A Jane By Any Other Name

Last week I started reading Jane Eyre since we made plans to see the new movie adaptation, directed by Cary Fukunaga. I had read Jane Eyre many years ago, but didn’t have a good memory of it at all, which became more and more apparent while Mark was reading it for one of his classes this semester. I finished the book the day before we went to see the movie and loved the story all over again.

Before I go on, let’s just get some things clear: First, I do not expect a movie to strictly adhere to any book it might be based on, especially if said book would require an epically long film or miniseries to squeeze in every last character and story thread. I don’t think movies *should* try to follow the book closely because a movie is a different animal altogether.   Secondly, here be spoilers. Lots of spoilers. About book and movie. So if you’re planning to either read the book or see the movie soon, just go ahead and add this little blog post to your Read It Later or Instapaper and we’ll meet again sometime.

Okay then. You caught that part about the spoilers, right?  Just checking.

Let’s start with the casting.  In short:
Jane (Mia Wasikowska) – too timid, not enough “direct glare” as she’s famous for in the book. Though the kid playing young Jane was perfect, I thought.
Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender) – too handsome, but the voice was right on, better than I expected.
St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) – not handsome enough, but adapted well. This is a character that could have been simplified into really annoying or really tyrannical, but was handled very well and given a good balance.

The too handsome / not handsome enough complaint might seem petty but it struck me as an important distinction in establishing Jane’s feelings for the two men. On this point the movie actually added a scene that didn’t appear in the book but was superb for the film [spoiler]: when Jane is alone in her schoolmarm cottage on a bleak snowy winter night, she hears a pounding on the door and opens it to find Rochester in all his dark, brooding, sexy glory storming in to kiss her passionately. Alas, it turns out this was just a fantasy for Jane and it’s actually St. John at the door. The difference and disappointment for her is made unmistakable in that scene. Beautiful addition.

Another change that helped the movie was near the very end when Jane returns to Thornfield to find a burnt out ruin. In the book, she hears from the innkeeper at the pub what happened, and Mrs. Fairfax is explained away by a line from Rochester. In the film, Mrs. Fairfax finds Jane at the ruins and tells her what happened. I like this much better. But maybe that’s because I think Dame Judi Dench is the bomb and I loved seeing her show up again.

I found special pleasure in seeing this movie with a crowd.  It was pretty clear that many folks in the theater either hadn’t read the book or hadn’t read it recently. I heard murmurs and giggles during certain key dialogues that came straight out of the book, and one of my favorite moments was when Jane returns to Thornfield and the camera pulls back to reveal the damage.  Audible gasps from the crowd. Loved that.

This is all to say that the film did get some things right. Unfortunately, on the whole, the film was weak. I think it assumed that the audience would have read the book, and tried to fit in pieces from every storyline without actually developing any of them. Where the book had time and space to follow these story lines carefully and develop some delicious tension between Jane and Rochester, Jane and Blanche Ingram, and Jane and St. John, the film just flitted from one snapshot to another without finishing a thought. I wish someone had suggested to the filmmakers, “You don’t have to cover everything in the book.  Leave out the whole childhood, for example, and make the relationship  between Jane and Rochester stronger.” With such a great Rochester, I feel cheated that we didn’t get the gypsy fortune teller scene, or the duet between Rochester and Blanche. In fact, we only see Blanche for maybe 5 minutes? No jealous tension whatsoever.

The filmmakers also seemed to be scared of scaring us. The novel of Jane Eyre has plenty of creepy bits, and to leave those out is to deprive the story of half its identity.  The movie weakened everything that should have been spooky —  the red room at Gateshead was not actually red or dark or gloomy or haunted in any way whatsoever. We never hear a single crazy laugh at Thornfield, just the occasional thump on the floor upstairs. We don’t get crazy Bertha ripping up Jane’s bridal veil. Rochester has both his hands at the end.  Why soften it so much? Why hold back on these parts?

Overall, I guess I have to give it a B for effort. It was beautiful to watch.  If you see it without reading the book, I’d love to hear whether or not it made any sense to you. For me the film, like its Jane, needed to be much bolder.