Adapting a classic novel to the big screen is always a dicey proposition. The screen writer and director have a limited amount of time, yet there is so much in a classic novel that readers depend on for a satisfying experience. Indeed, there is so much that is germane to the internal logic of a novel of depth that the story itself is resistant to adaptation within a two hour format. That was proven conclusively with the BBC film Pride and Prejudice, presented as a television mini-series five hours long.
Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre presents particular problems because each of the three distinct elements of the story warrants telling, yet the third section is difficult to fit into a film. Adapted for the screen by Hugh Whitemore and legendary director Franco Zeffirelli, this 1996 script, like others before it, concentrates on Jane’s childhood and her relationship with the master of Thornfield Hall, but compresses the third part of the book into a few hasty minutes.
For a full synopsis of the story, I refer readers to my review of the novel Jane Eyre. In short, it is the story of a girl, Jane Eyre (Anna Paquin), in the middle years of 19th Century in England, orphaned and mistreated by her aunt, then sent to an impoverished school for girls. She grows up to become a teacher (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and is employed at Thornfield Hall by the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Joan Plowright) as governess for a little French, ward of the master of the hall, Mr. Edward Rochester (William Hurt). She falls in love with him, but he is married to a madwoman, so Jane runs away and is taken in by a clergyman, St. John (Samuel West) and his sisters. The clergyman employs her as a school teacher, but asks her to become his wife and travel with him as a missionary. She refuses and instead goes back to Thornfield Hall, only to find that it has been destroyed in a fire. Discovering that Rochester’s mad wife died in the blaze, she reunites with the man she loves.
Director Franco Zeffirelli is a master at camera composition, use of landscape, and color and this film certainly reflects that. It is beautiful in every respect and can be enjoyed simply for that aspect. Both Anna Paquin and Charlotte Gainsbourg are wonderful as Jane Eyre at ten and seventeen. They look so much alike that they are certainly believable as the same person. That Gainsbourg is made to look plain is a step above most adaptations of the novel and it makes her extra believable in the role. She also infuses the character with the simplicity and independence that make Jane Eyre such a memorable character. The creation of Jane Eyre in this film is really terrific! William Hurt is fine as Rochester, though he is plainly a little too good looking for the part. There are also a few times when I didn’t believe him as an Englishman, although there is nothing glaring about the performance. It is solid, but not overly impressive. The supporting cast is really terrific, especially Joan Plowright as Mrs. Fairfax, Leanne Rowe as Helen Burns, John Wood as Mr. Brocklehurst, Fiona Shaw as Mrs. Reed, Geraldine Chaplin as Miss Scatcherd, Amanda Root as Miss Temple, Billie Whitelaw as Grace Poole, and Maria Schneider as Rochester’s mad wife Bertha. Elle McPherson, the model, also makes a cameo as Blanche Ingram, the society woman set on marrying Rochester for his money.
Zeffirelli spends adequate time on Jane’s childhood, especially in framing the friendship between her and Helen Burns. The middle section that concentrates on the evolving relationship between Jane and Rochester is extremely well done. The affection between them is difficult to achieve, partly because they are such different people, but Gainsbourg and Hurt work very well together and Zeffirelli helps the viewers to see it happening without using words. It is masterfully done.
Whitemore and Zeffirelli take a big chance, however, by introducing the characters of St. John and his sister Mary as go-betweens when Jane’s aunt Mrs. Reed becomes ill before dying. Although it tightens up the plot in a creative way, it also puts in place the means of Jane ending up with them later on and leads the screenwriters to completely eliminate what might be the best scene in the entire work: Jane’s wandering the moors alone after she leaves Rochester. In the novel and in other screen adaptations the scene is extremely powerful. Jane, without caring for her own life, wanders aimlessly, sleeps in a ditch and is at death’s doorstep when she stumbles onto St. John’s home. By cutting out that scene, the screen writers have her go directly to St. John based on his prior association with her and her illness is skirted over very quickly. Likewise, Jane’s enormous confusion over St. John’s proposal is also missing. In the novel, her thoughts on the proposal provide the entire basis for her return to seek out Rochester and that inner logic hurts the entire last part of the movie.
On the other hand, Zeffirelli brings the film in at slightly under two hours. It is a beautiful movie, with many positive aspects to it, not the least of which is the most believable Jane I’ve yet seen. Paquin and Gainsbourg are absolutely marvelous and that means a lot in a story that absolutely depends on the believability of the title character. I find it a little annoying that William Hurt has top billing because his character is truly ancillary to Jane.
It is a good film and should be seen by all fans of Jane Eyre.
This 1847 classic novel both delights and confounds a modern reader.
Told mostly in first person past (with brief lapses into first person present) by the heroine, Jane Eyre, the book was originally subtitled An Autobiography. It begins with Jane as a young girl of ten years as an orphan living with her Aunt Reed at Gateshead Hall.
This film adaptation of the classic novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë was originally aired on Great Britain’s ITV in March of 1997 runs approximately one hour and 45 minutes. Obviously, a great deal had to be cut from the story in order to fit it into that kind of time parameter, but Kay Mellor’s script concentrates rightly on the romance between Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester and the Gothic suspense of Thornfield.
This adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel Jane Eyre was produced in 2011. Directed by Cary Fukunaga from a script by Moira Buffini, this is clearly the best of the recent movie versions of the novel. Ms. Buffini’s script is faithful to the novel, yet innovative in the way it tells the story, bringing a passion lacking in the other attempts.