No movie adaptation of Jane Eyre is likely to please me; the most I can hope for is that I don’t wince too much. Jane Eyre was my first favorite book, the first book I connected to. Our relationship began when I was 14, seeing the Susannah York/George C. Scott adaptation on TV’s Hallmark Hall of Fame. By that all other adaptations are judged.
This 2011 version leaves me cold. It spends too much time setting the scene and not enough time developing them. None of them last long enough for them to build or for the characters to interact. Too much screen time is spent moving the characters into place leaving them with only enough time to say a line or two before moving them onto the next scene. While I accepted both actors individually, they are not given enough time together for their friendship, much less their passion, to develop. Mrs. Fairfax may have observed that Jane is somewhat of a pet of Rochester’s but we, the audience, don’t observe it.
I didn’t find fault with the individual performances of Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre and Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester. Their scenes are simply too short and there are not enough of them for them to develop any chemistry. It felt like watching Jane Eyre in 30 seconds with bunnies. Why? Because Jane Eyre has five sections: Gateshead, Lowood, Thornfield Hall, Moor House, and Ferndean Manor. In order to fit the novel to movie length, most adaptations focus on three of them. In trying to fit in all the settings, Fukunaga leaves out any character development and depth within each setting. He focuses on setting the scene. Minor characters like Adele and Mrs. Fairfax get more screen time than Mr. Rochester. It’s as if Fununaga is afraid to approach Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester. (Judi Dench is the best Mrs. Fairfax ever. Her presence overpowers all the other actors, even in this slight and comic role. Hers is the kind of intensity that is required of anyone playing Mr. Rochester.)
As if feeling the need to spice things up, Fukunaga begins his movie 3/5ths of the way through the book and then tells the story in flashback. Does it further the purpose of the story? No. This is a contemporary fetish, overused by people with no confidence in their material to hold interest. It’s as if the director/screenwriter can’t come to grips with the fact that there isn’t a lot of action in Jane Eyre. What makes Jane Eyre enduring are the two offbeat characters and their relationship. Focus on that and the rest will fall into place. If you get too carried away by the fact that it’s a period piece, get too involved in the set and costumes, then it will overpower the characters.
The one upside to this adaptation: if through its fleeting glimpses you still manage to become interested in these characters and this story, then the book will be a delight.
Thoughts on Adaptations
I have certain expectations of movie adaptations.
- That any scene in a the movie is also in the book. Reading the book will add more dimension to the scene, will increase my understanding of the characters and their motivations, will have more dialog.
- The movie will have to delete and combine scenes, dialog, and characters but it will not add them.
Charlotte Bronte romantically had Mr. Rochester do what all women wish our lovers would do. Spend pages recounting how he fell in love over time. I think anyone who wanted to capture the spirit of the romance would take those scenes as a useful foundation and build the story up from it. The camera should not observe Jane walking lonely through the halls and gardens of Thornfield. A movie adaptation should observe Rochester observing Jane.