Jane Eyre is one of my all time favorite books. In fact, I’ve read it every couple of years since I first read it in my late teens. Right now I’m itchy and a little upset because I can’t find the book in my house, the same copy I’ve been reading all these years. A vintage copy in great condition whose pages feel just right, whose size and binding are so perfect that sometimes I read the book just so I can hold it and touch it and enjoy its old book smell again. I’m itching to find it because I’ve just seen the two most recent film versions of Jane Eyre (out of a total of 22!) and as I’m blasting these two versions to hell I feel the need to corroborate my views with a recent fresh reading of the book.
I used to wonder why this book is continually being remade into film. How could anyone possibly think they can do better than the horribly lacking versions before it? Isn’t it clear yet that this is a singularly difficult book to do justice to in film? However, in talking about this with other Jane Eyre fans I’m realizing that the reason there need to be so many versions is because there are so many different ways that Jane and Rochester have been viewed. People see different qualities in them than I do, they have different favorite parts, and they have different ideas as to why the characters make the decisions they do , why they behave as they do, and who they actually are. To me, the characters have always seemed so indisputably ONE WAY because I felt that Bronte couldn’t possibly have written more wonderfully complex and yet clearly motivated characters as she did. I forget that when I read the book I bring to it my own life-lens that sees characters through a peculiarly personal light, hears dialog with its own peculiarly individual interpretation – and so does everyone else. Readers are all unique and this is why we often see different qualities in the same stories.
What I love about Jane Eyre is the slow building towards a catastrophic reveal followed by a gentle and sweet ending. I never want to rush to the middle. I love to savor Jane’s awful youth. I love to read about Mr. Brocklehurst and enjoy the sensation of wanting to give him my hardest right hook. I love to re-experience the sweet friendship that Jane develops with the more even tempered and kind Helen who teaches her to calm her passions and act like a true Christian. I especially love the special friendship that Jane develops with Miss Temple who fosters trust and discipline in Jane from the start with her small but profound acts of kindness against the backdrop of disease, perpetual cold and hunger and the abuses meted out to the students of Lowood School. She gives Jane a vocation and friendship and Jane blossoms under that kindness. Everyone needs a Miss Temple in life.
Both the new versions of Jane Eyre (the 2006 and the 2011 versions) completely cut Miss Temple out of the story. They barely touch on Helen and only in a meaningless nod to the fact that Jane knew a kind student at Lowood and loses her to sickness. They don’t bother to really show how Helen influenced her or was so important to her. I view this as a serious omission to the story. What I felt watching both versions is that the only thing the directors truly cared about was the romance with Mr. Rochester. They just wanted to skip to the good bits. Broody man with young timid governess –
Except that that isn’t even right! Mr. Rochester might have been broody sometimes but he was so much MORE than that. His character was mercurial and complex. He fought demons of the past, yes, and his bitterness certainly made him crotchety. But in so many film versions I’ve felt the actors and directors have done his character a great disservice by failing to show that Rochester is also playful (yes!) and mischievous (and not necessarily in a mean spirited way). He’s remorseful of his moods yet is towed under by them. He’s hopeful (something Jane brought him). He’s philosophical, curious, kind, and when unguarded, tender. Most actors play him with a heavy hand. They make him bluster and posture and boom and glower and they miss the subtle aspects of his character that are brought into the light with the appearance of Jane in his life.
And Jane. Jane is so often played as a meek and shy and sometimes annoyingly coy girl. My Jane is NEVER COY. She has zero ability to be coy. She is quiet but self possessed (thanks to Helen and Miss Temple and her own strong spirit). She knows who she is and always has. She’s tempered her passionate nature to be comfortable in society, to do her work, to become a lady. From the start she speaks up to Mr. Rochester. Not in a flirty bantering way, she’s just plain honest. She denies being a witch or a sprite or a faery because she’s not a witch or a sprite or a faery. But soon she responds to Rochester’s teasing and the dialog between them is completely engaging. He’s trying to draw her out and he does and is surprised by what he finds. She doesn’t know what to make of him at first but his curiosity, his childish attempts to make her reveal more than she intends to amuse her. She enjoys their conversations in which she becomes increasingly more comfortable and outspoken. She begins to tease him back and it’s charming because each finds a fresh enjoyment in each other’s company.
All of this happens with a great deal of dialog. Dialog in which both have as many lines as each other. Evening after evening he demands to see her because she is good company and for her part she is happy to be treated as an equal – being asked her opinions and to have them taken seriously. To speak with another person not as a subordinate but as herself (but there’s the rub, she really is his paid subordinate and they both forget this as they talk but it keeps rearing it’s ugly head) – it makes her blossom even more.
The only film version I’ve seen that doesn’t cut out most of the dialog is the 1983 version with Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton. In that version most of the dialog is left in tact and you get to see their relationship develop naturally and it makes sense. I’m rooting for them. Even though I normally dislike Timothy Dalton (sorry dude!) and definitely don’t think he’s attractive. I find I’ve forgotten he’s Timothy Dalton and he’s just Rochester and I love him. He captures the mercurial nature of the man he’s playing. He is able to play all those moods and aspects of Rochester and I totally believe him!
And Zelah, while quite pretty, is a little unconventionally pretty. I doubt very much she would be cast as a romantic lead in a modern film as many of the other actresses who’ve played Jane have been or will be. She’s the perfect Jane to me. She smiles to herself quietly at Rochester’s antics when she thinks he’s not looking but manages to make it a truly private smile rather than a coy attempt at piquing his interest with intimate looks. I love her as Jane. She’s got all the smallness that Jane is supposed to have, she’s able to play the role quietly but with spirit. She’s strong but uses judgment to temper her passions. She’s got a strong sense of ethics and will not be easily shed of them no matter how much she loves a person.
One of the things I hated most about the version with Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson is the make out scene before she leaves him. She’s already discovered he’s got a wife. She’s devastated. Yes, she still loves him and because she’s a loyal and true person she will never stop loving him but she’s also strongly attached to her moral code and in that code you don’t make out with a married man. She just wouldn’t. If you have Jane Eyre making out with a married man (knowing now that he’s married) and have her breathing heavily with her desire to let Rochester undress her right there and then – then you don’t know Jane Eyre at all. We may quibble over the details of the story and the various subtleties of her character but if you failed to notice how strongly she holds onto “what’s right” and being a Christian, then you don’t get her at all.
I also really disliked the end where they show Jane with two babies. So ridiculous to me. Here’s a story where the heroine does not need babies to fulfill her, she needs only herself and Mr. Rochester. If anything, that was a real show of feminism back then. Though I don’t see Jane in terms of feminism, at least I have always appreciated that there was a woman who did not pine for children of her own yet there at the end of that version it is implied that for it to be a happy ending they must proliferate themselves into wee larval Janes and Rochesters.
What bothers me the most about the 2011 version played by Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska is that they have so little dialog I don’t even understand how they found this great spiritual connection we’re supposed to believe they have. Mia plays Jane like a meek mouse who suddenly speaks up in an impassioned speech when Rochester wants to send her away but it sounds unconvincing to my ear. That’s not the Jane I admire. Furthermore, she apparently saw Jane as disgruntled and overwhelmed with her responsibilities as a governess which is ridiculous! Jane was never overwhelmed or disgruntled with her work, she was disgruntled only when made to feel inferior by the party Rochester brings to the house to try and provoke her into showing her feelings for him. Jane was a real 19th century young woman who was accustomed to hard work and stark conditions from the time she was a child at Lowood which Mia would have realized if she had actually read the damn book. She talks about Jane in an interview with a friend of mine (a well respected film Critic, Richard Von Busack) as if Jane was a modern woman. You can’t attach 21st century expectations and social mores to a 19th century woman. Being 18 years old 200 hundred years ago meant you were fully an adult and if you were lucky you were married and expecting your fist child by then.
Jane may have been an early feminist (as I’ve heard some people suggest) but she was still a woman of her time. She was not actually a rebellious woman in the sense that we understand rebellion today. She may have known herself to be an equal to others in spite of her lowly station, but she did not go strutting that around because she needed to make a living and she knew her place in society wasn’t going to change much (except possibly through marriage). She wouldn’t have smoked cigarettes or worn pants either as so many 19th century spirited heroines have been “re-imagined” to do in modern adaptations of old books. She had a strong sense of individuality and of spiritual equality with those around her but she was conventional with regards to her religious beliefs (she would not commit adultery) and behaving in an expected manner in society and fulfilling her duties.
Another character completely cut from the 2011 version is Grace Poole. Perhaps some think her a minor character but in the novel she is pivotal in creating a screen between the world and the deranged wife in the attic. Grace Poole creates friction between Jane and Rochester. She is a person who propels the mystery forward and confuses and messes with Jane’s perception of reality. She’s told Grace Poole is the person she’s heard laughing maniacally down the halls. She’s told that Grace Poole is the one who lit Rochester’s bed on fire. She may not have a huge role but she has an important one. You can’t achieve the same suspense just by showing meek Mia looking down the hall with suspicion at nothing.
That kind of cutting is really materially changing a story. I get the feeling that the screen writer and the director really didn’t even LIKE the Jane Eyre story. There comes a point where if you need to re-imagine all the best dialog and all the most pivotal characters out of a story, you didn’t like the story to begin with and just want to rewrite an entirely new story. For those who love the original book, this is an insult to Bronte, and an insult to us and what we really love about the story which is an excellently written Gothic Romance, the kind the modern mind can’t imagine in the same way.
In talking about the different film versions with my friends who also love Jane Eyre and who have opinions about these various productions, what has become clear to me is that the reason this book keeps getting made into film over and over again is because it’s a damn hard book to translate into film. In addition to that – we all have our slightly different views of the characters and the story (or sometimes greatly different views). My friend Fala has yet to see a satisfying version of the book in film. I still think the 1983 version is the best that has ever been made, it is the most true to the original book. My friend M.S.S.’s favorite version is the 1970 version with George C. Scott and Susanna York, she thinks Scott does the best Rochester. My friend Richard loves the 2011 version best – he likes the fresh take on the story and the cinematic treatment. I can’t fault anyone’s favorites or fault anyone for having no favorite at all.
So everything I’ve written above is through my lens and obviously I feel strongly about it. Yet in discussing these different film versions with my other friends who love Jane Eyre too I’m beginning to allow that this is really only MY CRITIQUE and though I feel I can speak those opinions strongly, I feel their opinions are just as worthy of consideration and I’d much rather that we all find versions that suit our own pleasure than that there be only one or two versions ever done. Why not have a version for each of us that delivers what we’re looking for in a screen version of one of the best gothic romances ever written? I’ve decided I want to see the 1970 version if I an get my hands on a rental of it. I want to rewatch the two other versions I’ve seen as well. I want to compare and contrast even more. Maybe with a slightly more forgiving outlook. Maybe not.
Most of all, this lengthy discussion I’ve been having with my friends and my Jane Eyre watching binge has made me hungry to re-read the book. It’s been longer than usual since the last time I’ve read it. I’m going to go out today and get a copy from the library so that I can get start reading it tonight. I hope that I’ll find my own beloved old copy as I pack my things for the move. It must be here somewhere as I would never have gotten rid of it nor lent it out.
If you have thoughts about this book or the movie versions of this story, please share. Don’t be timid because I’ve expressed my opinions so strongly. There’s room for all of our opinions on this matter and I enjoy hearing other people’s perspective. It does help to soften my own.