Jane Eyre Adaptations: The Top Seven

Not surprisingly, the best Jane Eyre adaptations are the most creative ones (the Hammer horror approach of ’44, the Harlequin-gothic approach of ’06), while those which slavishly follow Bronte’s text leave much to be desired (the two early BBC productions, in ’73 and ’83). One thing Peter Jackson taught me is that books like The Lord of the Rings are so complex that literal adaptations are bound to fail. Jane Eyre is of the same breed, crying out for reinterpretation over and over again. To the purists who resist such creativity, the wisdom of Rachel Lloyd bears repeating:

“The most criminal film adaptations are those which avoid interpretation in an ironic attempt to remain faithful to the original text. The literal adaptation does its best to stay true to the text by hanging upon its every word, but as a result usually fails to become a film in its own right.”

And yet purists abound who believe that the text of Charlotte Bronte is holy writ and should be altered with fear and trembling. Frankly, I have already read Jane Eyre and invested it with my own interpretation. The last thing I need is for it to be spat back at me verbatim, devoid of vision, like a stage play; I want to see someone else’s interpretation of this great work. In comparing the following seven versions, we will see Lloyd’s wisdom vindicated.

Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles (1944). 4 ½ stars. If this classic shouts ’40s American mores, the baggage happens to work surprisingly well in context, and on whole Stevenson’s film remains one of the best adaptations to date, personally my second favorite. Fontaine is obviously too old and Welles too young (Jane is supposed to be 18 and Rochester around 40, but both actors were in their late 20s), perhaps catering to sensibilities at a time when couples in love were expected to match in age. And performance-wise, Fontaine lacks some of Jane’s fire, even coming off as a damsel in distress, while Welles is more creepy than Byronic, with his trademark voice, hypnotic stare, and undead demeanor. But all of this happens to mesh perfectly with the film’s intended atmosphere.

That atmosphere is so saturated with gothic menace that it plays like a Hammer horror film, and comparisons to I Walked with a Zombie have been noted by various critics. Thornfield castle is suffocatingly dark, with distorted towers and slanting shadows, and one almost expects vampires to jump out at any moment. This is why Fontaine and Welles work well despite themselves, especially the former whose shy vulnerability repeats her passive role as Rebecca a few years before. The proposal scene is sheer genius, with Rochester almost seeming to mutter evil incantations, over and over again demanding that Jane consent to marry him. The black-and-white medium makes everything work, and as with films like Hitchcock’s Notorious, a color version would ruin it entirely.

Completely omitted is Jane’s self-imposed exile with the Rivers, but given the one-and-a-half hour time constraint this turns out better than trying to rush over Moor House in ten minutes. The omission also allows Stevenson to flesh out the other end of the story arc, Jane’s childhood at Lowood, a horror story in itself, which is given more screen time than most theatrical adaptations: it’s a full twenty minutes. And while Jane and Rochester bond a bit too quickly in the central drama, this is hardly noticed in a film whose strengths lie elsewhere. This is an excellent film by a director who took his source material by the horn and made it his, without betraying Bronte in the process.

Sorcha Cusack and Michael Jayston (1973). 2 ½ stars. This four-hour BBC production is scrupulously faithful to the novel, or at least to the letter of it; how much spirit it retains is a bone of contention, and my contention is virtually none. The production values are bad, much of the acting phony. Indeed, this is essentially a staged play with actors dressed up in costume, parroting lines from Bronte’s text. Jayston delivers his without seeming to feel or believe them, and while Cusack provides a passable Jane, she’s overly theatrical, with constantly raised eyebrows that betray an amateur. Her voice-overs bring down the drama in a major way, as if the production were being made for audiobook. It’s the most literal adaptation of Jane Eyre to date, and while it certainly has its followers, I’m not one of them.

Remarkably, Rachel Lloyd’s critique of the BBC’s Emma may as well have been written for this version of Jane Eyre.

“Literal adaptations of prose texts tend to eliminate the narrative voice by simply presenting the dialogue and actions described by the narrator. Some aspects of the narrator’s point of view may be supplied by either first or third person voice-over, but this techniques remains verbal — not visual, and therefore not filmic. Admittedly, these dramatizations of prose narratives do provide the addition of actors and spaces through which to tell the story. But they also inevitably remain filmed dramas, not films. For example, the 1972 BBC version of Jane Austen’s Emma is approximately four hours long… thoroughly covering every conversation and scene of action from the novel. But it is also thoroughly dull.”

As dull to my trifling taste as Rasselas was to the young Jane; I found myself marveling at how lines taken verbatim from Bronte’s rich prose can fall so flat, but there you have it.

It’s worth commenting more about the first-person narrative strategy. Voice-overs are a tricky business and seldom used properly, becoming lazy devices of telling rather than showing, which defeats the purpose of cinema. When done right they can work wonders, to be sure. The voice-overs of Dexter are a good example of this, reinforcing the bond between the audience and a heroic serial-killer: they’re brilliantly written, twisted and humorous, and have the jarring effect of making us proud to be complicit in Dexter’s crimes. But Craft’s voice-overs in Jane Eyre are completely sophomoric, shat onto an awkward script with no interpretive payoff. They serve no benefit that couldn’t be conveyed through more subtle and artistic acting, something this adaptation sorely lacks.

Lloyd’s critique of Emma targets exactly how I feel about Craft’s Jane Eyre, and it doesn’t help that the same kinds of errors would be repeated by the BBC a decade later…

Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton (1983). 2 ½ stars. Another four-hour BBC production zealously faithful to the text, and the worst thing about this one is Jane herself. Zelah Clarke is way too old — older than even Joan Fontaine. And Fontaine at least fit a particular context; here, in a drama that follows Bronte’s text so closely, Clarke’s matronly demeanor is just plain wrong. (She would have been better cast, frankly, as Grace Poole.) Even worse, she’s meek and whiny, unable to emote worth a damn, and turns out the most disappointing version of Jane on this list. Timothy Dalton, on the other hand, is a mixed bag, showing a breadth of acting ability, and quite intense when he needs to be, but then much too handsome for Rochester. (It also doesn’t help that we know him in hindsight as James Bond, but even if you didn’t know that, the dashing appearance screams wrong.) Dramatic scenes end up having a schizophrenic feel to them, notably Rochester’s proposal and Jane’s “I must leave you”, both of which swell with Dalton but are killed by Clarke.

To top things off, Sian Pattenden is the least compelling version of the young Jane on this list, which is too bad since we’re treated to over fifty minutes of the Gateshead/Lowood storyline, by far the lengthiest treatment ever given to Jane’s childhood. And yet despite this, the most crucial scene is absent: Jane getting into bed with Helen and comforting her the night she dies. The omission is criminal — all other adaptations have it, even the ones which pay Jane’s childhood short shrift.

There is a fascinating history of debate over the two BBC productions, with advocates on both sides unwilling to grant the other much leeway. In my view, the merits and demerits cancel each other. As lengthy productions they do considerable justice (indeed too much) to the written word, though the ’70s version has a better portrayal of Jane. In favor of the ’80s version, the relationship between Jane and Rochester is intense, and with more gothic underpinnings, though the emotional intensity is carried primarily on the back of Dalton. As soon as I get comfortable bashing Zelah Clarke, however, I have to remind myself that the ’70s version is marred by Sorcha Cusack’s voice-overs and a rather lame representation of Rochester. Despite my unreserved loathing for Clarke, I would say that on whole, the ’80s version is slightly better than the ’70s one, though of course I’m damning with faint praise. Neither is particularly inspiring. Both are too faithful for their own good. Their comprehensive treatments are rewarding on an esoteric level only; as cinematic treatments they fall flat.

Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt (1996). 2 stars. Excellent casting goes entirely to waste in this film, which is more an homage to Emily Bronte than an adaptation of Charlotte. While there is plenty of potential in an approach which attempts Wuthering Heights overtones to Jane Eyre, it collapses when the latter’s heart is cut out. For there is no fire between Jane and Rochester here, really no chemistry to speak of at all. Their conversations are short, lacking any sign of passion, that when we get to the proposal scene it feels like a non-sequitur.

On top of this, William Hurt, generally a superb actor, seems to walk through his performance half-asleep, and he conveys none of the moody turmoil that should come through any interpretation of Rochester. He looks fine enough for the role, but doesn’t take it seriously, though given the script I can’t say I blame him. Charlotte Gainsburg also looks suitable for her role, but has nothing decent to work with.

Then there are the sloppy narrative compressions. The “I must leave you, Mr. Rochester” scene is trimmed to the point of non-existence, and as Jane flees Thornfield, Bertha sets the manor on fire at that very moment, thus prompting Rochester to break off from chasing after Jane on horseback; a cheesy plot contrivance. The part with the Rivers is rushed over in seven minutes and takes place at Gateshead instead of Moor House. I have never understood why Charlotte Bronte wrote the ludicrous coincidence of Jane appearing on doorstep of her cousins, but it hardly requires bringing the mountain to Muhammad to solve the problem. The Yorkshire moors are a great part of Jane’s story and can easily be included without her necessarily being related to the Rivers or inheriting her uncle’s wealth (the approach wisely taken in the ’97 version). But Zefferelli’s solution retains the relationship by having the Rivers seek her out at Gateshead, thus ruining the whole point: Jane’s exile is supposed to involve years of isolated soul-searching, not a few months vacation to conveniently inherit a fortune.

Amongst all this rubbish, is there anything positive to say about Zefferelli’s film? The best part is actually Jane’s childhood, which like the ’44 version, is heavily fleshed out over twenty minutes and boasting the creepiest performance of Mr. Brocklehurst to date. And as I said at the start, the film has a creepy overcast in general that puts one in mind of a book like Wuthering Heights. That could have worked wonders in more competent hands.

Samantha Morton and Ciarán Hinds (1997). 3 ½ stars. By far the most controversial adaptation, this A&E production is overly maligned, though certain faults can’t be denied. On the one hand, it’s a breath of fresh air after two stale BBC productions and an even worse theatrical display. But it also stands as a sober reminder that novelty itself isn’t a mark of merit: just because something is creative doesn’t mean it’s good; as it turns out, there’s plenty of good and bad in Young’s approach, which makes it rather hard to assess on whole.

What often goes unmentioned by detractors is that this adaptation is the only one whose Jane and Rochester are both represented by actors of almost exactly the right age. Samantha Morton was 19 when shooting this, and Ciarán Hinds 43, and appearance-wise they fit their characters to a tee. Performance-wise, Morton delivers as good as she looks, and is in fact my second favorite Jane on this list after Ruth Wilson. And while Hinds arguably slaughters Rochester, he is absolutely riveting (unlike the sleep-inducing Hurt) and his overkill of anger and nastiness ironically provides Morton more opportunity to flesh out Jane’s stronger and more independent side, as she resists his brutish will.

The sets and design leave something to be desired, especially the interior of Thornfield which seems too modern. And while I applaud creativity and invention, I’m nonplussed by many of Young’s choices, most notably Jane and Rochester bumping into Blanche Ingram when shopping for a wedding dress. Jane’s childhood at Lowood and exile at Moor House are both rushed over (less than ten minutes each), and it would have been better to scrap one altogether to allow more fleshing out of the other. In some ways I regard this adaptation as the inverse of the ’44 version, which got the characters wrong in favor of pacing, setting and atmosphere. This one fails miserably in pacing and atmosphere, and butchers some of Bronte’s best scenes while inventing bad ones, but delivers great characters with ragingly innovative performances.

Which returns me to Ciarán Hinds. It must be acknowledged that his Rochester departs sharply from Bronte: a snarling beast almost completely devoid of tenderness. This overspills outrageously in the “I must leave you, Mr. Rochester” scene, in which he bellows obnoxious tirades, throws Jane’s baggage over the stairwell, accuses her of never wanting anything other than his wealth, and forcefully drags her out the front door to harangue her some more. This is a Rochester fueled by temper tantrums, but it is precisely because of this that I rather adore Hinds’ performance. His adolescent fits not only heighten the drama, they entertain and gratify (on an admittedly base level), but also draw out some of Jane’s steel, and force sharper questions about what an independent woman finds so attractive about an emotional abuser — which after all, is what devotees of Bronte have been discussing for ages.

Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens (2006). 5 stars. After the go-nowhere BBC productions of ’73 and ’83, Masterpiece Theater hit a home run. This is how you do a four-hour adaptation, by covering all the ground cherished by Bronte fans, but funneling it through a strong vision with plenty of soul. White’s mini-series is indeed flawless in almost every way, with beautiful sets, patient plotting, and stellar acting from everyone involved. Most of us have a version of Jane Eyre we like to think of as our own, and this one’s mine. Ruth Wilson is as close to Jane incarnate as I imagine her from the book, though admittedly more proto-feminist than Bronte’s character. And while Toby Stephens looks a bit too attractive for Rochester, you soon forget that around his perfect deliveries of imperiousness, caged vulnerability, shiftiness, and inner torment.

To be sure, this adaptation is not without its detractors. Some complain that it ratchets up the romance like a gothic Harlequin. That’s a curious criticism, given that stories like Jane Eyre are precursors to our modern romances. What are they, really, other than Harlequins with class, substance, and character depth? More to the point, the liberties taken by White are no way near extreme enough as to betray Bronte’s characters. The scene most loudly criticized is “I must leave you, Mr. Rochester”, which has Jane half-succumbing to Rochester’s passion on the bed, but it’s hard to take this complaint seriously. She doesn’t end up fucking him (the shrill prosecutors practically give that impression); she leaves him as Jane Eyre must, and this makes her departure all the more poignant. It plays authentically, not to mention more dramatically, which is exactly the sort of thing screen adaptations cry out for.

Two small things, however, do rub me the wrong way: the rushed beginning and the hallmark ending. For a drama almost as long as the earlier BBC productions, the decision to cover Jane’s childhood in the space of fifteen minutes is peculiar; two theatrical adaptions on this list (’44, ’96) covered more ground in less room. As for the epilogue, the less said the better; the decision to line up the smiling Thornfield residents for a portrait is painful to watch and makes me wonder if White collaborated with George Lucas (think the ending of the ridiculous Phantom Menace). But these are quibbles and don’t diminish the overall perfection of White’s masterpiece.

Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender (2011). 4 stars. More than any other adaptation, this one assigns central importance to Jane’s exile at Moor House, to the extent that the story is framed around it. It begins with her wandering in the Yorkshire moors until she collapses at the doorstep of the Rivers, and then returns to this setting repeatedly as her childhood and Thornfield employment are presented in flashbacks. While this approach has the alarming effect of reducing Jane and Rochester to a middle term, that might very well be the point. In all other adaptations, about 80% of the drama takes place at Thornfield, but here it’s only 70%, which in itself shows how much weight is attached to Moor House.

Moreover, this is the only version I know of that refuses to supply the happy ending of Jane and Edward strolling in the fields years after marriage, with Jane’s voice-over commenting on Rochester’s healing eye and how he could see his own likeness in their first child. Every single adaptation uses that blissful epilogue except this one. Fukunaga clearly wants to leave us on more uncertain ground: at the point of Jane’s return, Rochester feverishly clings to her, claiming she’s a “a dream” (which comes from the book), and to which our heroine replies, right before the credits roll, “awaken then” (not from the book). “Awaken then” is a loaded command. On the obvious level, Jane is saying something like, “Yes, it’s me, I’m really here,” but I can’t help but wonder if Fukunaga is being deliberately ambiguous, implying on another level that Jane and Rochester should both stop dreaming. Maybe Rochester is just as bad for her as St. John.

In this sense, the film represents a curious thought experiment. Traditionally, Moor House tests Jane in a manner parallel to Thornfield: she must fend off St. John’s advances on grounds that their marriage would be loveless (whereas in the case of Rochester a marriage would be full of passion but illegal). In this film, it seems that Moor House isn’t so much a testing ground, but rather a mundane base from which Jane can reflect on her past — both her cruel upbringing and impulsive love for a brash employer. And while I don’t believe for a moment that Fukunaga wants us to think Jane should have married St. John, he could very well be suggesting that Rochester is no more suitable, which turns Jane Eyre — especially in view of the abrupt ending — into a tragedy.

And quite an effective one, when you factor in the grand visual style and gothic set pieces. There are camera shots from behind Jane’s head to show the world as she sees it, and this modern technique meshes nicely with the period feel. Mia Wasikowska is splendid as Jane (my third favorite after Ruth Wilson and Samantha Morton), of near perfect age, conveying all the appropriate dimensions to the character we know from Bronte’s text. And even though Michael Fassbender is seven or eight years too young, his performance is grand, one of the better Rochester’s on this list.

9 thoughts on “Jane Eyre Adaptations: The Top Seven

  1. Hi Danusha,

    Thanks for pointing me to your scathing review! That's a considerably low opinion.

    I would continue to suggest that Fukunaga's contribution lies in certain structural choices and even omissions that put a different spin on the story, that I think effective. With regards to gothic, it may not excel, but does much better than the A&E version with Ciaran Hinds. I will admit that I wish someone other than Mia Wasikowska got to play Jane: Ellen Page.

  2. Even though Timothy Dalton is too hansom for Rochester I loved his passion and temper for the part. Clarke is good in some parts but mostly irritating. To bad it didn’t have better special effects and sound. I liked the flashback of the 2011 version. Have to watch again to decide which Jane I like best. The first film I viewd was the old Orson Welles and I will never forget the drama. Black and white sure made it erie.

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