Jane Eyre always gets short shrift. Whether from Blanche Ingram and her posse, from her employer who deceives her from the start, or from filmmakers and screenwriters who undermine her authority for the sake of brevity, unfortunately, for our dear Jane, this latest adaptation is no exception. Directed by Cary Fukunaga and starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender, a dear companion remarked that this 2011 adaptation should have been titled The Mr. Rochester Show since Edward gets to enjoy all the great sport and fun that Brontë concocts for her titular heroine.
The film is decently cast. Wasikowska certainly embodies the youth and solemnity that makes Jane Eyre such a formidable force, and Fassbender broods and makes mischief just as Rochester does in the novel, although he is far too attractive for Brontë’s literary creation.
Fassbender and Wasikowska do the best they can to stay true to the story, but they must have been misled by the director. In Brontë’s greatest novel, she draws a fine balance between gravitas and levity that both characters share in their interactions. Their love is slowly and painfully earned through mutual wariness and initial mistrust, until they both let their guards down to discover wonderment and genuine affection that isn’t overwrought with sentimental and over-simplified fancy.
In this film, however, Jane is simply depicted as an injured bird. Though Wasikowska is solid in capturing Jane’s sobriety, Ms. Eyre is a creature larger than life. A universe in herself, the crux of this story is how she bends everyone she meets to answer solely to her principles and her laws. She can be both deadly serious and heartwrenchingly funny, yet Fukunaga fails to reveal this complexity, and there is no levity measured with gravitas. Part of the problem is that the start of the film is rushed in the beginning, and we lose some of the foundational moments that underpin both the humor and incredible intellect that make Jane so riveting since she is so keenly erudite, quick-witted, and clever even before she meets Edward. Fukunaga would have us believe that Jane’s one-dimensional until she crosses paths with Rochester where she gains a second dimension.
While, we’re picking apart the film, let’s note what else this adaptation is missing, which includes Rochester’s faithful companion, Pilot the dog, who Jane befriends at their first meeting. Pilot is the linchpin, an essential link to the supernatural world that pervades this love story. In the novel, Jane’s not afraid as she walks the forest path to post Miss Fairfax’s letter, but she relishes the dark woods and the mysteries that surround her. However, Fukunaga choose to show her filled with trepidation, and, again, poor Jane is underestimated by those who should be championing her. Along with the loss of Pilot, we also miss Grace Poole, who barely appears in the movie and is mentioned probably twice. Even the terrifying scene when Jane is visited in the dead of night by a specter and wakes in the morning to find her personal affects vandalized has been cut completely from the film. Fukunaga seems determined to wring out all the otherworldly spirits that haunt this story.
So what redeems this adaptation, you might ask? Instead of speculating on the occult, Fukunaga prefers to give several nods to Reason and Intellect. Rochester and Eyre repeatedly defend their free will. They are determined to exercise their will to power, which, in a most unexpected way, gives insight into Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Fukunaga chose to include instead what may arguably be the most important part of the book when Jane voices her existential power:
Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.
This adaptation of Jane Eyre doesn’t bode well for the upcoming release of a new Wuthering Heights, directed by Andrea Arnold, which, in all likelihood, has a great chance of being mucked up because Catherine and Heathcliff, as characters, are not mortal, flesh, and blood people. They’re not to be read that way, and to do so is to grossly over-simplify what is essentially a sublime, metaphysical work of art. How can film capture such transcendental phenomenons?
Fukunaga proves once again, how difficult it is to film this bodice-ridden, bonnet-laden era on screen. It’s so very easy to fall into the tropes and trappings of Victorian cliches. Lending a fresh eye to an overly romanticized and oft sentimentalized period is next to impossible, yet Jane Campion manages this marvelously with her stunning work Bright Star, which is a far better cinematic work of art than this Jane Eyre.
Audiences who aren’t familiar with the story may enjoy this adaptation. I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, when everyone around me at the theater gasped after Jane returns to Thornfield Hall. I just assumed everyone knew what happens to Jane and Edward at the close of the novel. The Masterpiece Theater adaptation, with Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson does a better job capturing the lively spirit of Jane and Edward. In this series, we can revel in their sparring and take delight with their teasing and flirtation just as the characters do in Brontë’s novel.
Fukunaga’s adaptation is worth seeing though Brontë aficianados best brace themselves for disappointment. A character so awe-inspiring, who blocks out the sun and manifests her own universe can hardly be depicted through a tw0-dimensional medium. Jane Eyre is someone we know too intimately, so when we want to find her to remind ourselves how bold and daring we can and should be despite our background and misgivings, all we need do is open up Brontë’s book and be awestruck once again.
Check out a BBC interview with China Mieville, who includes Jane Eyre in the Books That Made Me.
Seen the new adaptation? Have a favorite version of your own? We’d love to hear your responses. Please join the conversation at the salon.