Page to Screen: Jane Eyre (2011)

Jane Eyre
based on Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Despite the frankly astonishing amount of adaptations of Jane Eyre (16 films and 9 television series), I’ve never encountered any of them—probably because I hadn’t read the book until last month for class. But timing provided a wonderful opportunity for my class, fresh from analyzing Jane Eyre, to go see the film and see how it fared against the book. We went as an optional field trip down to a remarkably tiny movie theater here in Atlanta to go see it. Normally, I try and write my reviews of films pretty much directly after I’ve seen them, but I had to digest Jane Eyre. (This doesn’t mean a thing about the film—I adore Heavenly Creatures, but I also had to digest it.)

Jane Eyre opens with the titular Jane Eyre fleeing Thornfield Hall, before flashing back to her unfortunate childhood and employment at Thornfield. Orphaned as a child, she was left at the thin mercy of her aunt Reed and her son. After finally retaliating against John, Jane is sent to Lowood, a strict Christian school where Jane discovers, for the first time, her inner strength. As an adult, Jane seeks a position as a governess and finds one at Thornfield Hall, in the employ of a Mr. Edward Fairfax Rochester. Jane and Rochester find themselves drawn to each other, but the secrets of Thornfield Hall threaten to tear them apart.

As an adaptation of the novel, Jane Eyre elegantly trims any fat that might confuse or sidetrack a film audience; for instance, the fact that Jane and the Rivers are related is left out entirely, allowing her discovery that she is rich to feel more organic and realistic. While it can cut too far (St. John’s oppressive rationality is left on the cutting room floor), I found it to be a fine adaptation of events. As an adaptation of characters, however, it’s a different beast. You see, adapting a novel so occupied with the internal monologue is remarkably difficult to bring to the screen; consider Atonement and, if you’ve seen it, The Lovely Bones. You can spend as much time as you want on the events of the novel, but there is really no good way to place someone’s deep internal monologue on the screen without resorting to a voice over. It’s a gap between novels and films that takes herculean effort to overcome. I don’t like to say that nothing can be done well, but I’ll just say that I haven’t seen it done well. (Recommendations are more than welcome.)

Because of this, Mia Wasikowska’s Jane is brilliantly acted, but she rarely gets a chance to express the internal battle Jane fights at every moment between the forces of passion and the forces of rationality. We get some glimpses of it—the scene where Jane decides to leave Rochester is fantastic, and a moment where she fantasizes about Rochester finding her in her isolated home perfectly captures Jane’s attraction to him. But otherwise, a lot of it comes through connotation. Because I’ve just read the book, I knew what Jane was thinking and feeling—but a film adaptation shouldn’t come with required reading. As for the rest of the cast, they do their jobs well. Michael Fassbender makes Rochester abrupt and threatening, but also an intellectual man softening upon discovering his soulmate, and Judi Dench’s Mrs. Fairfax is lovely.

Visually, Jane Eyre is stunning—director Cary Fukonaga is also a cinematographer, and it shows. We get lush, expansive views of England, and the film’s opening, where a starving Jane nearly faints at the River’s doorstep after walking miles and miles, is deliriously lovely. I was quite taken with how the production plays with lighting subtly to refer to Jane’s internal struggle. (Though, to be fair, I was looking for it everywhere, since it didn’t seem to be in the film proper.) Daylight is harsh on Jane; nighttime is better, but still oppressive. It’s at twilight and in the shadows that she seems to be the most comfortable, and it’s only with Rochester that daylight becomes warm and inviting. The film also makes great use of Jane’s near-magnetic attraction to windows; Jane is always looking out—at the horizon, watching for Rochester, making herself aware. I also have to mention the costumes; Wasikowska’s severe beauty is downplayed, but Jane’s individuality shows through in the use of patterns on her costume. They’re never solely one color. You have to really admire that attention to detail in a film; I wish every creative artist paid that much attention. But with the internal heart of the story so cloaked, Jane Eyre leaves you wanting more.

Bottom line: Cary Fukonaga’s adaptation of Jane Eyre is visually gorgeous, rich in detail, and beautifully acted—but the problems that always arise when trying to adapt a very internal novel to a very external medium rear their ugly heads and ultimately leaves you wanting more. Worth a watch.

You can read my review of the novel here.

I saw this in theaters.

4 thoughts on “Page to Screen: Jane Eyre (2011)

  1. I generally liked the film, but I wish they had shown more of the shared sense of humor that Jane and Rochester have. That’s easy to convey with a few exchanges of looks, and the fact that they didn’t do that annoyed me. The whole reason I carry on supporting Jane and Rochester in spite of Rochester being kind of a jerk to her is that they enjoy each other’s company so much.

  2. I’m glad to know it’s worth a watch. I was wondering how they were planning to show a lot of the internal conflict with Jane too. Somethings get lost when books are made into movies and internal conflict is the first to go.

  3. Gah, I am DYING to watch see. Sadly it’s not out in Europe until like October, though.

    Also, I agree with you about all the issues surrounding adapting an internal medium to an external one. To me that’s the root of the problem with many book-to-movie adaptation.

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