Welcome to By The Book. Every fortnight, we’ll compare a book with its visual adaptation. Are they faithful and delightful partners in storytelling or are the authors turning in their graves through these unholy versions of their work? Tune in every fortnight to find out…
It’s time to pair another English classic with its latest adaptation: Jane Eyre, the 1847 novel by Charlotte Brontë, and the 2011 film starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. It tells the tale of eponymous orphan Jane, who takes a position as governess at Thornfield Hall and falls in love with the master, Mr. Rochester – who, as every Byronic hero must, hides a dark secret within the manor’s walls.
Poor, obscure, plain and little
The most vital ingredient of any Jane Eyre adaptation is its heroine. From Marie Eline in 1910 through to Joan Fontaine, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Ruth Wilson in 2006, she’s an element that can’t be compromised. In some ways, casting Mia Wasikowska is a surprise – she was an uninspiring lead in Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, but here her quiet, measured look is perfect. The novel is first-person, cutting a window into Jane’s thoughts and passions, so on film the actress must capture that inner monologue through wordless performance. Wasikowska’s physical appearance is almost colourless, with her pale skin and large, pale eyes, and the effect is glasslike – beneath the “poor, obscure, plain” surface, she reflects Jane’s fiery nature in gestures, looks, and inflections. Her Yorkshire accent is rather good (Wasikowska is Australian), and she keeps her words lilting and controlled or cracked with emotion as needed. There’s always a danger of making Jane flat or uninteresting, but Wasikowska strikes the perfect balance, and so achieves the perfect performance.
All energy, decision, will
If Jane is the most vital ingredient, Mr. Rochester acts as the foil. Most famously played by Orson Welles (1944), he’s had his fair share of variety: William Hurt, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Stephens. Partnering Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender oozes not just the magnetism of the character but the intensity and intimidation. He’s changeable and dangerous – something that gets lost in more jovial or solemn interpretations. He’s a little too handsome for a man described as having a “square, massive brow, broad and jetty eyebrows… [and a] firm, grim mouth”, but the uglier parts of the character – his rages, selfishness, and volatility – are on show to make up for it. Rochester is too often turned into an angry but harmless romantic hero, but Fassbender captures his darker elements and creates a performance that is equal parts lover and threat. His chemistry with Wasikowska is also off-the-charts – every exchange between them crackles with tension, from their initial meeting to their growing attraction and the madness that follows. It’s the perfect pairing, anchoring the film and keeping attentions riveted throughout.
“I think the skill of the adaptor is to make the joins invisible.”
Moira Buffini’s script is itself an utter delight. Though it can’t include the entire 500-page book, the omissions are unnoticed and the flow of the story intact – despite a completely new structure. Buffini takes a drastic left turn by starting two-thirds of the way through, presenting the bulk of the novel in flashback. It’s a genius move; Buffini realised that St. John, Diana, and Mary Rivers wouldn’t appear until “20 minutes away from the end – a terrible time to start introducing major new characters.” The Rivers family have invariably been the weak point of many adaptations – Zeffirelli’s 1996 film cut St. John out almost completely, severing Jane’s connection to him – but this reordering of events allows these two important relationships to develop in parallel and work as foils to one another, the way the novel originally intended.
What would Charlotte Brontë think?
For its time, Jane Eyre is a measured but radical protest against Victorian morality and the constraints that women found themselves in – it’s not for nothing that the book is often lauded as the proto-feminist novel – and one of the hardest things to balance is Brontë’s forward-thinking but ultimately Victorian viewpoint with our own much more free-thinking society. Even the BBC did a little “sexing up“, but what this often ignores is the inherent sexual – or rather, sensual – tone of the novel. Brontë weaved passion into her prose without ever exposing so much as an ankle, and Cary Fukunaga’s film grabs the chemistry between its two leads and does the same. There are little moments – several incidents expose Jane and Rochester to one another in their nightclothes – but overall the clergyman’s daughter would probably approve of this film’s subtler sensuality.
What might really win the film for Brontë is director Cary Fukunaga’s embracing of its Gothic nature. “There’s been something like 24 adaptations,” Fukunaga said, “and it’s very rare that you see those sorts of darker sides. They treat it like it’s just a period romance and I think it’s much more than that.” Classics by female writers are often pigeon-holed into romantic drama, so to see her careful use of Gothic tropes brought back to the fore would no doubt win Brontë’s affection.
These days it can be nigh-on impossible to provide a fresh retelling of a literary classic, but the combination of Buffini’s script, Fukunaga’s direction, and perfect casting has resulted in what is (in this Jane Eyre addict’s opinion) a near-perfect adaptation. Not too close to the book nor too far removed, it captures and translates that intangible thing that makes the book so well-loved: its spirit.