Jane Eyre: Redux and Reviews

jane-eyre-2011 jane-eyre-2006 jane-eyre-1997jane-eyre-1943

I am a sucker for screen adaptations of classic English literature, especially the works of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. Jane Eyre has remained my favorite story in this genre since childhood, when I first encountered the 1943 gothic B&W movie version starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. Since then there have been many adaptations, for TV and cinema. Indeed, a quick search reveals a wonderful website that discusses them all in superb detail, An Enthusiast’s Guide to Jane Eyre Adaptations. I won’t pretend to be as enthusiastic, but reading a recent review of the 1943 version on a favorite blog that I follow had me in a nostalgic mood to revisit this favorite story.

But which version to watch? As I stared at my DVD shelf, my choices were the following : the most recent (2011) big screen adaptation starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender, the 2006 BBC miniseries Starring Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens, the 1997 A&E TV movie starring Samantha Morton and Ciaran Hinds and the previously mentioned 1943 version.

It wasn’t that hard a choice. The 2006 BBC miniseries is by far my favourite adaptation.  You can watch it on youtube here, to see what I mean. To be fair, Jane Eyre is a novel of at least 400 pages and condensing it into a 2 hour movie simplifies a powerful story. At over 3 hours, the length of the 2006 TV miniseries allows for a rich character driven story to unfold. The truncated movie length results in a highlight reel presentation that favours plot over character, so in truth, there really is no contest.

The story of Jane Eyre is essentially the underdog hero’s journey. In the novel, we meet Jane as a excruciatingly plain 10 year old orphan, rejected by her aunt and cousins and dumped in an orphanage. In this harsh environment she is starved for food and affection. The saving grace is a decent education, enough to secure a post as governess upon her graduation. She is hired, as such, to teach Miss Adele Varon who is also an orphan and the young ward of frequently absent Mr. Edward Rochester. In his employ at Thornfield Hall that Jane finally feels at home, due in part of the camaraderie of kind Mrs. Fairfax , the housekeeper and the affection of her pupil. Mr Rochester, master of Thornfield, is a broody, rough, curt older man who soon takes an interest in Jane upon his return home after many months abroad. He treats her as an intellectual equal and seems to genuinely enjoy her company. But all is not right at Thornfield. What is the source of the strange noises and goings on within? The answer to that question tears Jane away from the first real home that Jane has ever had and yet she survives and thrives. Indeed, despite her lack of beauty or money, her confidence and resilience ensure that she remains an independent woman who manages to carve a place for herself in a harsh world . She is a woman ahead of her time, a real feminist icon.

Jane Eyre is a character study and a gothic romance. The 2006 TV miniseries offers the viewer a beautifully acted and wonderfully paced remarkably faithful (ok, ok there are a few embellishments) adaptation of the novel. Ruth Wilson embodies the spirit of Jane Eyre so well, even if she cannot be rendered as physically plain as the novel would suggest. Likewise, Toby Stephens (more handsome than the novel allows) conveys the complexity of Mr. Rochester’s dark moods and deep passions as never before seen on screen. This longer adaptation allows us to buy in to the love story; whereas other adaptations, especially the 1997 version (my least favourite, watch it here to see what I mean) starring Ciaran Hinds and Samantha Morton left me wondering what she every saw in such an unpleasant harsh man. I still have a soft spot for the 1943 version. The acting is fine and young Elizabeth Taylor dazzles as young Jane’s friend Helen. But the trimming of major thematic elements rank it as my 3rd choice. Check it out here if you are interested.

In addition to truncated character and romantic relationship development, the shorter movie-length versions are forced to eliminate major plot points, which arguably are not essential but dilute the power of the narrative. I would choose the latest, 2011 adaptation (my 2nd choice) over any of the previously mentioned ones. Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender are brilliantly cast in the lead roles. I also enjoyed how the narrative played around with the timeline by employing flashbacks. It was a refreshing novelty to a familiar story.

So if you ever wondered why this story remains a timeless classic and you are intrigued by mystery, gothic romance and a strong heroine and you don’t want to read the book, I would highly recommend checking out the TV mini-series. Especially when it is only a click away.

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  1. Trackback: Black Sails: a Review of the 1st 2 Seasons | What is Ann Watching?

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