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Oh, the futility! Adapting Jane Eyre

Must adaptations of Jane Eyre be so studiously inoffensive?

When first published in 1847, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre excited a mix of gleeful speculation, wild enthusiasm, and downright outrage. Who was the author—the same person, male or female, who wrote Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey? (Thanks to their androgynous pseudonyms—Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell–it took a while for the three sisters to be sorted out.) Everyone agreed that the narrative was both striking and strikingly told. But was this tale of an abused young woman in love with a married man (with a wife in his attic to boot) distressingly “unfeminine” in conception, or had the author after all managed to represent “perfect womanhood”? What to make of Jane’s passion for Mr. Rochester, a man described by one critic as “a compound of vulgar rascalities and impotent Byronics,” and by another as proof that women were “inadequate” when it came to male characters? Was the Bible-quoting Jane truly religious, “merely moral,” or, in one of the novel’s most notorious reviews, by Elizabeth Rigby, Lady Eastlake, “the personification of an unregenerate and undisciplined spirit“? Even worse, was the novelist setting out to “disgust people with all such as are imbued with strong principles of religion”? Jane Eyre was, to use a popular nineteenth-century turn of phrase, strong meat. If many readers felt that its merit and originality were undeniable, there remained some suspicion that the novel was not, to say the least, altogether respectable.

One would hardly know about the novel’s controversial reception from modern adaptations. Unlike Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre has, with some notable and mostly early exceptions, been treated with exquisite caution. (This isn’t true in literary transformations of the text, of which Wide Sargasso Sea—with the Bertha Mason figure [a.k.a. Mr. Rochester’s insane wife] as protagonist—is by now the most famous.) One of the most startling takes on the novel, Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943), jettisons the original plot, moves the action to the fictional Caribbean island of St. Sebastian, and turns Bertha Mason into a catatonic woman in white whose mental state may be the result of illness…or something else. Now, this is not to say that film and television renderings of Jane Eyre faithfully preserve every core element of the narrative; only Alexander Baron’s 1983 miniseries with Timothy Dalton (rather too dashing) and Zelah Clarke (rather too old) aspires to visualize every major plot element, or so it seems. The caution in question rests in a concerted (and surprisingly consistent) effort to pull back from the novel’s weirdness—a weirdness that resides in precisely the thing that screen adaptations handle badly, a first-person point-of-view. Jane Eyre’s energetic voice—“racy,” in the nineteenth-century sense of the term—is one of the Victorian era’s most distinctive. It’s also potentially one of the more disturbing.

Despite its affiliations with the do-gooderism of the “governess novel,” there’s not much about Jane Eyre that’s “realistic.” Or comfortable. It has delicious roots in the world of fairy tales—Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Bluebeard. But then there are more discomforting elements. The prospect of Jane’s first-cousin marriage with strait-laced clergyman St. John Rivers, considered unexceptionable in Brontë’s time, shocking in ours. Mr. Rochester’s casual discussions about his sex life with his eighteen-year-old employee. (“‘Strange that I should choose you for the confidant of all this,’” he remarks, no doubt forestalling readerly objections.) Jane’s total lack of sentimentality about Adèle Varens, a girl who “had no great talents, no marked traits of character, no peculiar development of feeling or taste which raised her one inch above the ordinary level of childhood; but neither had she any deficiency or vice which sunk her below it.” The vampiric madwoman Bertha Mason. (The jump to Jane Slayre is not as far as one might think.) Jane’s passionate Christian faith, which justifies so much of the novel’s plot structure, combined with an apparent disdain for anything that looks like organized Christianity. And, of course, Jane’s triumphant marriage to Rochester—“Reader, I married him”—which seems worryingly predicated on his missing hand, scarred face, and blindness. Yet if these moments disturb the reader, they also inescapably mold the qualities of Jane’s voice and narrative. The novel rarely gives much quarter to sentimental pieties; Mr. Rochester will not be getting a household angel in his young wife.

In truth, stripped of Jane’s controlling point-of-view and the cultural weight it has acquired, the plot seems pat—even a little skeevy. An oppressed adolescent winds up with an independent fortune and a wealthy older lover, while everyone who has ever thwarted her gets their just desserts? Adaptations have crashed again and again into this particular obstacle, which takes some tricky maneuvering to surmount. As it turns out, we need to go all the way back to Robert Stevenson’s adaptation (1943-44)—heavily influenced, both script- and direction-wise, by its star, Orson Welles—to find a film at least willing to admit that realism may not be the best mode to handle Jane’s story.

The film gleefully explores the novel’s strangeness, its subjective distortions of time and space. Brocklehurst, the hypocritical Calvinist who runs Lowood, the charity boarding school to which Jane is unceremoniously consigned by her guardian, towers menacingly above the tiny Jane, an echo of the novel’s allusion to Little Red Riding Hood’s Wolf. Young Jane does her penance at Lowood in a cold, starkly angled courtyard that diminishes her to nothingness; its dramatic lights and darks prefigure Mr. Rochester’s Thornfield Hall, described in the novel as a “gentleman’s manor-house, not a nobleman’s seat,” here turned into a shadowy Gothic fortress. The camera repeatedly frames Jane in doors, often to signal her lack of agency (our first glimpse of her, locked in a storage closet, or her unconscious entry into Lowood); most strikingly, about three-quarters of the way through the film, we see her from the invisible Bertha Mason’s point of view, as the door is shut and the screen fades to black. Jane may be wearing the wedding gown, but her existence “outside” Bertha’s prison turns ambiguous: who is the exile here? The eccentric conclusion—Rochester living in the burnt-out Thornfield, rather than the much smaller Ferndean—at least suggests over-sized characters. (This ending, along with the inflated Thornfield and the deflated Helen Burns, will reappear in a number of later adaptations.) Rochester winds up haunting his own ruin, until Jane comes back to restore domestic comforts. As more than one critic has complained, the film sends a wrecking ball through the novel’s much more ardent and rebellious Jane; it’s no accident that this Jane loves to go shopping.

Stevenson’s film also begins a pattern of evasions that has persisted right down to the most recent adaptation—or, to turn this around, a pattern of deliberate emphases on the most “normal,” least distressing or shocking elements of the narrative. In Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate, Kamilla Elliott reminds those who grumble about “unfaithful” adaptations that “one often finds the alleged infidelities clearly in the text.” In the last forty-odd years or so of Jane Eyre adaptations, the tactic of choice has been to reconstitute the novel’s events as though Jane does not construct her story, but rather becomes an object perceived by a disenchanted, secular viewer. Stevenson canonizes the habit of silencing the novel’s Protestant framework, replaced with the generalized moral code offered by the invented Doctor Rivers (standing in for Jane’s clerical cousin and rescuer, the absent St. John). As a result, Jane becomes either a proud rebel (against her superficial and treacherous benefactress, Mrs. Reed) or a pure victim (of would-be bigamist Mr. Rochester); she remains morally pure while others sin, even though the novel’s Jane believes that she has collaborated in her own downfall by turning Rochester into an “idol.” Eliminating the Rivers clan, besides getting rid of any disturbing incestuous overtones, further emphasizes Jane’s single-minded romantic impulses—Doctor Rivers clearly poses no sexual threat to Rochester—while short-circuiting both the novel’s running critique of Calvinism and its emphasis on providence. Mr. Rochester doesn’t undergo the novel’s explicit religious conversion, in which he discovers extemporaneous prayer and substitutes “the hand of God” for the more pagan “Fate”; indeed, he finishes up the film blind but otherwise intact, and therefore without the novel’s overt reference to Matthew 18:8-9 (“Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.”) Besides, as the ending comfortingly informs us, his sight comes back—not the partial restoration, with the assistance of an “eminent oculist,” of the novel. Brontë’s punitive vision of disability, in which God “temper[s] justice with mercy,” flips around into its opposite, a belief that repentance, apparently, cures all.

At least some of the later Jane Eyre adaptations have flirted with Jane’s subjectivity, like the 1997 miniseries with Samantha Morton, in which a frightened Jane contemplates herself in the mirror, and the 2006 miniseries with Ruth Wilson, which experiments with camera angles to indicate Jane’s subjugation and emphasizes Jane as an artist—someone who looks in her own right. But directors and screenwriters have consistently opted to strip the plot of not only culturally shocking material (e.g., Jane’s possible marriage to St. John Rivers) but also of its most sensationalist, Gothic, melodramatic excess. Part of the problem derives from the shift from Jane’s subjectivity to the more neutral point of view of the camera; even the Stevenson adaptation rarely shoots scenes from Jane’s perspective, so that Thornfield Hall looks frightening and massive because it actually is.

Most strikingly, Bertha Mason has long since ceased to be monstrous. In the novel, she is a “true daughter of an infamous mother,” says Rochester, who “dragged me through all the hideous and degrading agonies which must attend a man bound to a wife at once intemperate and unchaste”; Jane herself initially describes her to Rochester as a “Vampyre,” and thinks of her in bestial terms. And yet, every Bertha from the 1970 version with George C. Scott to the most recent film has been a more or less attractive but pallid woman, in need of nothing more than a stock film makeover to look presentable. Rochester even treats her tenderly, as in the 1983 miniseries and Franco Zeffirelli’s 1996 film, although the novel merely grants that he refrains from brutalizing her. On the one hand, as Sarah Mead-Willis points out in her essay “Negotiating with the Dead: Jane Eyre in the Postmodern,” this change reflects shifting cultural attitudes to (and anxieties about) race, female sexuality, and the mentally ill, canonized by Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea; on the other, it erases the supernatural overtones of her presence, the vampirism that sucks the moral lifeblood out of Rochester and the rest of Thornfield. Alexander Baron, despite exhaustively mining the novel’s plot and dialogue for the sake of “fidelity,” even makes his Bertha suddenly articulate at the end; the viewer may be inclined to conclude that, given the circumstances, her screams of “I hate you!” reflect reason rather than insanity. Similarly, Mr. Rochester suffers less and less physical damage from the fire—sometimes bearing virtually no damage at all, aside from blindness. (In Zeffirelli’s film, Grace Poole suffers the worst damage—i.e., she dies—leaving Mr. Rochester with only the most picturesque of scars.)

Cary Fukanaga’s recent film adaptation, starring Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska, continues the trend of erasing the novel’s Gothic, even as it also suggests alternative possibilities. It defines itself by its fidelity to the novel’s plot, but, as so often the case, as filtered through previous adaptations: all of the events that have become film “canon,” from fighting with John Reed to being tormented by Mr. Brocklehurst to reunion with Mr. Rochester in the burnt-out Thornfield (a holdover from the Stevenson adaptation), are in place, but zip by with amazing speed. Just as the film’s choice of scenes pays more obeisance to previous adaptations than to the novel, so do its elisions. This is yet another godless Jane Eyre: Helen Burns’ universalism (Brontë’s real-life belief), which crucially shapes the adult Jane’s rock-solid, if non-denominational, Christian faith, vanishes, so that once more, the cure for dishonest romantic love is…more romantic love. Jane is again the innocent victim of Rochester’s would-be adulterous passion. Of course, even Rochester’s past gets played down a bit; there’s only a passing hint that Adèle might actually be his child. (Par for the course, Adèle simply vanishes at the end—which some might find preferable to the novel’s solution, which is to pack her off to boarding school.)

Even more strikingly, the film continues the trend of eliminating the most overtly Gothic elements from the plot: it introduces a vampire legend about Bertha, only to undo it (she’s yet another pretty Bertha); it renders the Red Room incident in cheery colors; it blasts the symbolic tree that marks God’s disapproval of Rochester’s marriage proposal offscreen (enough so that viewers may miss the point entirely); and it once again deletes Jane from the Rivers family tree. Even its moments of inhabiting Jane’s perspective, which open up the possibility that the objective camera is not quite so objective, take the film back toward realism. Jane hallucinates Rochester in place of St. John Rivers, then later hears Rochester’s call as St. John Rivers himself calls her name. In the novel, when she hears Rochester’s mysterious telepathic cry of “Jane! Jane! Jane!,” Jane initially insists that it is “no miracle” but “the work of nature.” But when she discovers that Rochester really had uttered his desperate cry, she suspects that it may have been “supernatural” after all—allusively linking the experience to Mary’s after the birth of Christ. Perhaps miracles do happen. Here, the miraculous gives way to the psychological. Has she actually heard anything, or is Rochester’s cry merely Jane’s own fantasy? Despite the obligatory nods to the Stevenson version, just about anything that might disturb modern viewers has been carefully erased. Unlike the novel’s Jane, this is a film that does not wish to offend.

In Screening the Gothic, Lisa Hopkins comments that Jane Eyre has “achieved paradigmatic status as the classic classic,” which may explain why its adapters have been so eager to keep it distant (far, far distant) from Gothic: when it comes to the classics, realism is the most prestigious mode, not that nasty schlocky horror stuff. And yet, this novel cries out for the surreal and supernatural, like the illustrations in Bewick’s British Birds that subtly haunt Jane’s imagination for the rest of the novel. (The 2011 adaptation does show Jane reading Bewick, but doesn’t work with the imagery to any great extent.) This is not a question of grumbling that “the original was better,” but of exploiting and exploring other, less mundane, elements of Jane’s story. For that matter, Jane Eyre cries out for someone willing to take its ardent but unconventional Christianity seriously. This is, after all, the novel that ends not with Jane’s happily ever after, but the impending death of St. John Rivers, rendered in the language of the Book of Revelation. Is it possible to jettison polite realism for something more shattering, more…apocalyptic?

Miriam Elizabeth Burstein is Associate Professor of English at the College at Brockport, SUNY, where she teaches nineteenth-century British literature. She blogs at The Little Professor.