Jane becomes a governess at Thornfield Hall, tutoring Adele Varens, ward of her Byronic master, Edward Rochester. Naturally drawn together by their passionate natures and unpretentious habits, Rochester and Jane fall in love. Meanwhile, sinister things at Thornfield go bump in the night, the work of Rochester’s mad wife Bertha Mason, whom he keeps hidden in the attic under the care of a servant. Jane learns of Bertha when she and Rochester are at the wedding altar; heartbroken, Jane then flees across the moors, is taken in by long-lost relatives, and nearly accepts an offer of marriage from one of them. However, following her instinct and a mysterious voice that calls to her across the moors, she returns to Thornfield to discover Bertha Mason has burned it to the ground before committing suicide, leaving Rochester a chastened (and crippled) widower. Jane marries him legitimately this time, and somehow they manage to live happily ever after without the aid of a therapist.

Jane Eyre is a Gothic fairytale with proto-feminist undertones and enticing escapist qualities. (Though its political forwardness is lessened, in the eyes of some feminists, by the prominence of marriage in Jane’s happy ending.) It offers a wealth of genre possibilities: castles, moors, agonizing love, and violent crazies. But to this stew Bronte adds piercing emotional clarity and strength; and what screenwriters and directors choose to include or leave out reflects not only the story’s capacity for romantic fun, but its emotional resonance for different personalities and generations. Are these filmmakers trying to capture the perfect Jane for their time, or for all time? And is it possible for anyone to kidnap her, complete, from the pages of her book?

Silent Picture Shows and FrankenEyre
Jane Eyre was published in 1847, when female protagonists rarely supported themselves economically or cultivated their own morals without male guidance. While it was shocking in its own time, it’s hard to believe that later, more jaded and less sheltered generations would find the same discomfort with its less compromising details. Nonetheless, the earliest sound film attempts replaced darker emotional contention with escapist romantic fantasy, and presented an unsexed Jane and Rochester, making their attraction more sentimental than passionate. The previous silent adaptations, limited by lack of dialog, presumably also greatly simplified the tale, if the only surviving one of these eight films is representative.

The story went through eight silent picture iterations and its first talkie adaptation (in 1934, starring Virginia Bruce and Colin “Dr. Frankenstein” Clive) before a team of writers took the risk of intimating that Rochester’s ward Adele Varens was the product of an illicit affair, a detail made clear in Bronte’s original novel. In these first nine film adaptations, Adele is sometimes portrayed as Rochester’s niece, sometimes his legitimate daughter by his first marriage, or sometimes simply his legal ward of unexplained origins. Bronte’s original (and unflattering) tale of Rochester’s wild days with Adele’s mother, Celine, a French dancer, is carefully passed over.

Likewise, in many of the early versions, Rochester’s desperate attempt at bigamy – his aborted wedding to Jane – is “fixed” to present a more heroic image. In a 1918 silent version, Woman and Wife, Rochester actually believes his first wife to be dead, and it is her brother who has been caring for her in secret; the brother attempts to blackmail Rochester before his second wedding, and it is this scheme which reveals the truth to Jane, who flees. Too bad they didn’t reuse this plot for the ’34 version; it would have been the perfect opportunity for Clive to resurrect the most memorable line of his career: “IT’S ALIVE!”jane eyre 1934

In the 1934 Bruce/Clive talkie, Rochester is in the process of obtaining an annulment when he falls in love with Jane, though he continues to hide Bertha from Jane anyway. Jane discovers the secret when Bertha drifts into the parlor where wedding preparations are underway, and announces herself with a vapid grin, addressing Rochester and the audience: “Edward, my husband, I’ve come such a long way! I’ve been searching for you everywhere. Oh, are we going to be married again?”

Jane runs despite Rochester’s explanations, but since she’s already in possession of her inheritance in this adaptation, she has enough cash for a safe ride and a nice place to stay for the night. At least one must assume this is what carried her to the next scene, where she is calmly and happily dishing out soup in a local mission. Why then did she seek employment as a governess in the first place? Probably because she’d heard it was a good way to meet people.

A quagmire of sartorial and narrative confusion, 1934’s Jane Eyre is a typically anachronistic and sugarcoated costume drama. One year earlier, in 1933, The Private Life of Henry VIII had brought the period drama back to the cinema, where it had been mostly absent since the advent of sound. The genre’s popularity at this time depended in large part on glamorization, so it’s no surprise that Virginia Bruce is a far cry from the “poor, obscure, plain and little” Jane of Bronte’s novel, or that Colin Clive is neither “stern” nor “past youth.”

This adaptation also enters the fine tradition of an opening shot on a portion of the “first page” of the novel, without actually reproducing the original’s first lines. The motif of the book’s pages returns again to complete the transition between Jane’s childhood and adulthood, rather than a first-person voice over. The transition is a welcome one, since Jean Darling painfully struggles to get her mouth around young Jane’s lines, though adult Virginia Bruce’s ever-present smile decimates the illusion of character equally well.

Thornfield is a merry place indeed, where the inhabitants are uniformly playful and attractive and content, and the occasional sourceless shriek won’t spoil their antics – it’s probably just the house settling anyway. Rochester’s “niece” Adele sets about filling her role as comic relief with all the frenetic aimlessness of a crack addict, getting stuck in trees and vases at the most convenient moments to provide everyone with a laugh and allow a tender, confidential glance between the hero and heroine.

After viewing the 1934 Jane Eyre, it is possible to conclude that the wealth of subsequent adaptations have all been part of a collective effort to forget that this one had ever happened. Fortunately, its successor was a more flattering testament to the standards of its own time.

In Part II: The  famous Orson Welles/Joan Fontaine Jane Eyre!

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Podcast – JANE EYRE, the rebel

It’s time for more Jane! Jane Eyre, that is. As I’ve noted before, this month marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charlotte Bronte, on April 21, 1816. So I’m celebrating by doing a lot of blogging about her most famous novel, Jane Eyre (which happens to be my favorite novel).

In my most recent post, I talked about Jane Eyre as a template for romance novels. Today, I feature a short podcast on how the character of Jane is a rebel, a contrarian, a woman who, from an early age, didn’t accept the status quo, pat answers, or conventional wisdom…even rebelling, at a climactic moment, against her own deepest inner desires!

Take a listen…and let me know your thoughts!

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