Yesterday was Valentine’s Day; a day where you are in one of two camps:
1) You are part of a couple and, no matter what you tell your bitter single friends, this day DOES matter, and you’re psyched to get some extra special attention in the form of candy, flowers, an expensive dinner and…er…”cuddling” long into the night.
2) You are a bitter single person. I don’t care if you tell yourself and others that being alone on Valentine’s Day is no big deal because it’s all about loving YOURSELF…you’re just a little bit lonely (or a lot lonely). Mostly you wish you were getting “cuddled” on a regular basis like your more relationship-inclined friends.
If you couldn’t tell, I’m in the second camp.
Which is why I was inspired to write a post about a gothic love story set on the windswept moors of England. No, not Wuthering Heights. The other Bronte novel—Jane Eyre. After all, if anyone knew how to tell a darn good tale of long-suffering love it was Charlotte Bronte.
Jane Eyre is rife with 19th century melodrama….a governess and her brutish employer falling in love on a lonely estate complete with a terrifying (psychotic) ex-wife in the attic.
Hollywood looks at the story of this Plain Jane governess and gets really excited….
Story about an orphan overcoming challenges to eventually attain her heart’s desire?
Super cool spooky location?
Gruff manly-man that ladies will swoon over?
And, most importantly…people have liked it since the mid-1800s so it’s a safe bet that a decent-sized audience comes built-in.
Sounds like cinematic gold right? It should be…unless writers succumb to the temptation to go over the top on the romance…and that is exactly what happened to the 1943 version starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine.
By the movie poster alone you can already tell that this particular version of Jane Eyre tends to dip more into the melodramatic side of the pool. And by “dip” I mean it gets sucked down into melodrama-land like the woman who gets pulled underwater at the beginning of Jaws.
Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of old movies others may consider a bit corny. My favorite movie of all time is It’s a Wonderful Life by Frank Capra…a film that has been grouped with other Capra classics as being “Capra-corn.”
(If you don’t shed a tear as the people of Bedford Falls sing “Auld Lang Syne” you’re not a human being)
That being said, I was not a fan of the 1943 Jane Eyre. There are a lot of little reasons, which I will get to in just a moment, but the overarching issue I had was with the filmmaker’s apparent belief that the audience was too stupid to understand subtlety. It seemed as if he read the Cliff’s Notes and ignored those wonderful little nuances that put Jane Eyre a step above your classic romance and into the realm of Great Literature.
Of course, you can’t jam-pack an entire Bronte novel into a film and keep it entertaining…unless you’re the BBC and you make a miniseries. But that’s for another day.
This leads us to the ultimate question in adapting great works of literature into a two hour movie: How do you stay true to the original story while “trimming the fat?” It’s a matter of figuring out those crucial elements that make Jane Eyre uniquely Jane Eyre. Does it matter what color dress Jane is wearing when she arrives at Thornfield? Probably not. Does it matter that she was an orphan growing up in a house where no affection was shown towards her? YES.
To me, the biggest problem with this particular adaptation of Jane Eyre was the mishandling of Jane’s character development. Jane Eyre is categorized as a bildungsroman, or a story about the growth of a single character, so character development is incredibly important.
Jane’s early conception of herself is based upon the isolation she feels in a household that doesn’t love her. She is tortured by her cousin John, and yet he gets away with it because in his mother’s eyes, Jane is always wrong and John is always right.
This is bound to create a great deal of anger in a young child, but, more importantly, Jane knows she is being treated unfairly. It is not so much that John hits Jane…it is that he is then rewarded for his cruelty while Jane is punished for being “wicked.” Early on, Jane develops a fine-tuned sense of right and wrong which defines her character and guides her actions for the rest of the novel.
In the film, they showcase young Jane’s anger and bitterness, but fail to highlight the unwavering sense of right and wrong that stems from her childhood injustices. Jane’s character development gets off to a bad start when the filmmaker tells rather than shows the audience the fight between John and Jane.
In the novel, we witness John’s savagery towards Jane and understand her counter-attack as necessary self-defense. When Jane is then falsely accused of attacking her cousin without provocation, the reader immediately sympathizes with Jane and understands why her treatment is unfair.
In the film, Jane is called in by her Aunt Reed and reprimanded for beating her cousin John. Jane, of course, protests and says John started it; however, without the audience seeing the altercation, we can’t be sure of exactly what happened. Since we only know the reality of her predicament through hearsay, Jane is perceived as being argumentative and no better than her tattle-tale cousin.
Later in the film, when Jane leaves her aunt to go to Lowood School, she stands outside the gates and launches into a tirade about how much she despises her, and will never call her “aunt” again. Although the audience senses that Jane did not have a happy childhood under the Reeds’ roof, her declaration of abuses seems childish and even a bit ungrateful.
In the novel, Jane has the guts to air her grievances to Aunt Reed’s face. This goes back to Jane’s sense of justice as she knows she deserves to have her “day in court.” And, notably, Jane’s speech to Aunt Reed focuses on the importance of truth and the lack of it in the Reed household. This continues the development of Jane’s belief in justice and fairness.
All of this is lacking in the film version and Jane instead falls into the Dreamer-Orphan-Wants-to-Fight-the-Odds-and-Improve-Her-Life trap.
Charlotte Bronte’s Jane is far from being a dreamer…life has taught her to know better. Instead, Jane begins to find solace in understanding the differences between right and wrong and where she falls along that line.
Really, the best parts of Jane’s childhood scenes come from playing the “Who’s That Actress” game. For example, Agnes Moorehead is Aunt Reed. Apparently, being a bitchy inlaw is her thing…
And then there’s Jane’s friend, Helen Burns, played by some uncredited nobody…
OH WAIT! That’s Elizabeth Taylor (though she is uncredited). Somehow her eyes are just as striking even when she’s nine years-old and in black & white. And, to be completely honest, she was much more interesting to watch than the poor actress playing Young Jane. This, ladies and gents, is called star power.
But, I digress.
Aside from the simplification and, therefore, ruination of Jane’s character development, there were some other differences worth noting.
Where did the Red Room go?
They don’t show the Red Room scene! The Red Room is significant because it’s the room where Jane’s uncle Reed died, and Jane is locked in it after fighting with John Reed. While inside, Jane thinks she sees her uncle’s ghost and goes into hysterics. Of course, no one lets her out because Aunt Reed is about a hundred times more vicious than Cinderella’s stepmother. Jane eventually faints from fright and, when she wakes up, the doctor suggests she be sent to school.
This scene is important for a few reasons.
From a literary standpoint, the Red Room is chock full of psychological and Gothic symbolism; at least some of this could have been translated to the film version. Nearly ever other movie adaptation I’ve seen includes the Red Room because of these opportunities for symbolic imagery.
Perhaps more importantly, the Red Room is another step in Jane’s character development. The fact that she remains locked in the room despite her desperate cries to be let out shows just how helpless Jane is. Leaving this out of the 1943 version of the film weakens Jane’s status as a victim and makes her hatred of the Reeds seem less justified.
Sad Jane is Sad
There are several ways to play Jane Eyre. Joan Fontaine chose melancholy Jane….and only melancholy Jane. This is a Bronte novel set on the moors of England so, yes, Jane Eyre has her desperate, love-sick moments. But there’s so much more to her character than that. For one thing, a big reason why Rochester falls in love with Jane is because of her intelligence. We don’t get to see any of their witty banter in this 1943 film. Where is clever Jane? What about strong, resolute Jane? Perhaps they were locked in the attic with Rochester’s psycho ex-wife.
There’s no St. John either.
In the book, Jane wanders for days and days after leaving Thornfield Hall. She is close to death when she happens upon a small cabin out on the moors. The kindly women who live there with their brother St. John (pronounced “sin-jin”) take her in and Jane, in an effort to earn her keep, becomes a schoolteacher at a charity school. After a time, St. John asks Jane to marry him so they can travel to India to become missionaries. Jane says she will go to India, but not as St. John’s wife because she doesn’t love him.
Also, when Jane is told she has inherited a long-lost uncle’s fortune, we find out that St. John is Jane’s cousin. Surprise!
For this particular version of Jane Eyre, I was okay with them taking out the St. John episode. As we’ve already established, this 1943 film is already quite simplified and it only would have muddied the waters to send in a batch of new characters.
Instead, Jane returns to her Aunt Reed’s house where the horrible woman is on her deathbed. Here, Jane forgives her aunt, supposedly showing the audience how much she has grown…from a spiteful little child at the beginning of the film, to this calm, benevolent angel of a lady. Well, this would be great if they hadn’t neglected to start this transformation at the beginning of the film. It’s hard to see how this transformation occurred without establishing the foundation of Jane’s moral code earlier on.
(I will note that in the novel Jane returns to her Aunt on her deathbed as well, but before she is about to marry Rochester. And, I think it goes without saying that the reunion is quite a bit more poignant and satisfying than in the movie.)
Private Moments with Rochester
One of the most interesting changes in this film version were the moments where we see Mr. Rochester (played by Orson Welles) by himself. We don’t get this in the novel, as it is told from Jane’s point of view, and I thought it offered something unique to the film. Most notably, we get to see Rochester dump Blanche Ingram and tell her off for being a gold-digger. After reading the book several times, I found this very satisfying.
Welles’ Rochester is a bit more soft-hearted than I was used to. He ridicules his ward and Jane’s pupil, Adele, but later feels remorseful about his treatment towards the spoiled young girl. I’m not quite sure I liked seeing this side of Rochester, but at least Welles made the character his own.
Successful Monster in the Attic
One of the things this movie did very well was playing up the scare-factor. From other-worldly shrieksto shadowy corridors and rattling doors, this Jane Eyre was pretty spooky. And, best of all, we don’t see the scary creature! One of the biggest problems this story faces is how to empathize with Rochester after he’s locked his mentally unstable first wife away in the attic.This movie solves the problem by making poor Bertha a faceless, savage, beast.
(Speaking of Bertha Mason, if you’re a big Rochester fan…don’t read Wide Sargasso Sea. It will alter your opinion FOREVER. You’ve been warned.)
Overall, my recommendation would be to watch another film version of Jane Eyre, or, better yet, just read the book.