the original 1933 Modern Library dust jacket of Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre

  • Author:  Charlotte Brontë (1816  –  1855)
  • Rank:  #20
  • Published:  1847
  • Publisher:  Smith, Elder & Co.
  • Pages:  494
  • First Line:  “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”
  • Last Lines:  ” ‘My Master,’ he says, ‘has forewarned me.  Daily he announces more distinctly, – Surely I come quickly!’ and hourly I more eagerly respond, – ‘Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!’ “
  • ML Edition:  #64  (three dust jackets – 1933, 1944, 1957, 1934 British version, illustrated acetate version); gold hardcover (two dust jackets), Modern Library classics
  • Film:  many, incl. 1934 (**), 1944 (***), 1996 (***), 2011 (****)
  • First Read:  Fall, 2005

The Novel:  Jane Eyre is so good that it not only inspired readers for over 150 years, not only inspired writers for almost as long, but it has actually inspired good writing.  It is revived in a different manner in Du Maurier’s Rebecca, is given a fantastic prequel in Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and is the inspiration for Jasper Fforde’s wildly inventive Thursday Next series, which began with The Eyre Affair.  It is that rare book that has the happy ending that we all wish for and no one would dare doubt it.

A brilliant cartoon from Kate Beaton. Perfect homage to three wonderful writers (yes, I’ve read Anne). For some reason (because he somewhat resembles Welles, I suppose) I imagine Rochester is the second man, making Heathcliff the first.

It does not begin happily.  Not only is there no chance for the walk, but we sense the darkness that casts its net over Jane’s whole life among the Reeds: “Folds of scarlet drapery shut in my view to the right hand; to the left were the clear panes of glass, protecting me but not separating me from the drear November day.”  Jane is an orphan, as most know.  Like so many before (and since – it has been a tradition since long before Harry Potter), she is living with an aunt who wants nothing to do with her.  Rebuffed by the cold aunt, tortured by her pathetic cousin, Jane can find nothing good in the life that she leads:  “All looked colder and darker in that visionary hollow than in reality: and the strange little figure there gazing at me, with a white face and arms specking the gloom, and glittering eyes of fear moving where all else was still, had the effect of a real spirit: I thought it like one of the tiny phantoms, half fairy, half imp, Bessie’s evening stories represented as coming up out of lone, ferny dells in moors, and appearing before the eyes of belated travellers.”  It is a measure of her discontent that she looks forward to her escape when she is sent off the school.  But when she arrives there, it is no escape from the dreariness of her life: “I saw a universal manifestation of discontent when the fumes of the repast met the nostrils of those destined to swallow it.”  She finds a modicum of happiness in her friendship with Helen, whose death shatters the poor girl.

Soon, we have transitioned to Jane’s early years as an adult, when she finds a position outside the school.  She finds a place as a governess at the mysterious Thorndike Hall, working for the mysterious Mr. Rochester, though she has yet to set eyes upon him after two months.  This is a set-up for one of the great meetings in all of literature, as Jane, out for a walk, accidentally causes a riding accident.  She watches the man who has fallen from his horse closely: “His figure was enveloped in a riding cloak, fur collared, and steel clasped; its details were not apparent, but I traced the general points of middle height, and considerable breadth of chest.  He had a dark face, with stern features and a heavy brow; his eyes and gathered eyebrows looked ireful and thwarted just now; he was past youth, but had not reached middle age; perhaps he might be thirty-five.”  This is her employer, though she does not know it yet.

Now we have the setting for one of the world’s great love stories.  For, in raising his ward, in watching him interact with society, Jane begins to get the measure of her employer:

He was proud, sardonic, harsh to inferiority of every description: in my secret soul I knew that his great kindness to me was balanced by unjust severity to many others.  He was moody, too; unaccountably so: I more than once, when sent for to read to him, found him sitting in his library alone, with his head bent on his folded arms; and, when he looked up, a morose, almost a malignant scowl, blackened his features.  But I believed that, his moodiness, his harshness, and his former faults of morality (I say former, for now he seemed corrected of them) had their source in some cruel cross of fate.  I believed he was naturally a man of better tendencies, higher principles, and purer tastes than such as circumstances had developed, education instilled, or destiny encouraged.  I thought there were excellent materials in him; though for the present they hung together somewhat spoiled and tangled.  I cannot deny that I grieved for his grief, whatever that was, and would have given much to assuage it.

It is those latter descriptions that are starting to come to the forefront as she falls in love with her employer.  But, she is not alone.  The love ends up returned:  “The feeling was not like an electric shock; but it was quite as sharp, as strange, as startling: it acted on my senses as if their utmost activity hitherto had been but torpor; from which they were now summoned, and forced to wake.  They rose expectant: eye and ear waited, while the flesh quivered on my bones.”

True love does not end there, of course.  There are things that stand in the way.  For those who have read the book, they certainly know what is going to happen next, what will come in the way of love.  For those who have not read the book, what the hell are you waiting for?  Don’t let it be ruined.  Certainly I have told you that a happy ending will come to them.  Most of you know how that will come to be.  Some of you might not.  Those of you who do, can relish in what must be done, what hard roads must be walked by both Jane and Rochester before they can find themselves together (what Jasper Fforde does in his novel in finding the way to this ending is truly inventive, and if you haven’t read the book before you read his, you will find yourself confused).  If you do not know what comes next, I suppose you could check Wikipedia.  Or watch the film.  Or you could read the book.  Drop the Jane Austen and read the great romance of the 19th Century.

The Films:

The wretched 1934 version of Jane Eyre

1934 version  (dir. Christy Cabanne):

Do yourself a favor and don’t watch this.  There are no external reviews currently on the IMDb, so there’s really no one to warn you what a colossal failure of an adaptation this film is.  Everything is wrong about this film, from the casting, to the sets, to the flow of the film, to the direction, to the script itself.  If there was ever an example of a “greatest hits” version of a great novel, this is it.

The film makes certain to hit a lot of the points in the novel that they know longtime readers would be looking for.  There is the question for Jane of what she must to do to avoid hell, there is the first meeting with Rochester, there is the burning bedroom at night, the stopped wedding, and then the end, when she returns to Rochester.  But it’s how they approach these scenes, and what they do with the rest of the novel (basically nothing) that is what makes such a failure of the film.

Look at the beginning.  Well, don’t, because the acting among all the children is atrocious, really a major counterpoint to other adaptations, as the acting from the young Jane in both the 1944 and 1996 versions are superior to the performances from the adult Jane.  But, we get the first couple of scenes (the fight with her cousin), then she is wisked away to the orphanage (don’t quibble with me – in this film it’s an orphanage).  Once there, we skip directly from the question of hell to Jane as an adult – we miss all the trials and turbulations of her time at Lowood.  Then she is off to Thornfield.  On the way, she has the famous run-in with Rochester.

This scene is emblematic of so much of what is wrong with this film.  First, they place the meeting before she even arrives at Thornfield, so nothing has been made of the absence of Mr. Rochester.  Second, the performance of Virginia Bruce as Jane is so over-the-top haughty and condescending that it throws everything off.  Third, Colin Clive, so alive in Frankenstein, is such a milksop here that there is nothing interesting about him.  Fourth, she simply declares that she has had enough of him and leaves, robbing the scene of all the wonder and mystery that is so vital to it.

The rest of the film proceeds with this kind of ridiculousness.  In the scene with the fire in the bedroom, we see a little bit of smoke smoldering on the bed curtains, then nothing.  It is the least dangerous looking fire scene in the history of motion pictures.  Later, after Jane has left Thornfield (which looks nothing like a Gothic mansion and everything like the silly set of a two bedroom apartment in London) and Rochester has gone after her (he returns to Thornfield to find it burning down), she settles in with Rivers, only to say she is off to India to marry him (yes, it is as dramatic a turn as that and there is nothing in the film that indicates why she has done this – anyone watching the film without having read the novel would be completely lost at this point), then she returns to Rochester.

The film, as an adaptation of Jane Eyre, is a complete and utter mess, with horrible casting and terrible decisions along the way.  But as a film, it is even worse, because if you haven’t read the novel, then hardly anything in the film will make any sense.  But if you have read the book, you will find it so maddening that you won’t want to watch anymore.  So now that there’s a review on the IMDb (this one), do yourself a favor and take its advice – watch a different version.

Orson Welles was a great Rochester in the 1944 Jane Eyre

1944 version  (dir. Robert Stevenson):

Looking at this film’s credits, you would have reason to be hopeful.  Joan Fontaine as Jane, Orson Welles as Rochester.  But then the film begins, and so does the let-down.  From the first minute of the film, we see highlighted blocks of text, giving us Jane Eyre from Jane’s own narrative.  Except, wait.  The problem is that it’s not the Brontë book.  In the opening scene, the writers seem not to to trust the classic opening lines: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”, instead opting for a Dickension type opening, more reminiscent of Great Expectations or David Copperfield.  What is the point?  Why not trust to your material which has enchanted readers for over a century?

The opening isn’t the only problem with this film, which should be better than it is (though it continues this inane made-up narrative throughout the film rather than trusting to the source).  Many of the problems stem from the direction, which is utterly flat.  That seems to carry over into Joan Fontaine’s performance.  Fontaine, so good when directed by Alfred Hitchcock, seems to have none of the requisite fire needed here.  There could be a few explanations: 1 – that she wasn’t that great of an actress outside Hitchcock’s influence, 2 – that director Robert Stevenson, whose only real quality direction wouldn’t be until Mary Poppins, 20 years later, wanted this kind of performance, or 3 – that in playing Funnyface in Rebecca, which in many ways is an echo of Jane Eyre, she decided that more timid performance was required, though Jane is a much more vibrant character.  (As a side note, I must mention the hair – Fontaine has a short hair cut, almost a bob, with some tied up in the back, yet, in the night scenes, when her hair is down, she has two long braids that go almost to her waist – I can’t find it believable that so much hair was wrapped up behind her and I found it distracting.  Silly, I know, but when something is ridiculous enough to be distracting, that’s a problem).

Jane’s timidness wouldn’t be such a problem if this were the later adaptation and we had William Hurt as Rochester.  But we have a real actor with presence here, Orson Welles, with that deep voice, so perfectly suited for Rochester, and it’s hard to believe that he would fall so deeply in love with such a timid little thing as this Jane.  And she wasn’t always so timid; that’s the other problem.  As played by Peggy Ann Garner, as a child, she is strong and brave and wonderful.  That performance lights up the film and once she is replaced by Fontaine, much of the energy slips away.

This film is a drastic improvement over the 1934 version (it looks right and Rochester and young Jane are right), but it never quite gets out of the range of “just okay”, and when you’re dealing with a novel as brilliant as Jane Eyre, a “just okay” adaptation doesn’t really cut it.

William Hurt just doesn’t quite do glowering in Jane Eyre (1996)

1996 version  (dir. Franco Zeffirelli):

If the 1944 version got Rochester right, this version got it so wrong.  In adapting Shakespeare, director Franco Zeffirelli did some inspired casting: Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in The Taming of the Shrew, actually casting teenagers as Romeo and Juliet, trusting in Mel Gibson’s acting ability to carry Hamlet.  But here he makes a fateful choice that sinks his entire film.  William Hurt, probably the best actor of the 80’s, is a great actor, who has the unrivaled ability to appear either completely shallow (Broadcast News), with great depth (Children of a Lesser God) or, shallowness masking a bitter depth (The Big Chill).  But he is all wrong as Rochester.  He is nothing of the Byronic hero.  He doesn’t have that majestic presence of an Orson Welles, to take over the scene merely by arriving, doesn’t have the deep, soulful voice, just doesn’t have the sheer force necessary to play Edward Rochester.  And if you can’t believe that the lead is Rochester, there is nothing you can do.  You could believe that a young governess could love him, but you couldn’t believe that Jane would love him.

Not that the casting of William Hurt is the only thing that is wrong with this film.  Charlotte Gainsbourg would eventually be an actress who can mask deep pain, but here, the right age to play Jane, she, like Fontaine, doesn’t seem to give enough gravity to the character.  Jane is no pathetic milksop of a maid to stare lovingly at Rochester.  She needs presence and force of mind.  If the original only had force and presence on one side of the equation that needs it from both, this film has neither.

But even if the casting were okay, there would be other problems.  Look at the scene where Rochester first comes upon Jane.  It is such a pivotal scene, the way she accidentally spooks the horse and Rochester is thrown, already angry before he even spies her.  But here, it isn’t Jane’s fault at all.  It is Rochester, riding by, who focuses on her and stares, and only then does he have his accident.  The fault is all Rochester’s and it throws off the whole scene that is part of the key to their relationship.  You have to believe in that moment and you have to get it right.  It’s all wrong for Rochester to suddenly stare at the young woman and instantly be attracted to her (not that Gainsbourg really does much to merit the extended stare, certainly not the way she is dressed).

In short, Zeffirelli takes a classic novel and fills it with the kind of actors that you would expect to find in such a film (Joan Plowright, John Wood) and even manages a rather hilarious casting coup that would only become funny years later (the casting of Fiona Shaw as Mrs. Reed – both because she would eventually play another famous bitter aunt who takes in an orphan, and because here she is facing off against Anna Paquin, 15 years before she would become her enemy in True Blood).  But the film, like the leads, has no sense of presence.  It seems more like a Masterpiece Theater adaptation pushed up onto the big screen.  It’s just going through the numbers.  The film never really manages to live, and certainly not to live up to the expectations from such a novel.

A great novel finally gets the great film version it deserves: the 2011 version of Jane Eyre

2011 version  (dir. Cary Fukunaga):

While The Help, a rather simplistic story from a rather simplistic book, was getting all the awards attention, a version of Jane Eyre was slipping into the awards shows, getting a nomination for its costumes and then slipping away again.  How one film could be so admired which never rises above being okay while a great adaptation, the first great adaptation of one of the all-time great books was basically ignored is maddening.  Perhaps people think to themselves, oh, it’s been adapted so many times before.  And it came out so long ago (in March).  How can we be expected to remember?

Well, this is an adaptation to be remembered.  Directed by a young American (Cary Fukunaga, only 34), whose only previous film had been about young Hispanics trying to make their way to America in search of a better life (Sin Nombre), it gets right to the heart of the story, without sacrificing anything around the edges.  The first thing it gets right is the casting – from Mia Waskowsika (age 22), who perfectly embodies Jane’s passion for life, to Michael Fassbender (age 34), who glowers on screen as well as anyone since Orson Welles, to the supporting roles (Judi Dench as Mrs. Fairfax, Jamie Bell as Rivers, the role that is usually greatly reduced or cut altogether, Sally Hawkins as Mrs. Reed).  Then he gets the other aspects right as well – the dark clouds over the landscape, the world of shadows that is Thorndike Hall, the costumes.

But most of all, the script is right.  This film understands what is at the heart of the story; that it is not only the romance between Jane and Rochester and the gradual way that it develops, but also the language of the novel, the mood it invokes.  That these two characters will work so much to find a moment when they may smile at each other, that we can watch them grow in their relationship, that we know that love can be found, even in the darkest shadows, allows us to keep watching through all that they go through.

This film works for the same reason that the other adaptations don’t.  The two leads do exactly what they are supposed to do.  Mia Wasikowsika, ethereal in Alice in Wonderland, here perfectly finds a measure of plainness enough to be Jane and loveliness enough to understand what it is that Rochester hopes will save him from eternal darkness.  Michael Fassbender, normally allowed to play his passions straight from the top in films like Hunger and Shame, here finds the ways in which to keep a quiet reserve, to hold in those emotions until that moment when all seems within his grasp and starts to slip away.  He quickly emerged in the course of a year from an actor that almost no one knew to one that everyone knew, not because he was the flavor of the month, but because he shows that he has great fear and love that he must bury within clenched teeth, hoping for that rare of sunshine.  For the first time, we can watch the romance unfold between them and understand it perfectly, because either one is a match that any of us would dream of.  This is the Rochester that has sparked so many women’s dreams and this is the Jane that so many of us would love to have the brush of just one sweet smile to make our lives a little easier to bear.