The Spectrum of Jane Eyre Film Adaptations

The Spectrum of Jane Eyre Film Adaptations | Lexie WinslowThe filmmakers that adapt Jane Eyre are glorified readers. Through adapting the text, the screenwriter and director purposefully manipulate the content in order to convey their interpretation to the audience. Jane Eyre has been adapted for film and television sixteen times in English, with a seventeenth version coming out in the winter of 2009, and has been produced in many foreign countries as well. By 1921, five silent film versions of Jane Eyre had appeared, including two 1914 productions released five months apart. Since then, Jane Eyre retained consistent popularity, with a new British or American version created every decade, along with a few clusters of heightened attention in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and another from 1996 to present. Something about the plain young governess’ plight appeals to filmmakers, as they return to the novel repeatedly, tweaking and revising, in the attempt to make the adaptation that surpasses all others. Of the seventeen existing English-language versions, six are television miniseries, which seems to have become the preferred format of the last forty years. Only two major motion picture adaptations have reached the screen in that time. Television miniseries typically have twice the running time of feature films, usually spanning at least four hours. Since the action of Jane Eyre takes place over a decade of her life, and involves intricate description of many uneventful days in the heroine’s life, the novel is well suited to the expansive storytelling of a miniseries. Adapting it for a two-hour motion picture, however, often presents difficulties, and the plot must be edited in a more heavy-handed manner, with a more drastic expression of the filmmakers’ viewpoint.
Feminist literary critic Sandra Gilbert investigates the agendas of such adaptations in her article “Jane Eyre and the Secrets of Furious Lovemaking” (1998). She takes her title from a line of a damning 1847 review of Jane Eyre: famed Victorian social critic Mrs. Oliphant condemned Brontë’s novel as a blight on society, promoting dangerous anti-patriarchal sentiments and, among other things, flagrantly promoting amoral “furious lovemaking” (Gilbert 354) between the unwed governess and the wedded master. Gilbert and her colleague Susan Gubar produced a groundbreaking feminist study of Jane Eyre and other nineteenth century texts in The Madwoman in the Attic (1979). In this article, Gilbert revisits the novel and its film adaptations, assessing them in terms of erotic content, From the very beginning of Jane Eyre’s post-publication legacy, others felt the desire to adapt the text to a theatrical setting, and even the author herself knew the risk of another’s viewpoint demeaning and manipulating the characters:
When [Brontë] was told of the first of these adaptations, a play staged in London just a few months after the novel’s appearance, her instant reaction was to wonder ‘what…would they make of Rochester?’ and then to fear that what ‘they [would] make of Jane Eyre’ would be ‘something very pert and very affected’. Clearly she sensed the charisma of the interactions between her hero and her heroine, and she may have sensed, too, that along with Jane’s feminist insubordination, her sexual aggressiveness – the indecorous demeanor with which she confesses her feelings to Rochester while rebuking what she considers his indifference [when he pretends to send her to Ireland]…might be represented as ‘pert’ or ‘affected.’ (Gilbert 356)

Despite the commentary within the text on social standards and spirituality, Jane Eyre can be flattened to an overwrought Gothic love story with ease. “Jane Eyre and the Secrets of Furious Lovemaking” came out soon after the release of what is still the latest major motion picture adaptation, director Franco Zefferelli’s Jane Eyre (1996). Gilbert acknowledges the quantity of variety of Jane Eyre adaptations, including stage and musical versions, which are usually “focused on the complexities of its ‘lovemaking’” (Gilbert 356). In general, the adaptations’ preoccupation with romance has influenced the book’s legacy in popular culture, obscuring the socioeconomic and gender-related conflicts also central to the story.
In one example after another, film versions of Jane Eyre simply become romance movies: Gilbert raises a valid point. For any form of adaptation, that has always been the tendency with this novel. The story is long, and the plot is very dense, full of Jane’s thoughts, reflections and musings, so adapters must cut at least some of the material. Often, they go so far as to prune the text down to the love story, and from there add perhaps one more element: Jane’s teaching, Jane’s religious journey, Jane’s vivid imagination; exclusion of Jane’s time at Gateshead or Lowood or Marsh End. The resultant films have a piecemeal quality, as though the viewer must watch all of them to approach an understanding of the novel. A definitive version does not exist because filmmakers strip at least part of the story away. Moreover, it is possible that a definitive version cannot exist because the text is too challenging to transfer to a visual medium intact.
Jane Eyre 2011 Lexie WinslowGilbert pursues the ramifications of the one-dimensional love story adaptations of Jane Eyre, acknowledging that in many ways the romance-focus does a disservice to the book, but actually asserting, on the other hand, that insight could be gained by understanding the passion between Jane and Rochester. The presence of sexual desire in the book, when treated properly, can underscore other subversive elements of the book, like Jane’s latent anger:
In one sense, then, through its portrayal of ‘furious lovemaking’ and its meditation on the dangers of desire, Jane Eyre investigates the problem that even a closely guarded wish for such lovemaking posed to both sexes in Victorian society. From this perspective, the secret in the attic is not simply Brontë’s rebellion and rage against the subordination of women, but also her intuition that the social enforcement of such subordination was grounded in widespread fears of yearnings that, if not properly controlled, could turn into insatiable and deadly sexual hungers. (Gilbert 365)

Gilbert’s passion-attuned reading of Jane Eyre unearths a correlation between the physical attraction Jane and Rochester share and the larger emotional and social ramifications of their relationship. In a way, the consummation of that passion is the driving force in Jane’s adult life: her desire for Rochester tests her in many ways, pushing her to the brink of her respect for social convention, making her choose between her needs and her faith-based conscience. At last, when the “sexual hunger” does turn “deadly” and Bertha dies, Jane can fulfill her sexual needs the socially appropriate way.
Jane Eyre 1997 Lexie WinslowThe conclusion makes sense, yet it is one that is not applied by adaptations of the past. For example, one scene of the book particularly illustrates the clash between Jane’s conscience and desire, as she and Rochester lie on her bed, in the aftermath of the failed wedding. Rochester tempts Jane, suggesting they run away together and falsely live as man and wife somewhere else. Jane refuses to be a kept mistress, and against the temptation and heartbreak, yells out, “God help me!” (Brontë 259). Rochester pleads with Jane; she weeps; and for a few moments they embrace and kiss, as her internal struggle rages. Finally, Jane declares that she “will keep the law given by God, sanctioned by man” (Brontë 240) and finds the strength to leave Rochester, as she believes, forever. This scene depicts the frustration of both characters with brutal honesty, as no secrets stand between them anymore, and they finally face the question: are they both willing to sacrifice propriety for their love? Rochester says yes, Jane says no, and they part. In the aftermath of the dramatic failed wedding scene, this is not a moment that is often translated to film in its full, emotionally wrenching entirety. In fact, every version except the 2006 BBC miniseries abridges the conversation to a brief encounter in the hallway or at the front door. The presence of lust in a screen adaptation of Jane Eyre can in fact be a profitable conduit to the other elements of the plot, yet with so much material to cover, it is an opportunity most filmmakers do not take.
The central problem that filmmakers must confront when adapting Jane Eyre is the translation of the main character’s introversion on screen. As a child, Jane is outspoken and opinionated: every adaptation that I viewed included a fight between Jane and Mrs. Reed, often with Jane screaming at her guardian. According to the novel, learning to control that passion is a central part of her maturation process, as Jane learns reserve after years of discipline at school. As an adult Jane often holds her tongue in public, but she still retains the liveliness of thought she had as a child – she simply narrates her judgments to the reader, instead of shouting them to the room at large. The reader, therefore, is aware of her intensity, in a way that a film audience cannot be. In a literal adaptation of the novel that lacked voice-over narration, Jane would seem very dull visually, since she would simply sit or stand quietly off to the side for most scenes.
Therefore, all film versions of this novel must supply some way to compensate for that deficiency. Some films, especially the early versions, break up scenes by zooming into a page of the novel, letting the viewer read Jane’s thoughts. This method has a hokey quality about it, especially when the text is presented as a page of Jane Eyre, but the words shown are actually unauthentic, written by the screenwriter. In the latter part of the century, more filmmakers utilized voiceovers, to let Jane speak directly to the audience as she sits quietly in a corner during scenes. This technique works to mixed effect. Notably, none of the adaptations allow Jane to look into the camera and speak to the viewer, a technique used in films such as director Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park (1999) for main character Fanny Price. The use of this tactic can be jarring for the audience; however, considering that Jane Eyre often addresses the “Reader” directly in the text, there would seem to be special justification for her addressing the audience in a film version.
An atypical solution to the problem of silent Jane comes from director Christy Cabanne’s Jane Eyre (1934). Here, adult Jane remains as vocal and self-assured as she is as a child. The beautiful, platinum-blonde Virginia Bruce plays Jane as an adult, who somehow manages to come out of a decade at the oppressive Lowood Orphanage (in this version, instead of the novel’s Lowood Institution) with great style and plenty of moxie. This sharp-tongued incarnation of Jane tries to improve the orphanage from the inside as a teacher, but storms out after a shouting match with the nefarious Mr. Brocklehurst, at one point telling him, “You ought to be tarred and feathered, you old ugly crocodile!” At Thornfield, Jane instantly brings calm to the household, as if she is the piece that had been missing from their patchwork family. For example, in the scene when Rochester’s bed is set on fire, Jane puts out the flames all by herself before waking Rochester up – instead of screaming and throwing water from the doorway, as in most versions. To accommodate the alterations in Jane’s character, Rochester is transformed in this version as well, into the doting uncle to legitimate Adele Rochester, an even-tempered and beneficent master. As soon as Rochester realizes his feelings for Jane, he begins the proceedings for an annulment of his marriage to Bertha, offering further vindication of his well-behaved character. At the climax, Bertha simply walks into the crowded parlor as the household relaxes before Jane and Rochester’s wedding. Strangely, this Bertha is stylishly dressed and perfectly groomed, and she greets everyone as though she were the rightful mistress of the estate. Servants usher her away as Rochester calmly explains the situation to Jane, and assures her that the annulment will arrive before their wedding ceremony. Jane is stung by the deception and flees, finding work at the Rivers Poor House. The mission trip to India with St. John Rivers is even presented as self-sufficient Jane’s idea, with St. John asking to be included. However, upon hearing of the fire at Thornfield through the grapevine, she rushes back to Rochester, reclaiming her place in the family.
This 1934 adaptation of Jane Eyre is probably one of the most unfaithful adaptations on film, overwhelmed by the agenda of the filmmakers. The screenplay is one of the few written by a woman, Adele Comandini, who wrote over a dozen films, including Christmas in Connecticut (1945). Jane’s assertiveness jars with the novel, but demonstrates a progressive, independent conception of women. The film has a clear viewpoint, rewriting the plot of the story so that Jane is never abused, imposed upon, or taken advantage of. The story is watered-down in general, as one plot complication after another is shorn off: Adele is the legitimate daughter of the elder Rochester brother; Mr. Rochester is a kind, uncomplicated man, with the Celine Varens history expunged and the Jamaican business barely touched on; even Bertha is presented in a delicate way, as though the audience needs to be guarded from a visual manifestation of her madness. The film is brief, only an hour and two minutes long, and more a self-sufficient Cinderella story than anything else. Considering the year and the content, this version of Jane Eyre is empowering, a reflection of the female screenwriter’s agenda. In the rest of the male-dominated adaptations, Jane never achieves anywhere near this level of fortitude; yet here, it is achieved at the expense of the plot. The film, therefore, cannot meet the challenge of fidelity to the book, and still portraying an empowered Jane.
More often in films, the problem of the silent Jane is dealt with by shifting the focus to Rochester. He is the vocal one, the powerful one, and the one with an active visual life, riding across the countryside and attending parties. At Thornfield, Jane is usually relegated to background witness as Rochester wrestles with his awful fate: truly, all the heartbreak that Jane endures is a side effect from the bigger, darker mistakes that Rochester has to live with. The actor playing Rochester is usually given top billing, which is understandable, since the most important scenes belong to him. The Rochester-centric films, especially the 1940, 1996, and 1983 versions, all hit the same plot points: Jane and Rochester’s first meeting on the moor; Jane saving Rochester from his burning bed; the party at Thornfield; Rochester’s proposal; the failed wedding ceremony, and subsequent visit to Bertha’s chamber. The attention is focused on scenes where Rochester is commanding, and there is plenty of visual activity. They skip the quieter scenes, when Jane and Rochester truly fall in love, strolling the grounds and talking. They leave out playful scenes, such as the gypsy scene, and the argument over Jane’s wages before she departs for Gateshead. Interestingly, they also greatly curtail the conversation Jane and Rochester share after the failed wedding: usually they just exchange a sad goodbye, and Jane runs off.
There is an accessibility to Rochester’s storyline that seems to translate more readily into film than does Jane’s deeply thoughtful, spiritual growth. The similarities in plotting of Rochester-centric films demonstrate a pattern: the audience connects with the busy, visually stimulating scenes of Rochester’s experience. He rides a bucking horse, he sings and dances at parties, in many versions he perches on fences or stone walls and climbs trees. The sequence of events at and after the failed wedding especially lend themselves to cinema: Rochester rages and storms about the church, drags Jane back to Thornfield, and wrestles with his deranged, incarcerated wife. He is loud and physical in this crucial moment, while Jane is silent and in the periphery. Both of their lives are changing, but Rochester is the active one, so he steals the scenes. Creating a Rochester-centric film is an expedient: it condenses and simplifies the novel into a manageable movie plot. However, it does a disservice to the material. Often, the love story is flat: the audience is at a loss to explain the impetus behind bold Rochester and meek Jane’s romance. Even more problematically, however, the story is supposed to be Jane’s own autobiography. That element gets edged out when Rochester takes over three-quarters of the film.
Of the Rochester-centric films, the 1996 version directed by Franco Zeffirelli is the most appealing. Jane’s childhood scenes are some of the most substantive: they include the red room at Gateshead, as well as tender scenes with Miss Temple at the oppressive Lowood School, where she encourages the girls to “find harmony with God” and develop “independence of spirit.” Even in her quiet scenes, young Anna Paquin is arresting as Jane. Her natural screen presence is not shared by Charlotte Gainsbourg, who succeeds her as adult Jane; furthermore, the two are not similar in appearance, which jilts the viewer out of the illusion. Gainsbourg is easily outmatched by a very capable Rochester, played by William Hurt. He encapsulates the gruff, brooding, wounded Rochester, who finds solace in the quiet peace of Jane. His performance is the most emotive of the Rochester-centric films. The depth of his pain is reinforced by the portrayal of Bertha by Maria Schneider: in the confrontational scene after the interrupted wedding, her wraith-like Bertha encapsulates the appearance of true, inhuman lunacy: stalking the room, crouching, staring, and finally charging at Jane with a log from the fire. There is no tension created by the idea of a man cruelly hiding away his wife: it is clearly in everyone’s best interest; moreover, the emotion burden of the situation has already taken a toll on Rochester. Hurt plays Rochester as a man who has been cheated out of happiness for his whole life, and deserves to find that modicum of solace in the uncomplicated affections of Jane.
Gilbert takes particular issue with this adaptation of Jane Eyre, despairing that no film yet has been able to do justice to the mystical nature of the romance in the book. She views the 1996 adaptation as taking the easy way out, treating the novel like “a paperback romance that ‘throbs with the sensuality of a woman’s growing love for a man’ because ‘there is the deep longing of the lonely heart in its every line’” (Gilbert 369). The adaptors’ modern modifications only frustrate Gilbert:
The proposal scene in the Zeffirelli movie is particularly banal. True, it offers erotic intensity. Indeed, the soulful kiss which Charlotte Gainsbourg rewards the avowals of William Hurt was classed as one of the ‘ten best movie kisses of the year’ in a 1996 roundup. But, neither ‘furious’ nor Romantically mystical, the lovers’ embraces are determinedly healthy in a ‘sensitive’ postmodern sort of way, as if Jane and Rochester had separately been taking lessons from Dr. Ruth. And even the madwoman in this film seems trendily sedated, less like ‘some strange wild animal’ than a doped-up housewife in a neatly starched nightgown from a Victoria’s Secret catalog. (Gilbert 369)

For viewers like Gilbert, who have high expectations of what a Jane Eyre film adaptation should look like, the push towards simple romance is disappointing. The elimination of the Gothic danger and violence appeals to modern audiences in general, but for Gilbert it demeans the film of even that level of credibility to the book. Her outspoken opinions demonstrate that Jane Eyre fans and critics have particular standards that they wish films to meet, and that they desire to see particular elements of the novel brought to life, but filmmakers struggle to meet their expectations. It seems as though creating a definitive Jane Eyre feature film might be an impossible goal.
In general, the six miniseries offer more opportunities for Jane’s quiet self-confidence to be portrayed. On the coattails of the beloved 1995 Pride and Prejudice, A&E Television Network produced a Jane Eyre miniseries in 1997. Directed by Robert Young, with Samantha Morton as Jane and Ciaran Hinds as Rochester, this version is arguably the most accurate, enjoyable, and emotionally engaging of all the Jane Eyre films. The scenes of Jane’s youth are brief, and Jane’s personal growth as an adult is given more attention here than in most other versions. This miniseries explores Jane’s struggle with Christianity – at the hands of lauded Christians like the cruel Mrs. Reed and the hypocritical Mr. Brocklehurst, and also witnessing Helen Burns’ martyr-like self-denial, Jane grapples with the idea of a healthy relationship with God. In the parlor scene when she and Rochester are getting acquainted with each other, she rejects the notion of being a devotee of Brocklehurst, and instead harboring more lenient religious notions: “I have read the Bible and decided for myself.” Without going to the extreme of the 1934 version’s liberated Jane, Morton’s incarnation holds her own quiet sovereignty. Jane’s disdain for the unfair rules of society is apparent, not in a rebellious way, but with a subtlety that appeals to Rochester. The love story that takes shape has an equalizing effect: Jane finds a comfortable place in Thornfield’s atypical family, and surly Rochester finds a youthful sort of hope again. Avoiding the brooding, Gothic Rochester of other versions, Hinds portrays a robust and demanding master, who expects his will to be catered to, and who is not easily surprised. Jane is intriguingly deep and calm for this worldly, jaded Rochester. His infatuation resembles a crush, as he urgently seeks out her company, always half-amused and half-frustrated by her thoughts and behavior.
The dark intensity that bogs down other Jane Eyre films is mitigated here, not only by the levity of the romance, but by an additional effort to justify the characters’ actions, and distance them from the carelessness and severity that infects other versions. The failed wedding scene plays out somewhat differently in this version than in the others: Mrs. Fairfax, played wonderfully by Gemma Jones, tries to hint to Jane of the possibility of an unexpected burden before the wedding; after the revelation of Bertha’s existence, Mrs. Fairfax swears to Jane that she never knew Rochester’s wife lived in the attic, stating “I thought it was Adele’s poor mother, gone mad.” Further, Rochester rejects any claims of cruelty towards Bertha to the group in the attic, declaring that he sought out the best physicians money could buy to care for his sick wife, and maintaining that shipping her to a mental institution would have been irresponsible and brutal. The cell even contains padded walls, in another attempt to bring political correctness to the horror of imprisoned Bertha. The most important element of making the Bertha storyline more palatable to modern viewers is Bertha herself – here, truly frightening. This 1997 miniseries is one of the few that includes the veil-ripping scene on the eve of the failed wedding, and it is just as horrifying as in the book, which is a great achievement. This Bertha is tall and large, with jerky, unnatural body movements, truly portraying a mentally deranged person. In the attic after the wedding, Rochester is tender with her, kissing his ill wife on the top of the head. She seems to grab a moment of lucidity, and eagerly flashes her breasts at him. When he dissuades her, she turns violent. The inclusion of a truly mentally incapacitated Bertha justifies Rochester’s actions to a further extent than other versions are able to achieve: the modern audience is able to let go of their lingering distaste of his possible spousal abuse, leaving him only guilty of betraying Jane’s trust, which in the end may be forgivable.
Perhaps an indication that the adaptations improve with each attempt, the 2006 BBC miniseries also deserves acknowledgment for capable storytelling. Jane in this incarnation retains a relatively large amount of the religious focus of the 1997 adaptation, but her fantasy life is also portrayed to the greatest extent yet. The film begins with a sweeping shot of a desert, and young Jane (portrayed by Georgie Henley) dressed in lavish Moroccan clothing, walking along the top of a sand dune. She looks at the camera and smiles, before the shot snaps to the window seat in the library of Gateshead, where the young Jane is actually curled up with her book, letting her imagination wander. The rest of the miniseries incorporates Jane’s strange dreams, and in tense moments utilizes disorienting camera techniques (rapidly zooming in and out, or distorting images, giving a sense of dizziness) to emphasize Jane’s almost preternatural combination of intuition and imagination. Although Jane never addresses the camera or provides any voiceover, these elements of the screenplay and cinematography keep the viewer connected to Jane’s internal state.
The 2006 BBC version’s other success is the chemistry between Jane, played by Ruth Wilson as an adult, and Rochester, portrayed by Toby Stephens. Most of the credit goes to Stephens, who plays a very likable, but not blameless, Rochester. Repeatedly, Rochester points out to Jane that others forced him into bad situations; his experiences as a young man leave him bitter, with a sarcastic edge that at least allows him to find humor in his circumstances. That sarcasm forges a bond between the master and the governess: he grows fond of teasing her, and she enjoys sharing smiles and laughter in her daily life for the first time. Rather than playing the part in a stodgy or world-weary way, Stephens’ Rochester more closely resembles a stunted teenager. In flashbacks, the audience sees him as a young man in Jamaica, hoodwinked into marriage, heartbroken as he walks in on his wife having sex with servants, and witnesses her swift departure from sanity. Rochester clearly resents his conniving father for foisting such burdens upon him, and he spirals into self-pity and cynicism. After passing over a decade in that mindset, his habits prove too difficult to break: he responds to Jane’s innocence, and wants to immerse himself in her goodness, but he is too well-practiced at self-indulgence and allows himself to form a dishonest relationship with her. While their brief romance lasts at Thornfield, Rochester seems almost adolescent in his chiding, testing, bossy affection for Jane. To reiterate, he is not blameless in this version, yet as a man thrust into terrible situations with no preparation, his later actions appear justifiably immature.
Despite the well-crafted screenplay, solid acting, and similar formatting to the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, this Jane Eyre has not achieved the cult status of that film, nor has any version. There is no consummate adaptation; instead fans of the novel pick and choose their favorite parts of the nearly twenty films, maybe liking one or two more than the rest. Also, despite the sheer volume of film adaptations and miniseries, academic criticism of Jane Eyre is hard to find; conversely, several books in the Holy Cross Libraries prominently feature analyses of Pride and Prejudice adaptations, despite the fact that there are only two true film versions of that novel. The difficulties of bringing the Bluebeard-like plot to a modern audience, as well as finding a way to make Jane’s inner voice heard, seem to stop most versions from reaching their full potential. Bertha’s storyline is watered-down, tweaked, and edited; Jane’s quiet scenes include voice-overs of her thoughts, a technique heavily used in the 1973 version, or the camera cuts to pages of text as if reading the novel, as in the 1944 version. Changes such as these are still unable to fit the content neatly into a modern context, or to give an audience the scope of understanding that the reader gets. Even when meticulously crafted, the amount of hardship and unhappiness in Jane Eyre seems to prevent any film’s ascension to universal favorite for modern female movie fans. Instead, new filmmakers return to the story every few years, constantly attempting to create a better retelling.

Works Cited
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London, UK: Penguin Books, 1996.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Richard J. Dunn. Third ed. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.
Christmas in Connecticut. dir. Peter Godfrey. Los Angeles, CA: Warner Bros. Pictures, 1945.
Gilbert, Sandra; Gubar, Susan. Madwoman in the Attic. New Have, CT: Yale University Press, 1979.
Gilbert, Sandra. “Jane Eyre and the secrets of furious love making”. NOVEL. 31:1. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.
Jane Eyre. dir. Theodore Marston. Los Angeles, CA: Thanhouser Film Corporation, 1910.
Jane Eyre. dir. Frank Hall Crane. Los Angeles, CA: Independent Moving Picture Company, 1914.
Jane Eyre. dir. Martin Faust. Los Angeles, CA: Whitman Features Company, 1914.
Jane Eyre. dir. Travers Vale. Los Angeles, CA: Biograph Pictures, 1915.
Jane Eyre. dir. Hugo Ballin. Los Angeles, CA: Hugo Ballin Productions, 1921.
Jane Eyre. dir. Christy Cabanne. Los Angeles, CA: Monogram Pictures, 1934.
Jane Eyre. dir. Robert Stevenson. Los Angeles, CA: Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 1944.
Jane Eyre. dir. Campbell Logan. London, UK: BBC Films, 1956.
Jane Eyre. dir. Marc Daniels. Los Angeles, CA: Columbia Broadcasting System, 1961.
Jane Eyre. dir. Rex Tucker. London, UK: BBC Films, 1963.
Jane Eyre. dir. Delbert Mann. Los Angeles, CA: Sagittarius Productions, 1970.
Jane Eyre. dir. Joan Craft. London, UK: BBC Films, 1973.
Jane Eyre. dir. Julian Amyes. London, UK: BBC Films, 1983.
Jane Eyre. dir. Franco Zeffirelli. Los Angeles, CA: Miramax Films, 1996.
Jane Eyre. dir. Robert Young. Los Angeles, CA: A&E Television, 1997.
Jane Eyre. dir. Susanna White. London, UK: BBC Films, 2006.
Mansfield Park. dir. Patricia Rozema. Los Angeles, CA: Miramax Films, 1999.
Pride and Prejudice. dir. Simon Langton. London, UK: BBC, 1995.

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The Definitive Pride and Prejudice Adaptation

The Definitive Pride and Prejudice Adaptation | Lexie WinslowIn 1995, Austen in film became trendier than ever, with filmmakers flocking to adapt her novels with more originality and better production values. In that year, director Roger Michell’s Persuasion (based on the 1818 novel) and director Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, a modern update of Emma (1816), were both released, and director Doug McGrath’s historical major motion picture adaptation Emma, Diarmuid Lawrence’s similar miniseries adaptation of Emma, and screenwriter/actress Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility (1811) were filming at that time. Besides the what’s-old-is-new Hollywood-driven trend, the Austen content resonated with an adult female audience. The novels combine sharp socioeconomic insights with rewarding love stories. The books had not been adapted for over a decade, and viewers embraced the highbrow content. While all of these films met success, none surpassed the frenzy induced by the BBC miniseries Pride and Prejudice, adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by Simon Langton.
The 1995 BBC miniseries Pride and Prejudice, running time five hours, was an instant phenomenon, and has only continued to gain popularity in the US through DVD sales and repeat airings on the A&E and PBS channels. The miniseries stars Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet, in a spunky, lovable performance, and Colin Firth as the brooding hero. Pride and Prejudice’s appeal comes from many facets of the production. The cast is talented; the sets are authentic and beautiful; the Regency costumes are spot-on. Film adaptation of this sort is a very purposeful reader interpretation, and in this incarnation the focus is the love story. Everything revolves around Elizabeth and Darcy’s blossoming affection for and understanding of each other. Even the irony of the novel’s narrator is mellowed, appearing mostly in the personal hypocrisy of characters such as Lady Catherine. That element becomes less about social commentary, and more about the fact that Elizabeth and Darcy both have relatives that act inappropriately: each is embarrassed by association at some point, but both are able to accept each other’s familial baggage. The tension builds, as Elizabeth and Darcy feel their initial mutual repulsion turn into attraction, and as one obstacle after another stands in the way of their union. In the end, both partners must be humbled before deserving, and attaining, the other.
The credit for Pride and Prejudice’s unprecedented success goes in large part to Andrew Davies’ screenplay. He respects Austen’s writing, and considers it a particular pleasure to adapt her work. In an interview with Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan for the Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen (2007), Andrew Davies stated that Austen’s plotting is “so good, you just stick pretty close to it” (Cartmell 244). The greatest omission in the 1995 screenplay is the short period of betrothal at the end of the novel, when Darcy and Elizabeth playfully banter, and the Bennets and their neighbors scrutinize the new couple as the wedding approaches. Davies’ new additions to the plot are much more remarkable. Austen famously refused to write any scenes of men by themselves, since she could never actually witness such an event first-hand. Davies felt no compunction about filling in such all-male gaps in the plot. His perspective favors a “pro-Darcy adaptation” (Cartmell 244), since the novel runs the risk of forcing him into brooding one-dimensionality. In the interview, Davies explains that by witnessing Darcy “doing something very physical [such as in the fencing scene], the audience would treat him more like a real person, and not just have Elizabeth’s view, where she only sees him when he’s in a bad mood all dressed up in evening dress” (Cartmell 244).
Linda Troost, who contributes the essay “The nineteenth-century novel on film: Jane Austen” to Cartmell and Whelehan’s anthology, takes issue with Davies’ embellishments. Generally, she disapproves of the preference for visual complexity over fidelity to Austen’s “chatty” text, noting for example that twelve separate shots comprise the “first 120 seconds” of the film (Troost 84). More specifically, the camera’s propensity to focus on Colin Firth’s Darcy draws Troost’s scrutiny. Her analysis concentrates on the “gaze” in Pride and Prejudice:
Davies brought to the surface Darcy’s smoldering passion for Elizabeth, always kept in the background of the novel itself. The camera often lingers on Darcy, now the object of the gaze – standing on a staircase, by a window, in a bathtub, pulling off his neckcloth – and we sense the sexual frustration he feels. His emotion climaxes in the most famous invented scene in the serial, when Darcy dives into a pond at Pemberley as if to cool his ardor. (Troost 84)

Troost illustrates the objectification of Darcy in this adaptation, which she pejoratively associates with “the tradition of looser links to fidelity [to Austen’s text]” (Troost 84). The sexual tension, the physicality, and even the extra attention on Darcy in itself strike her as decisions contradictory to Austen.
Troost voices valid insights about the simmering “sexual frustration” in this adaptation, but her distaste for it is a minority opinion, and her accusation of infidelity to Austen is unduly harsh. Her analysis is colored by entertainment preference: she writes about the 1980 BBC Pride and Prejudice with notable affection, and with the added information that she was in her mid-twenties at that time, the reader might assume that Troost considers that version the definitive adaptation. The remarkable thing about the 1995 Pride and Prejudice is that Davies’ screenplay follows Darcy into the world of men, a fact that Austen purists appear to find distasteful. The majority of viewers clearly disagree. Young women of the 1990s and twenty-first century have no objection to dispensing with Austen’s famous taboo against portraying men alone, especially in this adaptation, since it provides very beneficial insight into Darcy. As his character gains complexity, so does his relationship with Elizabeth, and by association the viewer can understand her better and esteem her more as well.
Furthermore, these viewers embrace the sex appeal that Troost condemns. Audiences of the 1990s were desensitized to explicit sexual content in film and television, and the erotic content of Pride and Prejudice stands in stark contrast to the norm: Darcy is objectified, rather than a female character. The women of the story remain completely clothed, while Darcy repeatedly strips down in bathing, changing or swimming scenes. Moreover, Darcy’s “sexual frustration” is not forceful or intimidating. His “gaze” does linger with loaded emotion, but there is not sense of menace to it. He has no intention of dominating Elizabeth, of using her for his own sexual gratification, or of hurting her in anyway. His “smoldering passion” for her is born out of love and respect. That atypical portrayal of male sexuality becomes incredibly appealing to viewers, as evidenced by the highly sexual nature of the many post-1995 fan fiction novels. Darcy’s physical attraction to Elizabeth has a comforting emotional leaven, and by the same token the realm of Pride and Prejudice fan fiction becomes a safe place for modern women to explore sexual desires.
Davies deliberately taps into that non-aggressive seductive element when crafting the screenplay, understanding that, for the modern female viewer, such an underlying sense of physical gratification would enhance the emotional climax of the film. He explains that his guiding axiom as a screenwriter is that “a good book is about [the reader’s] secondary interior feelings, but film is visual” (Cartmell 246). Davies drives towards that objectified, physical, scene-stealing Darcy at every opportunity. Indeed, he considers his creation of for the infamous wet-shirt Darcy in particular one of the highlights of his career. Jovially talking about the scene, he admits that he originally wished for an even racier moment:
I wanted him to dive in totally naked, which was part of my scheme for getting the leading characters out of their posh tight restrictive clothes as often as possible, but for some reason, perhaps because it would have been a very tedious and elaborate strip tease anyway, he didn’t dive in naked, he dived in with his shirt on, and so gave us this scene. (Cartmell 246)

Davies’ desire to bring a dash of scandal to Pride and Prejudice certainly paid off with viewers, who appreciated the very modern sex appeal, to put it mildly. Besides simply taking advantage of a handsome lead actor, however, Davies’ choices are very telling about the interests of his audience. By “getting the leading characters out of their…clothes as often as possible” through many toilette and nighttime scenes, Davies reminds the audience of the commonalities between Regency and modern-day young men and women. Some of the most important emotions of the story are expressed in the bathing or bedclothes scenes: longing, frustration, lust, jealousy, disappointment. Despite the differences in speech and dress, those emotions hold true in any time period, a fact that Davies adeptly portrays.
Critics like Troost have a point that a “pro-Darcy” script, as Davies calls it, distracts from other elements of Austen’s novel. In many ways, Darcy is a peripheral figure in Elizabeth’s world, as she attends parties, travels, passes time with her family, and especially while she awaits the outcome of her sister Lydia’s tragic elopement/abduction. Splitting the action between Elizabeth and Darcy means detracting from Elizabeth’s monopoly of the story. Some may find that Darcy even eclipses Elizabeth in this adaptation, especially considering the cover of the DVD, which displays a close-up of Darcy with Jane and Elizabeth sitting in the background. However, the increased focus on Darcy aids the viewer in realizing subtleties from the novel. Through Davies’ added scenes, it becomes clear how powerful Darcy is, how extraordinarily deep his affection for Elizabeth is, and how much he is willing to humble himself to earn her love and respect.
In the UK, the premier of Pride and Prejudice sparked the ‘Darcymania’ phenomenon, which mainly entailed a widespread habit of women spending more time watching select scenes from the miniseries over and over during weekends. The miniseries became a smash-hit, Colin Firth rocketed to stardom, and new viewers became fans of Austen’s novels. Darcy references flooded pop culture, Darcy posters sold out, and everyone demanded more. The frenzy spawned Helen Fielding’s Darcy-obsessed newspaper column that later became Bridge Jones’s Diary (1996). From the compilation Janespotting and Beyond (2004), Monika Seidl’s essay “Pedagogical Approaches to Visualizing the Past and Literary Classics” discusses “the fanatic devotion that people show when it comes to …the immensely popular BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice from 1995” (Seidl 188), noting the staggering number of Colin Firth/Mr. Darcy fan web sites. She summarizes the phenomenon by noting the two-way street between the audience and Mr. Darcy’s famous gaze: “Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy is fashioned into a compulsive spectator for compulsive spectators” (Seidl 191). The compulsion for repeated viewings of Pride and Prejudice slowly spread to the US, although never with the full fury of British Darcymania. The miniseries still airs regularly on cable and public broadcasting channels. Despite the nearly fifteen years that have passed, the popularity of this adaptation is steady, if not growing. The BBC still maintains a web site for the program. On, Pride and Prejudice ranks #294 in all movie sales, and is the #1 television miniseries – figures that are not determined by all-time sales, but sales within the last 60 minutes. Even more remarkably, the frenzy over the miniseries and revitalized love of the original novel spawned a new demographic of authors.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London, UK: Penguin Books, 1996.
Bridget Jones’s Diary. dir. Sharon Maguire. Los Angeles CA: Working Title Films, 2001.
Cartmell, Deborah; Whelehan, Imelda. Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Clueless. dir. Amy Heckerling. Los Angeles, CA: Paramount Pictures, 1995.
Emma. dir. Douglas McGrath. Los Angeles, CA: Miramax Films, 1996.
Emma. dir. Diarmuid Lawrence. London, UK: BBC Films, 1996.
Fielding, Helen. Bridget Jones’s Diary. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2001.

Persuasion. dir. Roger Michell. London, UK: BBC Films, 1995.
Pride and Prejudice. dir. Simon Langton. London, UK: BBC Films, 1995.
Seidl, Monika. “Pedagogical Approaches to Visualizing the Past and Literary Classics”. Janespotting. Tübingen, Germany: Gunter Narr Verlag, 2004.
Sense and Sensibility. dir. Ang Lee. Los Angeles, CA: Columbia Pictures Corporation, 1996.
Troost, Linda. “The nineteeth-century novel on film: Jane Austen”. Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Image via Entertainment Weekly

Classic Novels and the Fan Phenomenon

Classic Novels and the Fan Phenomenon | Lexie WinslowIn Shannon Hale’s novel Austenland (2007), a single woman in modern-day New York City spends her saved-up personal days on a long vacation at an English estate. The twist is, the manor and its staff (all trained actors) belong to the year 1815. The women who visit this resort not only vacate their daily responsibilities, they also vacate their century, checking jeans and cell phones at the door and spending three weeks (minimum required stay) in Jane Austen’s world of parlors and parties. The main character in particular wants to escape her consuming obsession for Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), and especially BBC’s 1995 miniseries version, by submerging herself in the plot and, she hopes, finding a way to move on. She blames the novel for fostering unrealistic expectations of love and happiness, the kind that real boy-meets-girl relationships can never live up to. She is desperate to let Fitzwilliam Darcy go, and to replace him with a non-fictional man in her life.
Pride and Prejudice Lexie WinslowFor many readers today, such a fanatical response is not entirely an exaggeration. For my project, I focus on the fan fiction and film adaptations of two canonical nineteenth-century novels: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). Since publication, these novels have garnered unusually powerful responses from readers. They are now considered reading-list staples, classics, the sorts of books that women first read at a young age and then come back to repeatedly, until the binding wears away. Their legacies involve more than rereading, however. In the last hundred years, both have been explored, manipulated, and reevaluated through the vehicles of fan fiction and adaptation. The readers, mostly women, are insatiable, generation after generation. For modern-day fans, that need is perhaps greater than ever before: they cannot let the books rest; they demand more from the stories and characters. Through published prequels, sequels and companion novels, fans augment or reexamine the original texts. Through film and theatrical adaptations, fans manipulate the story to explore particular aspects, or to amend elements that they dislike. This phenomenon is an extreme, advanced example of reader response. These are the readers who fell in love with the books, whose reading experience changed their lives. In an effort to hold on to that connection, the readers continue engaging the novels in a creative medium.
Jane Eyre Lexie WinslowAusten and Brontë fans both engage in these creative processes, but for different reasons, and with different results. Both groups produce non-canonical creative works: novels in the sub-genre of fan fiction, or film adaptations, works that exemplify the values of readers from the 1990s to today. In the Austen fan creations, it is clear how much anxiety the modern woman feels about family: the tension between individual desires and familial obligations, the burden of motherhood, the difficulty of being a good spouse. For the fans of Brontë, more nuanced social commentaries come into play: cognizance of the marginalized role of women, the oppression of colonized people, the need to develop a healthy sense of individuality, the desire for a rewarding relationship with God.
In the realm of Pride and Prejudice fans, creating fan fiction or watching film adaptations serves as wish fulfillment. Austen’s world is orderly and polite, with a happy ending guaranteed. The droves of post-1995 Pride and Prejudice authors have almost universally created sequels about the blissful first years of Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage. Most writers simply want to expand upon the happy ending, sometimes testing, but mostly rewarding, the main characters. For the fan fiction writers especially, there is a sense of safety in projecting contemporary problems into the Pride and Prejudice universe. Marital troubles, infertility, and many issues of trust and intimacy appear in the fan sequels, with the reassurance that Elizabeth and Darcy will be strong enough to resolve any problem thrown at them.
Conversely, the fan fiction writers and film adaptors that come back to Jane Eyre seek to untangle the emotional, conflicted relationships of the original text, often with a perspective influenced by modern social justice. Brontë’s famous romance takes place in a world full of secrets, pain, and hierarchy. While happily-ever-after sequels have reached publication over the years, most are unbalanced, awkwardly trying to make Jane and Rochester fit into an Elizabeth and Darcy plot. Often, an ill-constructed streak of menace or violence carries over from the original text, resulting in unresolved story lines. The prequels and companion novels of the later twentieth century, in which authors flesh out the troubled back-stories of the characters, are more remarkable than any pure Jane Eyre sequel. Authors often take up the point of view of a marginalized character, reexamining the themes of Jane Eyre in a feminist or post-colonial light.
Additionally, there have been nearly twenty film or television miniseries adaptations of Jane Eyre, all portraying very different interpretations of Jane, Rochester, Bertha, and several minor characters among the servants. For these readers-turned-filmmakers, more effort must go into resolving the novel’s conflicts before the happy ending becomes acceptable in modern terms. The Jane Eyre film adaptations display a wide variety of interpretations about the text, especially Rochester, since his relationship to Bertha must be justified to a mainstream modern audience. Another layer of complexity comes from gender roles, both within the text and for the interpreters: on every feature film except one, the screenwriters and directors have all been men. The single female screenwriter, of Jane Eyre (1934), created a starkly different movie compared to the original text and other adaptations. Film is central to the Pride and Prejudice fan world as well, with the galvanizing 1995 BBC miniseries version ushering Austen into a renaissance. Since the release of that made-for-television version, upwards of fifty companion novels have been published, and three more adaptations have been filmed.
Letters from Pemberley Lexie WinslowThe impulse of contemporary fans to reimagine canonical plots into original creative works is part of an older tradition in literature. Throughout the ages, beloved characters from myths and folktales have been reincarnated in fresh stories. Even in terms of the modern publishing industry, fan-fiction is not a new invention; for nearly a century, readers have written sequels, prequels or adaptations based on Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, as well as other canonical novels. (The first Pride and Prejudice sequel is Old Friends and New Fancies (1913), and the first Jane Eyre silent film adaptation appeared in 1910.) However, the last decade’s sudden increase in computer technology has created an unprecedented boom in fan writing. These authors are readers who have especially deep emotional responses to the texts, and feel the urge to explore that connection through original fiction. Any reader with access to a computer is currently able to type up a manuscript and immediately circulate digital copies to other readers. Moreover, through the advent of self-publishing websites such as, any fan fiction author can have her book printed and distributed as a real novel.
Wide Sargasso Sea Lexie WinslowFrom this high volume of material in the sub-genre of women’s literature fan fiction, I have elected to read only the fan fiction published in book form and sold through national book vendors. Even within those parameters, however, a great diversity exists. Submissions range from the Jean Rhys post-colonial classic Wide Sargasso Sea (1967) to the sentimental, self-published and nationally distributed Pride and Prejudice sequel, Jane Dawkin’s Letters from Pemberley (2006). Although some of the authors I have read used the Internet to produce their own books, most have gone through the traditional cycle, originating as manuscripts, and selected, edited, and published by a publishing house. Regardless of the format, these readers are united as an unusually dedicated group of fans. The original novel stirs them so deeply that they need to create a new narrative to supplement, continue, or reevaluate the story.

Works Cited
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London, UK: Penguin Books, 1996.
Brinton, Sybil G. Old Friends and New Fancies. Naperiville, IL:
Sourcebooks, Inc., 2007.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Richard J. Dunn. Third ed. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.
Dawkins, Jane. Letters from Pemberley: The First Year. Naperville, IL:
Sourcebooks, 2006.
Hale, Shannon. Austenland. New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2007.
Jane Eyre. dir. Theodore Marston. Hollywood, CA: Thanhouser Film Corporation, 1910.
Jane Eyre. dir. Christy Cabanne. Hollywood, CA: Monogram Pictures, 1934.
Pride and Prejudice. dir. Simon Langton. London, UK: BBC, 1995.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. Ed. Judith Raiskin L. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.

Images via Novel Reaction, Kitcher’s Cafe, Squeetus, A Library of My Own, A Lady’s Diversions