On what terms can we judge a film adaptation of a well-loved book? Surely the film is an artistic work in itself and should be judged on its own merits? However much I like this sentiment, I think that there’s no way of utterly separating the source text, and that to judge a film adaptation of a book on its own terms means, at least partly, to judge it in reference to that book. Cory Fukunaga’s 2011 adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s (1847) Jane Eyre is certainly a decent film, but when placed in the context of the much-loved book and the many, many film and television adaptations, it doesn’t fare quite so well.
For those who have never read the novel, what follows is a brief outline of the story:
Jane Eyre is a poorly-treated orphan girl, sent by her aunt to Lowood, a girls’ school where she is treated badly. Years later, Jane leaves Lowood to teach a young girl in the home of Mr Edward Rochester. Though he originally presents as cold-hearted and cruel, Rochester and Jane form a close bond. This is strengthened through the strange happenings at Thornfield Hall, where disembodied voices and shadows float around, fires start from nowhere and violent attacks happen in the middle of the night. Rochester eventually proposes marriage to Jane, who accepts, but is heartbroken when she finds out that Rochester had already taken a wife fifteen years ago – a wife who turned out to be insane, and who Rochester kept locked in his attic. Jane flees Thornfield Hall, running across the moors, and eventually finds a home with kind people who allow her to live an anonymous post-heartbreak life.
Jane Eyre being such a seminal text, I’ll assume that what follows are not spoilers – the people Jane happens upon after traipsing across the moors for days and nights are, coincidentally enough, her cousins. This part of the book is particularly dense and boring, but it serves a purpose. We all feel a bit relieved when she returns to Rochester, refusing to marry her dull, overly pious cousin.
Rochester, meanwhile, has had his mad wife to contend with. She has burned down Thornfield Hall, committed suicide, and Rochester is now alone and crippled. Jane returns to him after hearing his voice calling on the wind, and a touching reunion follows.
Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre starts off on the wrong foot entirely by messing with the chronology of Bronte’s story. The cousins are no longer cousins, just helpful strangers (more realistic, certainly), and Jane’s appearance at their house is the beginning of the film; the point from which we flash back to tell most of the story. This gives the not-cousins far more importance than they need and is a strange starting point.
This is a very short telling of this story – many renditions of Jane Eyre have been television mini-series, and Bronte’s book itself isn’t exactly a quick read. At 120 minutes runtime, there simply doesn’t seem enough time to properly build relationships. When Jane’s only childhood friend died, I felt nothing. Not even “Oh, that’s a pity”. It didn’t feel at all like an event which would impact Jane and her way of thinking for the rest of her life – and if it’s portrayed in a way that I don’t care enough about, why even include it in the film? If liberties can be taken with other parts of the story, why not this one?
Relationships which matter more than Jane and Helen are equally as unconvincing – the main problem seems to be that the plot consists solely of main events, with none of the glue between to make it all believable. Take Jane and Rochester, the central pair. Other than a little “falling-in-love” montage after Rochester has confessed his love for Jane, the two only interact at traumatic times and even then in a stilted way – the depth of their feelings for one another doesn’t seem possible after the amount and nature of interaction suggested in the film.
Aside from qualms with the screenplay itself, Jane Eyre is mostly well-executed. It is cast well, with incredibly strong actors. The lovely Australian Mia Wasikowska is made to look suitably plain as Jane, which is quite a feat. Her acting is subtle, and she embodies the small yet strong-willed proto-feminist Jane perfectly – one of the best portrayals of the character that has been done. Michael Fassbender as Rochester is a bit of a re-imagined Rochester, but one which is permissible – he is far less stern than Bronte’s Rochester, possessing the same quick wit but also an overarching sense of humour and kindness. An altogether more likeable Rochester than any I’ve seen or read before.
I was disappointed by Fukunaga’s approach to the gothic elements of the story, as they’re so central to Bronte’s novel. There seems to be, in the film, no sense of menace behind any of the strange and supernatural-feeling occurances at Thornfield Hall. All the bumps in the night occur in isolation, with no music or particularly eerie lighting – perhaps Fukunaga was aiming for a realistic kind of menace, but it seems to have fallen flat.
The locations and sets are all overwhelmingly pretty and convincing – the moors, of course, are the only thing Jane could possibly walk across with her heartbreak, but the old houses that were used, particularly Thornfield Hall, is decked out with great attention to detail and a lack of exaggeration. The rooms of Thornfield Hall are grand, yes, but exactly no grander than they should have been for a man of Rochester’s standing – the rugs are the right size, the glass wear is nice but not too nice.
Within this particular screenplay of the story, Fukunaga has produced a good film. However, the writing itself leaves characters not fully formed, and questions as to the sense of the action hover over it. It works on its own turf, but up against the whole Jane Eyre oeuvre, a little disappointing.