Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre is #38 on my ranking of the 100 greatest novels I’ve read, a spot that balances the highly improbable plot against the brilliance of its blend of a gothic horror story, a traditional romance (complete with brooding hero), and a portrayal of a smart, independent female heroine. It is so beloved across the English-speaking world that it has received at least eleven adaptations for the big and small screens, including this spring’s version starring Mia Wasikowska as Jane, combining her brilliant performance with a script that’s faithful to the book’s dialogue and characters but upends its narrative structure to negative effect.
If you haven’t read the novel, you should, but here’s a quick summary. Jane Eyre is orphaned and raised by her cruel aunt, shipped off to a strict Christian boarding school, and eventually hired as governess to another orphaned child, Adele, whose guardian, Edward Rochester (played by Michael Fassbender, whom you might recognize from the bar scene in Inglourious Basterds), is that dark, brooding hero. She and Rochester develop a slow-burning romance even as he hides a terrible secret that will prevent them from marrying – and when that secret is revealed, Jane flees in the middle of the night, eventually finding shelter with a rural missionary, St. John, and his two sisters*. St. John (Jamie Bell, better known as the original Billy Elliott) intends to leave for missionary work in India and proposes that Jane become his wife and join him in his work … but, of course, Jane is not finished with Rochester, regardless of her desire to forget him and their tragedy.
*In the book, it’s revealed that St. John and Jane are, quite improbably, cousins. The film dispenses with this, a reasonable choice even though it makes one of Jane’s eventual decisions seem more generous as a result.
Moira Buffini’s script is incredibly faithful to Brontë’s original words, if not the structure as a whole. Many memorable phrases from the book are preserved here either wholly intact or with minor changes in word order or tense, including its best line, Jane’s question to Rochester, “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?” Waskikowska plays Jane as close to her literary counterpart as I could imagine, while Fassbender and Bell both shift their characters one half-step towards the audience – Rochester still broods, but never seethes, while St. John, so austere in the book, shows Jane a quiet affection that one might at a glance mistake for love until Jane calls him out on it. Brontë’s novel gives so much more depth to Jane than to either male character that infusing both with more humanity is actually a welcome interpolation, within the boundaries set by the author but in a way that makes the emotions in the film seem more much real.
Buffini decided, however, that using Brontë’s words she would alter the sequence in which we see the major events: The film begins with Jane’s flight from Thornfield, and has her reliving her story in her mind as St. John and his sisters attempt to restore her to health. The decision to use the hackneyed flashback narrative technique detracted greatly from the film, both up front – where, if you didn’t know the plot, you could easily get lost – and at the end, where the tension of that part of the book is dissipated. In the novel, that last section derives all of its drama and narrative greed from the reader’s desire to see how on earth Jane could be reunited with Rochester after fleeing from Thornfield, disavowing her past, and taking up a quiet life as a village schoolteacher to lower-class girls. Her dull life adds nothing to the tension of the book’s core romance, put asunder by Rochester’s deceit with no apparent way to repair the rift, so it is merely the passage of time, of page after page without progress, that provides any incentive at all to plow through descriptions of her life with St. John (pronounced “Sinjin”) and his sisters. But by shifting half of the time spent on this section of the story to the beginning, and just generally cutting down on the screen time committed to it, there’s virtually no tension left – a viewer unfamiliar with the story would have no idea how close Jane comes to committing to go to India, and the reason for her refusal to marry St. John without love appears to be solely that she still loves Rochester, not that she’s an independent woman who is unwilling to sacrifice her principles for social expediency. Minimizing the portions of the book that focus on Jane’s youth and her time with St. John is an understandable move to fit the novel into two hours, but losing the gravity of the decision she makes with regard to the latter is a major blow.
I’m no Oscar prognosticator, but I would throw out there a guess that Wasikowska might earn a Best Actress nomination for her role here, while the film itself should grab a passel of nominations for costumes, lighting, and scenery. There was a very clear determination to make the film look as authentic as possible, including the use of natural light – meaning candlelight or fireplaces for nighttime scenes, enhancing the gothic feel of the film – at all times. It had to make the production more difficult, but the reward for that effort is evidence throughout the movie.
Jane Eyre also saw a longer adaptation in 2006 starring English stage and TV actress Ruth Wilson as Jane and Toby Stephens (son of Dame Maggie Smith) as Rochester. This four-hour miniseries ran on PBS here as the two-part finale of Masterpiece Theatre (now simply known as Masterpiece), hewing much more closely to the book’s plot structure while altering more of its dialogue and even playing a little loose with Jane’s character, modernizing her in a way that seemed out of place in a work set in the 1840s. Despite that, it is beautifully rendered and the script gives a much fuller treatment to the development of Jane’s relationship with Rochester that simply isn’t possibly in the 120 minutes of the 2011 version.
Also, if you’ve read Jane Eyre or seen any of the film adaptations, you must read Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, a hilarious satirical romp that involves a literary detective who has a special relationship of her own with Rochester and is on the case when a madman makes sure Jane doesn’t wake up in the middle of that one fateful night.