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A Fresh Eyre?: Charlotte Brontë on the Big Screen (Again)

2011 April 17

by Ryan D. Fong, University of California, Davis

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Adapting Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre must be a daunting, if seductive, task for any screenwriter and director. Beloved the world over, the novel features an eponymous heroine whose story has struck an emotional chord with readers—and female readers, especially—for over one hundred and fifty years. One colleague confessed to me that every time she got mad at her parents as a child, she would retreat to her bedroom and re-read the novel—much like Jane does in the window alcove with Beckwick’s History of British Birds in trying to escape the wicked and tormenting Reeds. Cora Kaplan’s experience with Jane Eyre is even wider than that, with the novel acting as a touchstone that connects many disparate parts of her life. First encountered during adolescent scenes of reading in “outraged fascination,” the novel was key in the emergence of her awakening feminist consciousness in the late 1970s, when she read Brontë’s text while “curled up on a re-upholstered Victorian chesterfield in a Laura Ashley dress” (3-5). That these experiences are so strikingly common has led Kaplan to declare Jane Eyre a “monument” and “symbol” of Western attitudes about “desire and rage, as well as loss” in the way that it catalyzes affective “responses which seem strangely excessive” (15).

With this heavy freight, how does a filmmaker set about crafting his or her own vision, whilst still honoring the intense loyalty of a legion of reader-fans? (And, not insignificantly, how does one do so in the wake of over twenty adaptations on the large and small screen!) In the most recent adaptation, now in wide release in the United States and scheduled for a September release in the United Kingdom, director Cary Fukunaga and screenwriter Moira Buffini have done an admirable job of balancing an adherence to the text with a new, cinematic interpretation of the novel; many Brontë admirers will likely be pleased with their results.

For Victoriaphile filmgoers for whom textual fidelity is the highest possible standard, the adaptation will be a cause for celebration, for the inclusion of the Moor House plot and the characters of St. John, Mary and Diana Rivers alone. In the previous feature length films, which unlike mini-series adaptations must necessarily telescope the plot for purposes of length, the Riverses are often the first to go, as the events of the novel are distilled to foreground Jane and Rochester’s romance above all the other aspects of the story. In the 1943 version, directed by Robert Stevenson and starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine, this meant disposing of the Madeira inheritance plot entirely and turning St. John into nothing more than a glorified extra. In the 1996 version, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, the Rivers siblings fare slightly better, as St. John is made into Mrs. Reed’s lawyer, but again their story finds itself largely relegated to the cutting room floor.

In a bold departure from this strategy, Fukunaga and Buffini make Jane’s escape from Thornfield and arrival at Moor House the first scene in the film, and transform the Rivers plot into a frame narrative that holds the story’s earlier parts together. As the rest of Jane’s tale unfolds in flashback, this choice also enables them to create another classic moment within the long history of Brontëan melodramatic cinema, by using Jane’s rejection of St. John’s proposal and her chasing after Rochester’s phantom voice as a crucial narrative pivot.

Actor Jamie Bell, who has clearly grown up since he first came to fame as Billy Elliot, makes the most of his screen time as St. John. There is a dark earnestness in his stares at Jane that offers a nice foil to the Rochester portrayed by Michael Fassbender. Considerably more charming than the sturm und drang Rochester created by Welles and far more charismatic than the more cerebral hero offered by William Hurt in the Zeffirelli version, Fassbender is a magnetic force on screen and, in a departure from the novel, is a strikingly handsome object at which to gaze for the duration of the film. It is easy to see why Jane falls for him, especially as played by Mia Wasikowska, who returns to the mid-Victorian world after starring as Alice in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and who brings both a youthful energy and steely resolve to the role of Jane that neither Joan Fontaine nor Charlotte Gainsbourg did in their more reserved interpretations. With her ethereal beauty pared down for this film—although not to the extent that she could be called plain—Wasikowska does a fine job of conveying the complex contradictions that are at the heart of Brontë’s heroine.

But limits of the film genre hinder Wasikowska’s ability to fully inhabit this iconic role. Like all film portrayals of the adult Jane, she cannot provide the same kind of interiority that Brontë gives her character by using the retrospective first person narrator. When Jane is a child, her fiery and determined resistance to her unjust treatment is fully manifested and externalized, thus making it a relatively easy role for the child actresses who play her—here, by a talented Amelia Clarkson. Whether in her withering speech to Mrs. Reed as she leaves for Lowood or her terse and subordinate remarks to the inquisitive Mr. Brocklehurst, the young Jane outwardly expresses her rage with a force and frankness that has been, in large part, her greatest attraction to readers. In the adult Jane, however, her strength and anger become more muted, simmering just below the surface and at times directed inward. So Wasikowska and the filmmakers must find other ways of communicating this complex display of emotions.

The 1943 and 1996 adaptations attempted to recreate this dynamic through voice-over, but they ring hollow, especially in the earlier film where a spurious version of the novel is read aloud and shown as text on the screen. In the most recent film, Fukunaga employs a creative new strategy—switching to a hand-held camera in scenes of great action or intense feeling—but this is not fully satisfactory either. These scenes become little more than set pieces, when they voyeuristically show Jane in a fairly tight close-up, or gimmicks, when they actually look though Jane’s point of view, even as they strive to convey her emotional and psychological reality.

In the scenes with a steadier camera and a more traditional perspective, this emotional gap is even more pronounced, especially when Wasikowska and Fassbender endeavor to communicate their growing feelings towards one another in fervent looks and glances. Ultimately this strategy fails as well and the film falls back on making more sweeping gestures (e.g. dewy shots of the actors on the grounds of Thornfield) to externalize their romantic feelings. In the novel, their courtship is a prickly and at times brutal one—and Jane’s voice narrates the collision of their individual strength and determination to great effect—so to see this tamed and turned into a cliché is understandable given the medium’s confines but nevertheless disappointing.

This is not to say that the film should have catered even more than it already does to the novel’s romance plot; like virtually all of its predecessors, this adaptation still engages in the work of exploiting “fantasties of masculine dominance and female submission” and exploring “the female heart through [depictions of] sadomasochistic struggle” (Sadoff 72). Although it is remarkable in its inclusion of the Rivers plot, the film still repeats the avoidance of a full exploration of Jane’s time at Lowood and of her relationship to Miss Temple in particular. To show a fully realized Miss Temple would reframe Jane and her growth in drastic ways, and would do more to realize the aspirations that Fukunaga and Buffini have in presenting Jane as a confident proto-feminist.

Instead, Judi Dench as Mrs. Fairfax does what Judi Dench always does when she is on screen, and performs the role of stalwart female strength with aplomb. And while she gets to deliver the film’s funniest line, her presence does little to help focalize the film’s narrative of gendered development in any significant way. Sally Hawkins also makes a memorable Mrs. Reed, and the young Freya Parks embodies the pious innocence of Helen Burns. Perhaps most disappointing though are Valentina Cervi and Rosa Cavaliero as Bertha Mason and Grace Poole, respectively. In the climactic moment of Bertha’s revelation, neither of these actresses commit to playing their roles with all the dynamism that Brontë infuses them with in the novel, especially in this scene.

Perhaps the greatest and, indeed, freshest achievement of the film is in its art direction and cinematography. All of the locations feel right and evoke the proper mood created by the various settings in the novel. Nowhere is this on finer display that in the shots of Thornfield Hall itself and in the surrounding landscape. The Stevenson version was famous for playing up the gothic moodiness of the great Yorkshire house by draping the entire film in fog and mist; but in so doing, it made it hard to see why Jane would come to be so fond of it. By contrasting dark and candle-lit shots of Thornfield’s hallways at night with brighter shots of the grounds in the verdant springtime, Fukunaga transforms the house inta a character in and of itself, and one with many faces. Certainly Fukunaga retains what we have come to see as quintessential in the Brontëan setting, with the wild and harsh spirit of the moors on display at key moments—such as in the first shots, in a sequence that borrows as much from David Lean’s famous opening to Oliver Twist as it does from Stevenson, and in the scene where Jane first meets Rochester on his horse. Crucially though, he also cannily shows the setting when it blossoms to its fullest beauty. Here, we come to see Yorkshire, Thornfield and the novel in ways that depart from our received notions of the place, which have primarily been gleaned from the visually powerful expressionism of the earlier versions.

That I was misty-eyed and surrounded by the sounds of sniffing in the particular showing I attended is one sign that the film does, in the end, hit its emotional mark. My aunt confessed to me that she saw it twice in one day, soaking her handkerchief through during both showings. In this sense, though it still falls short of the force and scope of Brontë’s vision, this new adaptation does manage to capture some of its finest qualities and communicate its deep power, despite the limits of a two-hour film format. In so doing, it not only paves the way for returning to the pleasures of Brontë’s text itself, but also for anticipating the release of a new feature-film adaptation of her sister’s novel, Wuthering Heights, which has finished principal photography and will be released later this year.

With Andrea Arnold taking the helm and starring Kaya Scodelario and James Howson as Catherine and Heathcliff, respectively, the film is already generating early buzz for its choice in casting a black actor play the role of Heathcliff. Whether this choice will lead to an ultimately more radical re-reading of the novel than this film provides of Jane Eyre remains to be seen, but it does leave open the tantalizing prospect that this fresher Eyre might be an enjoyable teaser for a film that sets out to explore even more daring and new Heights.

Works cited:
Kaplan, Cora. Victoriana: Histories, Fictions, Criticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.
Sadoff, Dianne F. Victorian Vogue: British Novels on Screen. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

For more on adaptations of Brontë, see also:
Stoneman, Patsy. Brontë Transformations: The Cultural Dissemination of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. London: Prentice Hall, 1996.

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