Monday, June 04, 2012

An Illustrated Guide to Jane Eyre

Surely everybody is familiar with the story of Jane Eyre:  orphaned, raised by an aunt who hates her, she is sent away to a school in which the girls are underfed and treated cruelly.  She ends up as governess to the ward of Edward Fairfax Rochester and they fall in love, but just as they are about to get married, it is revealed that Mr.Rochester has a mad wife he keeps locked in the attic.  Jane runs away and starts an entirely new life with the Rivers family.

Jane Eyre has been made into a movie twelve times, not including early silent versions, Jane Eyre, the Musical,(!) and two foreign adaptations.  I watched only those that are available through netflix, which was quite enough.  These are presented in the order in which I watched them.

Jane Eyre (2011)

This is a restrained and beautiful film.  I loved every minute of it.  Mia Wasikowska is a perfect Jane Eyre.  Michael Fassbender plays Rochester.  I began watching this movie with a bias towards Toby Stephens as the best Rochester, but Michael Fassbender is the sort of person you can't stop looking at.  Judi Dench plays Mrs. Fairfax.  Her presence in any film is like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.

Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester

This is a feature length film, but the editing is done so skillfully, the film is so beautiful, you don't mind that parts of the story have been cut out.  It starts in the middle, when Jane has just run away from Mr. Rochester, and the story is told in flashbacks--an effective treatment.  The scenes from Jane's childhood--the vicious blow to the head from her cousin, the death of her only friend Helen at school are especially well done.  And--bonus--several of the actresses would be perfect to play Fanny Price, if someone ever decides to make a good version of Mansfield Park.  Mia Wasikowska herself would make an excellent Fanny Price, as would Holliday Grainger who plays Diana Rivers.  Everybody in the movie has a wholesome, pink cheeked German look.  Jamie Bell, who is stunningly good as Smike in Nicholas Nickleby, plays St. John Rivers and it's a treat to see him again.

Holliday Grainger--the next Fanny Price?

Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre (2006)

Until I saw the 2011 version, I thought that this Jane Eyre was the best, and it is certainly still a strong contender.  It's a four-hour BBC miniseries, almost as beautiful as the 2011 movie.  Toby Stephens plays Mr. Rochester; more playful than brooding and very sexy.  Ruth Wilson is Jane Eyre and until I saw the Mia Wasikowska version, I would have called her the best Jane Eyre to date.  Pam Ferris plays Grace Poole--a minor character who is edited out of the 2011 version.  She is absolutely fantastic, as she sits calmly sewing, vaguely sinister.  I also have to give a shout out to Cosima Littlewood who plays Adele, Rochester's ward, because she is so fabulously annoying, pirouetting all over the place.  In general, I'm a fan of Tara Fitzgerald, who plays cruel Mrs. Reed.  She deserves high praise for her deathbed scene.  Christina Cole plays Blanche Ingram, the girl that Rochester is supposedly courting.  She seems to have snatched up the bitchy role in every costume drama in the last half of this decade. She was Mrs. Elton in the Romola Garai version of Emma, and Caroline Bingley in Lost in Austen.  Also excellent is Claudia Coulter as Bertha Mason Rochester.  The scene in which she visits Jane's room in the night is truly terrifying.  Having her scream puta at Jane is a nice touch. Overall, I give high marks to this adapation.

Toby Stephens as Rochester.

Ruth Wilson as Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre (1943)

I had my doubts about a glamorous 1940s movie star like Joan Fontaine as Jane Eyre, but actually, she isn't bad.  Orson Wells, on the other hand, plays Mr. Rochester like a sulky boy who's been denied a second helping of dessert.  The movie was filmed in black and white, effective for setting a gloomy mood, and sometimes the cinematography is beautiful. Elizabeth Taylor plays Jane's school friend Helen Burns.  Other than that, this film doesn't have much to recommend it.  Especially obnoxious is the soundtrack, typical of the dramas of its time--loudly clashing horns at the dramatic bits, sprightly tunes whenever someone is in a carriage--it's awful.  The movie follows the story fairly accurately up to the moment when Jane runs away from Thornfield, then crams the entire second half of the story--the part that took nearly two hours to show in the 2006 version, into the last ten minutes.

Jane Eyre (1996)

If I had known that Franco Zeffirielli had directed a version of Jane Eyre, I'd have seen it right away, but this movie somehow escaped my radar.  It's beautifully filmed, but I'm still partial to the Mia Wasikowska version.  Charlottes Gainsbourg is excellent Jane Eyre, and would have been a perfect Fanny Price, if only someone had had the wit to cast her for that role in the 1998 Mansfield Park, instead of Frances O'Connor.  I never would have imagined William Hurt for the role of Rochester.  He's a sad, sensitive Mr. Rochester,  not nearly as sexy as Toby Stephens or Michael Fassbender and there is no chemistry between him and Charlotte Gainsbourg.  Elle Macpherson is Blanche Ingram. She's like a stick figure with ringlets.  Joan Plowright, another actress I like, is Mrs. Fairfax, and Fiona Shaw--famous for playing Harry Potter's Aunt Petunia--is cruel Mrs. Reed.  Samuel West, another one of my costume drama favorites, plays St. John Rivers.  He was Leonard Bast in Howard's End and the rapacious cousin in Persuasion.  Unfortunately, this movie also severely abbreviates the St. John Rivers part of the story.  Anna Paquin is the best of the young Jane Eyres, and that is saying something because they've all been good so far.

Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt as Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester.

Jane Eyre (1997)

This one stars Samantha Morton as Jane and Ciaran Hinds as Rochester.  Gemma Jones, who I always think of as Bridget Jones' mother, plays Mrs. Fairfax.  I'm not sure I like Ciaran Hinds as Rochester, although in general I do like him as an actor.  He certainly gives Mr. Rochester a lot of personality, but they have him tricked out like a Victorian advertisement for shaving supplies, with a ghastly mustache and sideburns that look like bonnet straps meant to tie his hair to his head.  Still, he's Ciaran Hinds, and you can't help forgiving him his bonnet strings.  Samantha Morton can't compete with the other Janes mentioned so far.  Sorry.  This movie is mostly boring.

Jane Eyre (1973)

If there was a famous novel written in the 1800's, the BBC made a low-budget movie of it in the 1970's.  Here, Sorcha Cusack and Michael Jayston are Jane and Rochester.  You can only watch and roll your eyes at the flimsy sets and awful costumes--Jane's nightgown in the bedroom fire scene is so obviously polyester, you wonder it didn't melt.  I realize that Jane isn't supposed to be a fashion plate, but the other movies dressed their Janes with a certain severe charm.  This one wears a white pilgrim's collar like a tablecloth, her dress is too large, and she wears her hair in a ghastly bubble around her head.  Michael Jayston has a certain amount of verve as Mr. Rochester, but I picture him as more suited to a magazine ad for a top shelf scotch.  Actually, he would be perfect as a British version of "The Most Interesting Man in the World."

Like all the early BBC movies, the filming is amateurish--the scene in which Jane hears Mr. Rochester's voice calling to her from miles away made me laugh out loud.  This movie is true to the book, but I'm learning that that's not always a virtue in a movie.

Sorcha Cusack as Jane

Jane Eyre (1934)

This movie is billed as the "first talking version" of Jane Eyre.  Even with allowances made for the general shittiness of the early filmaking industry's adaptations of classic novels, this movie is pretty bad, starting with the overture, which is the tune to a lullaby.  Are we being told a bedtime story?  The movie is only an hour long, so it's understandable that they had to make heavy cuts to the story, but why then did they add incidents and characters that never appeared in the book?  Jane is dismissed as a teacher at the Lowood "orphanage" after she calls Mr. Brocklehurst an "old crocodile."  There's "Sam Poole" a jolly Irish manservant at Thornfield who frightens Jane by driving the carriage too fast.  Later, he turns up at St. John Rivers' soup kitchen and breaks the news to Jane about the Thornfield fire. Adele gets stuck in a tree and Jane has to climb up after her, a perfect opportunity to be gallantly rescued by Mr. Rochester.  Virginia Bruce plays Jane like she's Miss American College Girl, 1934.  In one scene, after hearing  Mrs. Rochester laughing in the hall and being reassured by Mrs. Fairfax, she skips back to her room, smiling, and finishes a letter with, "I think something strange just happened!"  Who is she writing to?  Her sorority sisters?  Colin Clive is Mr. Rochester.  He has as much depth of character as a cereal box.

The Happy Couple

Jane Eyre (1983)

I try to stay away from the amazon customer reviews when I'm writing these movie posts because I don't want to be influenced, but I cracked about halfway through my Jane Eyre marathon and learned that the Amazon customer reviewers consider this Jane Eyre to be The Jane Eyre. Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clarke are Rochester and Jane.  I could tell from the photographs that this was another low-budget BBC affair and prepared to be underwhelmed, but there's something about this movie that grabs your attention.  The acting is good enough that the cheap sets and costumes don't distract you.  This movie has the best Mr. Brocklehurst of them all.  I have seen a parade of Mr. Brocklehursts, and this one made me sit up and take notice.  Here was The Mr. Brocklehurst (played by Robert James).

This movie is not as pretty as the 2011 and 2006 versions, but it is strangely absorbing.  And Timothy Dalton is hawt as Rochester.  He actually outhots Michael Fassbender and Toby Stephens. My one complaint is the long scenes of dialogue between Jane and Rochester.  One's attention will wander.  This movie (11 half-hour episodes) is the most comprehensive in terms of portraying everything that happens in the novel.  I would watch it again.

Zelah Clarke:  the luckiest woman in the world.

What do you think, dear readers.  Have you seen any of these films?  What did you think?


  1. Wow, this is thorough and comprehensive. Thank you for your diligent research and insightful comments.

    I don't know if I'll see any of them, but at least now I know which versions to consider.

  2. I haven't ever watched a screen adaptation of Jane, but I wanted to say YES to your characterization of the 1970s BBC adaptations! We recently tried to watch the one of The Mayor of Casterbridge, which was spread out over 3 DVDs from Netflix. We barely got through the first one before we had to abandon it entirely for another adaptation that was far superior. What was BBC thinking in the '70s? Terrible sets, terrible costumes, terrible acting, terrible screenplays, terrible music. There was nothing redeemable!

  3. Jane Eyre is one of my all time favorite books. I bought it from the old Scholastic book club with money from my piggy bank when I was in fourth grade. I still have that book and re-read it every few years. I have a hard time bringing myself to watch my favorite classic books in movie form. I stumbled upon the Orson Wells version one evening and thought it was nice eye candy, but not overly well cast. I haven't seen another one with the exception of the 2011 version. I suspected that Mia Wasikowska would be a perfect Jane and she was. I also thought Michael Fassbender was a fantastic Mr. Rochester - good looking, moody, dangerous. I loved the costumes, I loved the photography, I just loved this version.
    Now I have to go back and watch some of these other versions too.

  4. The 2006 version will always be my favorite, although I also like the 1983 one. I like Ruth Wilson more than Zelah Clarke, but the two Rochesters are tied. For cinematography nothing beats the 2006 version.

    And now for the negativity: I thought Mia Wasikowska was a wet dishrag, Charlotte Gainsburg was miscast, Samantha Morton thought she was in a modern movie, William Hurt seemed depressed and medicated, and Ciaran Hinds was such a shouter that I couldn't take him seriously. I haven't watched the older B+W versions, but someone mentioned that in one of them Rochester is a lecherous drunk. I think it's not the Orson Wells one.

  5. I haven't seen any of these but the idea of a sexy Mr Rochester surprises me. I always thought of him as old and grizzly and not particularly attractive. Perhaps I need to revisit the book since I may have missed something when I read it 20 years ago.

  6. Good God woman. I hope you don't mind me saying that the whole thing is a tad obsessive?

    It's only a bloody book you know.

  7. fascinating...I love Jane Eyre and knew it inside out....O'level English lit......... I felt Fasbender never really found his Rochester....I will always have a soft spot for the 1943 version as it was the first I saw and rather liked the Zeffirielli one too.....but that's more about my William Hurt crush and Charlotte Gainsbourg pash.....!!

  8. The only version I've seen is the Timothy Dalton version, and it's been so long I don't remember what I think.

    I think I need to re-read the book, actually. Then I can consult this guide and decide which movie version I shall watch.

  9. finally got around to watching the 2011 movie. it was lovely to watch and i did like the two main actors. however, i disagree about the parts that were cut (did Pilot even get a shout out?:)- i realize they can't fit everything from the book in a two hour movie, but i found the movie a lot less satisfying than it could have been. maybe i wouldn't have minded so much if i didn't know ALL the parts of the book so well?! it's possible.
    also it seemed SO restrained, which was true to the book, i guess, but between that and excised parts, it seemed flimsy.
    the meat and potatoes of the book, to me, are the parts b/w Mr. R and Jane (their meeting when his horse falls, the evening talks in the library, etc.) and i wished they could have been longer.
    i really liked the short scene b/w the two of them after Mason is packed off in the carriage. it was probably the clearest (in both dialogue and acting) version of that scene that i've encountered, and marks a definite turning point in Mr. R's attitude. he's showing his true direction, even though Jane doesn't realize it.
    I also thought using the convention of a flashback worked well.
    least favorite part was the end- it was SO abridged. yes, it's a romance and it's no surprise that they get together in the end, but after i invest two hours in a movie, i want the satisfaction of watching it happen!
    my fave, i think, is still the 2006 BBC version, although i was surprised how much i liked the Timothy Dalton version. (how sad for Zelah Clarke that it's thought of as 'the Timothy Dalton version'. i mean, she IS the main character!). ZC was okay, but she seemed too old, to me. TD surprised me- it's sort of crazy for him to play Mr. R b/c he's so good looking (and in the one scene when Jane says he's not, it doesn't really make sense). but he's such a good actor- the melodramatic nature of some of the dialogue could be cringeworthy, but i thought he totally pulled it off.

  10. William Hurt version: wasn't as good as the TD version, but i thought it was all around well done. also felt that the end was too abbreviated, though.
    The Ciaran Hinds one was just painful to watch. i love him as an actor, but i could barely watch both of them stumble through it. i thought the writing was poor, also. i think it's easy to fall into triteness if you're working too closely to the book, and maybe the actors just weren't good enough to pull off bad writing.

  11. I am a recent Jane Eyre fan, as I finished the book only 2 weeks ago and since then I have seen three adaptations. I think I'm a little obsessed ;P
    The first one I saw was the 2011 movie, I really love Michael Fassbender as Rochester, and Mia Wasikowska is THE perfect Jane Eyre. It was beautiful, but I hated the ending, I can forgive everything else except for the bad ending.
    The 2006 bbc tv series I also loved, mainly beause Toby Stephens is such a brilliant Rochester it gives me goosebumps!^^ But the whole adaptation was beautifully done.
    The last one I've seen is the 1983 version wich I finished today and yes Timothy Dalton is quite hawt :P But sometimes it's a little rediculous when he has lines where he refers to himself as ugly, but the man is BEAUTIFUL!So that feels a little off. But otherwise he was an amusing Rochester to me. I cared very little for Zelah Clarke, she had no personality whatsoever.

  12. I've only seen the newest Jane Eyre and the 1983/Timothy Dalton Jane Eyre. And they are both fabuloussss. Although I have to disagree with you about Timothy Dalton. He is super hot, but Michael Fassbender is SUPER DUPER DUPER hot. I've only seen I'm excited to see there are mini-series as the feature length films haven't been able to capture the whole tone of the book (in my opinion). It's gratifying to see that such a classic story has been made so many times into a film though. Not enough people appreciate this book! It's awesome! I want to be Jane!

    Thanks for giving me something to do over the rest of my break. I'm visiting from the manor. Great blog!

  13. Revised:

    Thank you for writing such an elaborate account of the various Jane Eyre adaptations....! Out of mere curiosity did I read through most of the comments and could find some of my own opinions reflected in them.

    I'm just after finishing the 2011 version and where Michael Fassbender is indeed a favourite of mine, (He's from Killarney, almost says it all, but not quite, he's good in all fairness!) but I do not feel the chemistry between Mia Wasikowska and him at all, nor do i think she is a good Jane. I find her expressions emotionless, she has far too regular features and her suffering as a child doesn't reflect on her later on. I find her empty the way I found Ruth Wilson full of that raw emotion.
    There's more of a directness between Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens, they definitely had the right kind of chemistry and Ruth Wilson does have that downward pull of her mouth which actually suggests in the movie that she rarely smiled and felt deeply, the way she allows herself to fall in's closer to real emotion and it allowed me to feel similar emotions while watching it (which is what you want from a movie or mini-series.) Also Gainbrough and Hurt, perhaps missing the passion, were extremely good. Hurt probably the best gloomy Rochester of all...! And their meeting scene is the best. I love the fact he's probably the oldest Rochester cast for the role and how angry and intense he is.... as for the younger Jane's Anna Paquin. Basta!

    Those are the 3 Jane Eyre's I've watched. I do not mind a little deviation from the novel, but in all honesty I find the 2011 one the most annoying in terms of time elapses. Back and forth never really was my thing. Also Mia Wasikowska has a better eye for Jamie Bell than Fassbender. If I had rewritten the story for them in particular, I'd have married Mr Rivers and Jane Elliot/Eyre off to some hot African country. Jamie Bell is very good. Sorry, not impressed with Mia. Lovely girl...just not a Jane...