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Jane Eyre (2011): An Uncertain Interpretation of Charlotte Brontë's Masterpiece

Updated on June 9, 2012

Does Cary Fukunaga's Film Do Justice to Jane Eyre?

Charlotte Brontë's classic novel Jane Eyre was not a universal success when it was published in 1847. Even several years after the book was published, Sharpe's London Magazine said of it, "Such a strange book! Imagine a novel with a little swarthy governess for heroine, and a middle-aged ruffian for hero" (from an article titled "A Few Words about 'Jane Eyre'").

Jane Eyre was written after the Gothic period, and Brontë incorporated Gothic elements into the narrative partly as a response to the lukewarm reception of her previous book The Professor, which publishers had rejected for being unexciting. Indeed, Jane Eyre's representations of supernatural events--even if most of them are grounded in reality--the power of dreams and fantasy, and of course the character of Rochester contribute to the book's immense popularity. Jane Eyre has also influenced two other popular and well-received books, Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier and Wide Sargasso Sea.

More than 160 years later, the latest cinematic adaptation of Jane Eyre is also an odd film. Its first trailer, released in 2010, plays up the gothic and melodramatic elements of the story rather than the romance. Director Cary Fukunaga (known for Sin Nombre) stated that he wanted to emphasize the scary aspects of the story, and the trailer and movie stills were previewed on horror movie web sites. But does the movie fulfill the promise of the trailer? Jane Eyre is well acted and beautifully shot, but I believe it is too gentle and bloodless. It does not capture the wildness and edginess of Brontë's vision.

Note: Following sections assume a knowledge of the novel, so please beware of spoilers.

A Romantic Movie, Without the Romance

Like most adaptations of the novel, Fukunaga's version is primarily a romance. Yet muting the Gothic elements of the narrative is a mistake. What is Jane Eyre without the eerie, the thrilling, the forbidding? In an interview with The Playlist, Fukunaga said that he had to figure out how to "stay in the world of period drama/romance, while maintaining [a Gothic] tone," and that "too much horror...takes away from the romance" of the story. Romance won out. And in romantic versions of Jane Eyre (that is, all of them), the success of the adaptation as a whole is only as assured as the performance of its Rochester.

Knowing what Michael Fassbender looks like outside of the movie, one might object to his suitability to the role of Rochester. (But then again, Toby Stephens was Rochester in 2006. Perhaps this is just another example of 'Hollywood ugly'.) No amount of unkempt hair and muttonchop whiskers can disguise Fassbender's bone structure. Good looks aside, however, Fassbender doesn't have enough to work with; this version of Rochester lacks the volatile danger of a Byronic hero. Where's his brusqueness, as demonstrated amply in the novel? His roaring mood swings? The inappropriate, borderline-creepy allusions to his sexual past?

I said that Jane Eyre is only as good as its Rochester, but that's no knock on Mia Wasikowska. Her performance is the movie's best, and I believe that had she had the opportunity, she could have done wonders as Jane falling in love with Rochester. Unfortunately, the script offers scant evidence of Jane's feelings, other than a few yearning glances. Otherwise, Wasikowska is very good; as Jane, she's luminous even at her most wretched. She shows a cool restraint that is different from most of the other Janes I've seen. I like it: Jane is passionate, but she's also an introvert, and quiet pride is often more in keeping with her personality than overt emotionalism.

Despite what Fukunaga said to The Playlist, and through no fault of the lead actors, the romance between Jane and Rochester is lacklustre. In the novel, Jane and Rochester's relationship is romantic because they are on the surface incompatible, yet matched perfectly in mind and spirit; they are separated by social conventions, and they disregard them for the sake of love.

The film's most serious misstep is its treatment of this relationship. Without a strong depiction of their unlikely friendship, the romance has no buildup. Rochester asks Jane what she would do if all his friends deserted him, and she responds that she would remain. Without knowledge of the source material, it's hard to see why Rochester would care about the opinion of his governess, and likewise how he could have possibly inspired her loyalty. Instead of the montage of the happy couple frolicking after the declaration of love, screen time would have been better spent on establishing its foundation.

Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender).
Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender). | Source

The Significance of St. John

Rochester gets most of the attention when we speak of the male characters in Brontë's novel, but the most important sub-plot revolves around another man. This plot, which had hitherto been removed or severely underplayed in all the film adaptations of the novel, is that of Jane meeting the Rivers family. Indeed, St. John Rivers is a crucial character, and it is his story, his words, that close the novel. Fukuyama's film is the first to feature St. John prominently (Jamie Bell gets third billing). The serendipitously named Bell--the Brontë sisters used the surname Bell for their pseudonyms--is a surprising choice for St. John, but he's playing against type and believably portrays the clergyman's resolve and repression.

Perhaps due to the belief that dwelling too much on religion would not appeal to modern audiences, one of the novel's major themes is all but omitted. None of Helen Burns's grace, Jane's earthly spirituality, and Brocklehurst's hypocritical religiosity made it into the film in a meaningful way. In the case of St. John, it's a pity that the film does not allow for more of his faith, because his austere morality provides an interesting contrast with both Jane and Rochester.

At least the importance of the St. John storyline is underscored by the film's narrative structure, which uses the St. John plot to bookend the stories of Jane's childhood and life at Thornfield Hall. The film starts with Jane fleeing Thornfield to fall upon the steps of Moor House, and ends with the journey in reverse. As in the book, the significance of St. John in Jane's development is made explicit in the second half of the film: thanks to him, she has an occupation and is financially independent for the first time in her life. Yet, true to the novel's theme of the equalizing effect of economic class, Jane is not indebted to St. John, but is able to repay him--literally--with one-quarter of her considerable inheritance.

St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell).
St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell). | Source

Cultural Relativity and Jane Eyre

Condensing and filming Jane Eyrefor a modern audience inevitably changes some of the narrative's key plot points. What was unconventional in the Victorian age--a pair of lovers with disparate ages, social standing, economic class, and life experiences--is not a great taboo today. In addition, the era's prevailing social attitudes about ethnicity, sexuality, and insanity, in particular as they apply to Bertha Mason, would be considered backward or at least politically incorrect today. Unfortunately, changing these elements of the novel to be consistent with contemporary ideals detracts from the overall effectiveness of the film.

Like the leads in most of the other adaptations of Jane Eyre, the age difference between Wasikowska and Fassbender is not accurate. (Franco Zeffirelli's version got it right, though.) Wasikowska can easily pass for a nineteen-year-old, but Fassbender is several years shy of Rochester's age, who is almost forty. Their diminished age difference also removes the need for the many pet names that Rochester uses for Jane in the book, some of which have paternal undertones ("little friend", "elf", "sprite", and later, "poppet" and "girl-bride").

Yet Jane and Rochester's journey to becoming equals in spirit, and then in economic circumstance, is greatly dependent on their age difference. In the novel, Rochester's age is not just a barrier for Jane, but even for Blanche Ingram, who is a few years older and has a social standing compatible with Rochester's. But--Byronic hero, remember? Rochester's many unattractive traits, age included, are what make him such a forbidding and thrilling lover. Yet the inherent danger in loving a man like Rochester, and being loved by him, does not come across in the film.

As the novel's shadowy antagonist, Bertha is over-the-top in almost every way that counts: Rochester describes her as being cruel, coarse, non-intellectual, vapid, ill-tempered, violent, absurd, and unchaste; Jane notes that she is heavy, dark of hair and/or skin, and has bulbous red eyes. In other words, she is the opposite of Jane, and is thus the antithesis of Rochester's ideal. Worst of all, she is cursed with 'madness', a condition that she inherited from her Creole mother.

This double whammy of madness and Creole-ness makes any modern interpretation of Bertha Mason problematic. Rochester is seduced by her hot-blooded island beauty, only to see her true nature, too late, after marriage. Yet even all of her character defects are not enough to be called insanity. Fassbender agrees. "Back in those days, [Bertha] might have just been randy," he told The Globe and Mail. "You know: If she likes to have sex, she must have the devil in her...I’d burn the effing house down, too, if I was locked up in that room." Jean Rhys--herself the daughter of a Creole mother--attempted to rectify Bertha's one-sided characterisation, in the superb Wide Sargasso Sea.

The film glosses over Bertha's story and parentage, and also tones down her physical appearance. Most conspicuous is Rochester's attitude toward her; the antipathy which he words so strongly in the novel is transformed into resigned pity by Fassbender's gentle portrayal. In a curious addition surely written to justify the poor treatment of Bertha, the script has Rochester tell Jane that patients in an asylum are treated no better than animals. But are we expected to believe that being locked in the attic is much of an improvement? Even Pilot has the roam of the house.

Ironically, the story behind the arranged marriage, which was excised from the movie, would have increased my sympathy for Rochester--unlike the excuse he gives for locking her up, which comes across as perfunctory and disingenuous.

Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska).
Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska). | Source

Famous Endings and Non-Endings

"Reader, I married him," is Jane Eyre's most famous line, and though many people misremember it as the novel's last line, it is actually the beginning of the last chapter. The novel is heralded as an example of proto-feminism*, even though it ends quite conventionally with marriage and children. It's worth looking at the film's ending, which departs abruptly from the book; it ends prematurely in a way that seems to allow both a Gothic and feminist interpretation in its reference to dreams, and its shunning of marriage as the ultimate happy ending.

Whether the changes to the ending are for timing/editing is beside the point: Jane and Rochester's reunion is so different from the original that I want to consider it a purposeful rewriting of the ending. In the book, Rochester keeps asking if he is dreaming, and is in a happy state of delirium while Jane tells him all of her news--which takes place over a few days. In the film, Rochester and Jane embrace, and when Rochester wonders if he is dreaming, Jane tells him to wake up. The film leaves it open-ended by cutting this scene short; does Rochester 'wake up' and live happily ever after with Jane? We don't know--no marriage or even a resumption of their relationship is shown onscreen. In a sense, Bertha's death is more tragic here because it's not necessarily a convenient plot device (i.e., there is no unspoken 'the madwoman is dead and now we may marry').

Despite its moderate faithfulness to the book on the whole, and notwithstanding the changes that I like in its ending, the film Jane Eyre does not ignite the powerful emotions inherent in Brontë's novel. It cannot convey the writer's mastery of expression, or the vastness and depth of her imagination. It could be that the novel is unfilmable and thus every adaptation is doomed to suffer by comparison. One thing is for certain: watching Jane Eyre is a pleasant diversion, but it highlights too keenly the singular experience of claiming a solitary spot and drawing the curtains around oneself to enjoy a good book.


* One of my favourite proto-feminist moments in the book is Brontë's unambiguous view of equality and Jane's active role in the relationship: "'You glowed in the cool moonlight last night, when you mutinied against fate, and claimed your rank as my equal,'" Rochester says to Jane the day after they declare their love for each other. "'[I]t was you who made me the offer.'" Jane replies, "'Of course I did.'"


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