BOOKS AND ARTS MARCH 22, 2011
For a certain type of woman, having read Jane Eyre—more specifically, having consumed it several times in feverish bursts, having carried a battered paperback from high school to college to a first apartment, having memorized certain lines (“Do you think because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!”)—is the functional equivalent of a top-secret handshake. Deployed during that awkward phase when these women meet, greet, and assess each other, knowing appreciation of the novel is like a diploma from an exclusive school of social and intellectual skill. One Jane Eyre lover appraising another can know: This woman understands. She’s a member of the tribe. It may be a diffuse and disparate tribe, but its ties are powerful. This book, featuring the quintessential loner, is a uniting force for its adorers.
And so, it was with eager anticipation that we took our seats at a preview showing for Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, starring Mia Wasikowska as Jane and Michael Fassbender as Fairfax Rochester. Were we seated among a roomful of sympathetic souls? Did their minds thrill to the thought of their favorite novel projected on the big screen? Reader, we hoped so. We sensed ourselves becoming clichés—“Former English Major” might as well have been stamped on our foreheads—but we couldn’t help it. The film began: a distraught, 18-year-old Jane was running away from Thornfield Hall, flinging herself upon the barren moors. Maybe not the way we would have chosen to begin (how sad to reveal this wrenching turn in the plot at such an early stage), but the wind-whipped scenery and gaunt Wasikowska set an appropriately tortured tone.
But it soon devolved, and not just in the predictable, no-film-is-ever-as-good-as-the-novel kind of way. Obviously, a film cannot, in general, preserve the depth or breadth of book, and we’re not arguing that it should necessarily try. With the exception of a few truly deft adaptations (The Graduate, The Virgin Suicides) and a few unusual instances in which the film is truly better than the book (The Godfather, Forrest Gump), a filmic version of a novel should be about evocation—setting a tone and delivering a story that, while unable to recreate the book, doesn’t betray it. (The luxury of lengthy mini-series, in contrast, offers a broader canvas and, thus, is often more successful.) But, if a director is going to attempt to reinterpret a beloved classic with far fewer strokes than a literary text affords, he had better ensure that they are well-placed. In this new Jane Eyre, despite what many of the reviews have said, they’re not.
So here, with glancing acceptance of the limitations of film, but with ultimate loyalty to the integrity of the book, we present, to fellow-worshippers at the shrine of Charlotte Brontë, a brief catalog of the film’s greatest faults.
Too little sense, too much sensibility.
Brontë introduces her readers to Jane behind “folds of scarlet drapery,” where she is hiding with a book. Found out by her brutish cousin John and senselessly struck across the face for taking an object that, John claims, does not belong to her, she fights back, only to be locked in a haunted bedroom and then sent off to Lowood, a prison-like boarding school for indigent girls. This treatment prompts her decision to rein in her emotions, no matter how great the psychological strain. Jane grows into a woman of quiet good sense. Faced with the ghoulish laughter that disrupts her nights at Thornfield Hall, she remains tight-lipped. After extinguishing a fire in the sleeping Rochester’s bedroom, she does as she’s told and sits calmly (in pitch blackness) for hours. Upon discovering that her true love is secretly married to a madwoman who is kept locked in the attic, Jane sheds not a single tear.
The literary Jane is, in sum, a paradigm of composure, a woman who feels intensely but has also learned that mastering her feelings is essential to her survival. Fukunaga, however, would have us think otherwise. The film, as we’ve already mentioned, opens with Jane wildly running and tripping across the moors, her face streaked with tears. Rather than an introduction defined by strength and inner resilience, Jane debuts at her lowest, with no explanation of how she came to be in such a position; she is, at first glance, a mute hysteric.
As the film continues, Jane cries frequently and with abandon. She either tightens her lips or snidely quips, demonstrating little attachment to reason and sagacity. The young woman who, in the book, congratulates herself on “wholesome discipline,” who “rallies her principles,” and “calls her sensations to order” is lost. This is understandable; the interior battles to which the reader is privy cannot make for compelling cinema. But, with no substitute for Jane’s powerful inner voice, Fukunaga relies on expression and explosion. To make Jane a pendulum, swinging between silence and storm, actually renders her strangely static. One of the most powerful elements of the bildungsroman—her learning how to understand her emotions—is eliminated.
The girl’s got smarts! (But you wouldn’t know it from the film.)
As one contemporary critic of the novel wrote, Jane Eyre “is simply the development of a human mind.” This progression, from bookish child to accomplished governess to the type of woman who learns German just for fun and who sees, as a rural school-teacher, the inherently moral good in lifting young girls from illiteracy, is critical to her appeal. The Jane of the novel isn’t content with her limited sphere—she accepts the position at Thornfield Hall in part because it’s 70 miles closer to London than Lowood and complains internally that women are more limited in their activities than men—but she knows that a wider world is not just beyond the horizon; it’s also in books. In other words, she’s not just the heroine of a melodrama; she’s one of us—groping her way toward adulthood through literature. In the film, by contrast, Jane wanders through the garden far more often than the library.
Jane’s intellect is also significant because it is the most crucial component in her attraction to Rochester and his attraction to her. It is, of course, clichéd to say that love is blind. But, if ever there was a novel that both figuratively and literally illustrated the truth behind this cliché, Jane Eyre is it. Jane and Rochester fall in love because of their originality and their sympathetic outlook, a fact that is underlined when Jane returns to the crippled and blind Rochester at the end of the novel. “Am I hideous, Jane?” he asks her. “Very, sir; you always were,” she answers, the witty reply simultaneously indicating that what Jane values is not Rochester’s appearance but the intellectual compatibility between the two. Incapacitated by his disability, Rochester may not be in the mood for joking, but he takes it on the chin. “Humph! The wickedness has not been taken out of you,” he replies.
There is some of this witty repartee within the film, but nowhere near enough. What would be enough? It’s hard to say; a two-hour film could never include all the sparkling conversation of the novel, but, we, at least, could have done without a few of the duller exchanges that Fukunaga’s Jane has with the obnoxious and off-putting St. John, the man who tries to woo Jane once she flees from Rochester. After all, no one ever claims that Jane Eyre is the story of St. John’s failed love for Jane.
Too many men!
Jane Eyre is not just a male-female romance (either in the early nineteenth-century or the twenty-first century sense of the term). It is also a novel of female-female romance—or, rather, female camaraderie. Jane possesses the seeds of self-reliance when she’s reading behind the curtain on the opening page, but it is the independent women who enter her life who cultivate these seeds.
In the film, however, these women are all but eliminated. Jane’s only childhood friend and a crucial figure in her early development, the philosophically inclined Helen Burns, offers Jane a roll and, then, a minute later, sweaty skin shining in the candlelight, dies of consumption. Their relationship in between is lost. Miss Temple, a teacher at the cruel Lowood school, the first adult to show any kindness to Jane, and the person who intimates to Jane that she might possess the ability within herself to escape the deprivations of her lot in life, was listed in the credits, but we missed her on the screen. Even Blanche Ingram, who is a fully developed foil in the novel, is reduced to a series of pretty dresses and spiteful comments. And though the handsome St. John lifts Jane off his doorstep and carries her out of the rain in both the film and novel, his kindly sisters play the far greater role in her recovery. Devoid of female kinship, the film becomes a bare-bones romance.
The ultimate failure of this adaptation, then, is its rendering of Jane as “poor, obscure, plain and little,” despite its claims to the contrary. Though it adheres to the novel’s basic plotlines, the film excludes Jane Eyre’s heart and soul—the resilient and liberated inward voice of its young protagonist. And it (happily, but also sadly) ends with a kiss and denies Jane her moment of triumph, where she—inverting the traditional assumptions about Victorian men and women—serves as Rochester’s “prop and guide.”
Perhaps, like Jane musing on her own uncertain future, our “hopes were too bright to be realized.” We left the movie theater disappointed, affirmed in the knowledge that a perfect Jane Eyre film must be a fantasy. Amid the general liveliness permeating the crowd as we shuffled away, we caught a glimpse of a few other glum-looking souls. Oh, well, we thought, at least they understand.
Chloe Schama is the assistant managing editor of The New Republic and Hillary Kelly is the assistant editor of The Book.