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
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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.
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