From Mary Burgan
Since 1910 there have been 21 versions of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre adapted for film. And so the 2011 version joins a noble cinematic tradition that has tried to commit the longing and passion of the novel’s plain and obscure governess onto film in the span of a little less than two hours. Of course, as a retired English teacher, my advice is that if you want to get it all, read the book!
Otherwise, and for those who have read the book, the current version by the young filmmaker Cary Fukunaga is an excellent introduction. For one thing, it is a beautifully shot film, dwelling on the severe grandeur of the broad and bare landscape on which the Rochester mansion, locus of so much of the action, figures as only a small dot. This landscape also frames the passion and the dignity of the small heroine.
The film is most successful in focusing on that heroine. Her matter-of fact and steadfastly judgmental reaction to a rejecting and vicious world is rendered memorably by Mia Wasikowska, a relatively new actress from Australia (who has recently made her mark in Alice in Wonderland and in The Kids Are All Right). Wasikowska possesses a wide-eyed quietness that rightly captures both the patience and the expectancy of Brontë’s character. She does not have conventional movie star looks, but the camera lingers on her with such care that she is thoroughly convincing as a young girl who is capable of attracting the attention of a strong man on their first encounter.
As for Rochester, the brooding hero who falls in love with Jane, Michael Fassbinder has all the requisite qualities. But the film runs the same risk as the novel with his character, making the viewer/reader wonder how the independent heroine could accept a lover who would put her through so much. And that is where the truncation of a movie disserves a novel like Jane Eyre. It cannot incorporate the nuances of a relationship over time that lighten the effects of Rochester’s abruptness for Jane Eyre.
It is difficult for one who knows Brontë’s novel well to watch any adaptation or it with full acceptance. There are always little worries about what has been left out and, more important for the Brontë lover, about whether the uninitiated viewer will be able to follow it all.
What’s been left out of the current version of Jane Eyre are plot complications like the one that surrounds the madwoman in the attic, Rochester’s insane wife, not to mention her warden, Grace Poole. And although the film depicts the violence in Jane’s childhood in a couple of shocking episodes, it doesn’t dwell on the theological implications of her relationship with Helen Burns. (A moment of respect here for Elizabeth Taylor: she played Helen in the 1944 version of Jane Eyre.)
My main problem with the current Jane Eyre is that it skews the narrative in order to introduce the Rivers family of two sisters and a brother early, and so to make the brother central in offering refuge to Jane. He ought to be — and he ought to be more sternly demanding than he is in the film. But we “experts” also want to point out that Jane’s attachment is primarily to the Rivers sisters. In the novel, they are strong and intellectual women, real sisters for the friendless heroine. In the movie they are only minor figures.
I also worry that breaking the straightforward narrative of Jane Eyre so as to emphasize her relation with the Rivers family might confuse the uninitiated viewer. Even those of us who know the novel have to adjust our perceptions to follow the film’s movement from the adult Jane’s life back to her sufferings at the repulsive Lowood School of her childhood.
Nevertheless, Fukunaga and Wasikowska and Fassbender convey most of what makes Jane Eyre such an enduring masterpiece. And the film enriches the story with images– landscape, costume, the shadows and gleam of a great mansion, and the characters themselves–that the mind’s eye can only approximate. Even so, we lovers of Charlotte Brontë’s novel want to say: “It’s the story of an orphaned and rejected girl finding love at last, and without surrendering her independence of spirit. Don’t make it so confusing.”