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Why Every Film Jane Eyre Sucks

Another Jane Eyre? There have already been, by my very rough count, 3,485 filmed versions of the Charlotte Bronte classic made since the Lumiere brothers first put moving shadows up on a screen--and now director Cary Fukunaga (who apparently saw an over-crowded market and thought, "Me, too!) has added his version to the list. Still, I wanted to see this latest interpretation of the proto-feminist classic, if only to see how badly the screenwriter and director screwed it up.

Does that sound harsh? Let me explain by repeating what almost every film critic (and literary scholar) has said about the book: it is unfilmable. The greatness of Jane Eyre (and it is great, though I wonder sometimes if it's actually good--but that's an essay for another day), almost exclusively arises from two sources: the unique voice of its narrator, Jane; and the enigmatic charm of Mr. Rochester. These two strengths of the novel simply don't translate well to screen, because both are essentially about interiority.

Showing the inner workings of an outwardly placid personality isn't an area in which film often excels. Viewed externally, Jane Eyre is hardly a romantic heroine. Repeatedly described as plain, she is also seen as sullen, self-righteous, and cold--hardly qualities we associate with a romantic (or Romantic) heroine. Yet, because Jane tells us her own story, because we are allowed to glimpse the inner workings of her mind and heart, she is imbued with life, passion, and fire. Jane is possessed of a keen mind and insightful voice which makes her a wonderful first-person narrator--it is the contrast between who we know her to be and how others perceive her that create much of the book's dramatic tension. However, short of just resorting to voice-over every 30 seconds, most of her insight and wit simply doesn't translate from page to screen. In fact, in a rather clumsy attempt to capture that voice, the classic 1944 version, with Orson Welles horribly miscast as Rochester, actually shows pages of the book on screen to supplement the action. Needless to say, it's not 100% effective.

Film would seem more conducive to capturing Mr. Rochester's allure, except for one major point: he's ugly and weird. Well, at least not handsome. His lack of physical beauty is commented on again and again--and yet almost every movie adaptation fills his role with, well, a movie star. Even when he's played by a character actor, he's still far more handsome than written, leading to ridiculous scenes in which Michael Fassbender is told that he's not handsome. Puh-lease. Added to his relative ugliness is Rochester's intense strangeness--he's distant and moody and deeply weird. My favorite scene in the book, where Rochester dresses up as a Gypsy fortune teller for the sole purpose of trying to find out whether Jane likes him, has never been filmed--never. It's simply too bizarre and needy an act, but that's who Rochester is. He's sad and ugly and desperately lonely. Through Jane's eyes as the narrator, his faults are transformed into mysteries. Viewed impartially and unmediated, he's a rather unappealing figure.

An unappealing hero and an unknowable heroine--these are not the makings of romantic cinema. And yet. And yet. The story has spoken to people for generations, precisely because it is such a vivid depiction of the inner workings of the human spirit. It's only natural that filmmakers for generations have tried to capture the book's magic on film. But it's the nature of Jane Eyre's magic that it can't be watched--it has to be experienced. In short, i t has to be read.

Oh, how was the movie? Eh, it wasn't bad...but nowhere near as good as the book.

Comments

  1. We have similar blogging schedules. ;-)

    This is a great analysis. I think a huge problem is the cinema version of Jane Eyre has become so iconic that all other releases are simply a variation of a theme rather than the source material. (The Handsome Rochester always threw me as well - although, to be honest, the whole book got my feminist panties in such a bunch that it never ranked as a favorite of the period.)

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