Some stories are too good to only be told once and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre continues to be told over and over again.
The sheer amount of TV movies, miniseries, and regular movies all telling the story of plain Jane Eyre might shock and overwhelm. These films all cover a range of film eras as well as movie styles and artist ideas. While it is impossible to say that each is a new and unique tale, you can indeed find a large difference between them that make each one interesting and appealing in their own way. While the first Jane Eyre film adaptation occurred in 1910 it started a trend where once every ten years a new Jane Eyre graces the screens.
With these first iterations came the novelty of seeing a familiar story acted out before your eyes, but it also started the great debate between being faithful to the book and being entertaining to the audience. Even excluding the fact that the large book could never truly fit into the span of even a 2-hour movie nicely, some of the iconic aspects of the book lie in its use of literary devices that do not always come across in films.
Jane Eyre is a romance novel loaded with foreshadowing, the thoughtful and strong ideas of Jane, and an almost mystical/otherworldly element to many of the events and landscapes in Jane’s life. The words of Jane Eyre are just as iconic as the actions and their inclusion in the films begin to become standard and even expected. Some of these elements make it into movie form some of them do not, but it really depends on the actors, director, and screenplay.
While the first sound version occurred 1934 the later 1943 version deals with and shows the struggle of translating a book into film. The 1943 film from Robert Stevenson and 20th Century Fox actively reminds the view that the story was originally a book, and yet it probably diverts from the original story more than any other version. The opening sequence of the film is a book being flip through, and at times throughout the film the narrative goes back to either reading passages from the novel, highlighted so the audience may read along, or flipping through pages to underline the passage of years.
The 1943 version demands that every viewer know they are telling you the story of Jane Eyre so religiously they are practically reading it to you. If you had not read the story you may not have even known that entire sections of Jane’s life are skipped, rearranged, and twisted for dramatic tension. The most glaring difference, which becomes a trend in the later films, happens at the climax. As Jane discovers the truth about Rochester’s wife she flees Thornfield, which is compliant with the novel, but in the film she goes to the house of the only relations she has, the Reeds, where she lived as a young girl.
While this may seem like a logical move, returning to the only other place she has every called home, the Reed estate was never her home, and this divergence from the story negates the most important parts of Jane’s life. In the novel when Jane decides to return to Gateshead, it is an act of forgiveness and charity that paints her as benevolent and mature. When Jane returns in the 1943 film she is seeking shelter, imposing, and looking for someone to help her.
The film makes many changes to Jane’s motives and actions that paint her as a meek and helpless woman in need of shelter. Even from the beginning when Jane is to be sent to Lowood her strong denouncement of her aunt’s treatment is cheapened in this version. Instead of Jane standing before her aunt cursing her, Jane takes her first steps out of the gate, beyond the realm of her aunts power, turns and then makes her declamation to deaf uncaring ears behind thick windows. Jane in the novel is not meek and she is not helpless, everywhere she goes she offers more help than is expected, because she is a purpose driven and strong independent being. It does do to remember this was back in the days of Dark Victory with its martyrs and helplessly-out-of-male-control women, so the salacious slandering of Jane’s character makes sense as much as it unnerves.
It is interesting to note that Jane was played by Joan Fontaine, a leading actress at the time. Many films will deal with wanting to place large names on their films, but to do such would undermine the plainness of Jane. Instead later films will chose well-known male actors to play the love-interest Rochester. In the 1943 film Joan Fontaine is opposite of Orson Wells, whose portrayal of Rochester was by far the softest, quietest, and perhaps most poetic of all the versions to come. Wells also chooses to “cure” Rochester of his despondency and melancholy once Rochester and Jane get engaged; another hint at the ideology of the time.
The practices from this era shine through in more than just the reworkings of characters though. The style of the film has underlying currents of film noir in its use of lighting and shadows. The grand scale and images found in the film are cut up by drastic and dramatic lines of light and shadows while a general gloom permeates every aspect of Jane’s life. This works to the advantage of the film by not only playing into a genre that would take Hollywood and the world by storm in the years to come, but also playing into a few key aspects of the novel. Jane Eyre’s life may have been plain and rooted in reality, but throughout there are moments where Jane see the world as supernatural or mystical and moments of blatant foreshadowing. Most of the time the film uses its stylistic choices to enact either a mood of dark foreshadowing or a fog filled ethereal world.
This film also set up, though inaccurately, the standard focus of the story of Jane Eyre, which many later films follow. The prison like charter school Lowood is always shown for as long as the audience and Jane can find attachment to Helen before she dies. Jane then heads to Thornfield and Rochester, which becomes the central focus of most films as the two fall in love. Most of the times when Jane returns to her Aunt in Gateshead later films use it as dramatic tension between Rochester and Jane, as it was in the novel. What is most interesting about adaptations, are the lines of dialogue that make it into every version. One quintessential line that undoubtable has made its way into every version of the film comes from when Jane finally confronts Rochester about her feelings for him; “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless?” While the longer monologue around this line is often cut up and cut out this line retains through the years; as do many of the lines write from Charlotte Bronte. Such key scenes and phrases make up the meat of the story, the ideas, and the context and most films have these reimagined lines and events in common.
One hundred and one years after the first filmed version of Jane Eyre came the latest version of this tale. In 2011 under the BBC Cary Fukunaga directed Mia Wasikowska as Jane and Michael Fassbender as Rochester. In two hours the film covers more details and moments in Jane’s life than any other film, not including the plethora of mini-series.
The 2011 film recreated the events of Jane’s life very truthfully. The film even recreated the feel of a first-person narrator by framing the story as a flashback. The beginning scenes come from the middle of the novel and then bounce back and forth between beginning and end until Jane returns to Rochester’s side. This allowed the images to come for a more mature Jane looking back on her life to tell its story. This device did however have its advantages and disadvantages. While it both allowed the viewer to see the post-Rochester life of Jane, her accomplishments, and the family she made for herself− a huge and often overlooked part of Jane’s journey− it also showed what has always been portrayed as the most important part of Jane’s life as flashbacks. These flashbacks only happen twice though before the filmmaker gave up on the premise and Jane’s found family to revert only to the story of Jane and Rochester. The rule of thirds is a rule for a reason and once the film gave up on the Rivers family the framing device seemed hollow and underdeveloped. While the story was told out of place it was a very near retelling of the events, just not as they happen.
The depiction of Jane’s character was also very well done as the strong and observant Jane has time in this film to think, to wonder and extrapolate, and then to act. While Jane’s thoughtful comments sometimes interrupted the action to be said while wistfully looking out large windows, at least the filmmakers deemed her thoughts and pontifications important enough for screen time. Rochester, now having been portrayed in as many forms of bitter, angry, and gruff as there are stars in the sky, was far more aggressive than Well’s but in no ways the most aggressive; that is a title saved for the 2006 PBS miniseries Rochester. While Fassbender’s version was a lot less moody and angst than the 1996 version portrayed by William Hurt, the ups and downs of Rochester’s moods were represented rather well. While the many different versions of Jane’s character could fill up pages the varying degrees of Rochester may come in just as much variety.
The 2011 film also played into the ethereal allusions and mythical aspect of Jane’s world. The opening scenes dealt with Jane’s time in the Red Room and their interpretation both held a supernatural element that affected Jane, but was easily explainable in the real world. Time and again the film used the real world to create both a sense of mystical trappings as well as the foreshadowing laced throughout the story. The film also did a wonderful job in showing Rochester’s opinion of Jane as this ethereal creature, which was half of the reason mystical allusions are so prevalent throughout the novel.
There is no doubt that another version of Jane Eyre will someday grace the screens, if not on TV-movies then in the more episodic nature of miniseries, because while every version so far strives to recreate this novel there will always be something of Jane and her story that is lost in the adaptation. Many have tried, and many have yet to try again, but this does not mean that the films and series out currently are not wonderful adaptations, or even near perfect attempts. They all have their upsides and downsides, and the more you watch the more Jane’s story becomes a blend of films; the Rochester of one film paired with the Jane of another set in the house/background/style of yet another. The beauty of the remake is to find the one you like the best and to search for it in all the other version.