Monday, January 29, 2007


Has anyone else been watching the BBC adaptation of Jane Eyre on Masterpiece Theatre? I watched all four hours last night, having taped the previous week’s episode, and I am swooning, swooning. This adaptation struck all the right notes with me – it is suitably gothic, with its flickering candlelight and deep shadows, but also comic: Mr. Rochester’s Byronic brooding is always laced with a kind of self-mockery. Any Brontë adaptation has to strike some kind of bargain between faithfulness to the text and utter absurdity: this one manages to retain some of Rochester’s playfulness (he calls Jane "witch") while editing out the worst of Brontë’s dialogue ("in the name of all the elves in Christendom!").

The principal actors are, of course, far more beautiful than a strict adherence to the novel would permit. Blanche Ingram is positively plain, with her claims to beauty bolstered only by the absurd little rows of yellow pigtail curls on either side of her face; St. John Rivers is dull-featured and boyish, with none of the mesmerizing charisma of his literary counterpart. But for all that, Jane and Rochester are exactly as I’ve always pictured them in my disloyal imagination. On the page, Rochester is craggily unhandsome, but in the film he is almost a pretty-boy, with finely sculpted features and curly dark hair. And yet that look somehow felt right to me: Mr. Rochester, for all his black moods and rude manners, is a woman at heart. He does not don gypsy garb in this film, hiring a woman to act in his stead, but he is womanly for all that, relying on jealousy and manipulation to win Jane’s heart, sulking petulantly at the end when she speaks of her proposal from St. John Rivers. He is governed by his emotions, defined by his romantic relationships – contrary to popular belief Brontë did not need to blind him as a symbolic castration, for his attractiveness was always that of a woman in a man’s body.

If Toby Stephens is the Rochester I always imagined, rather than the one Brontë described, then Ruth Wilson's Jane is likely to be equally controversial. Charlotte and Emily Brontë argued about whether one could write a novel about an ugly heroine, and Charlotte was right only up to a point: her novel succeeds because the Jane we picture in our mind’s eye is never quite so plain as her harsh self-portrait would suggest. Wilson's Jane is small and dark, and from many angles she bears a fleeting resemblance to Charlotte as she appears in Branwell Brontë’s portrait: her face is sensitive and mobile, and watching it reminded me of Elizabeth Gaskell’s claim that Charlotte herself vastly underestimated her own beauty, examining her face critically in repose and overlooking the appeal of its expression and animation.

More than her beauty, though, I was struck by Jane’s childlike vulnerability: ten-year-old Jane is portrayed by Georgie Henley (who played the role of Lucy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), and the eyes of the child look out through the face of the adult: the physical resemblance between the two actors does more than add continuity: it reminds me of how much of Jane’s character remains that of a child. She is forthright and proud, innocent and unyielding. She is a true Peter Pan, a child who never grows up, wandering through the world of adult complexities with a blazing purity of heart.

This is not the first time I’ve noticed that the heroines of my favourite novels are getting younger with every passing year. The Keira Knightley film of Pride and Prejudice had much the same effect on me: watching the film, I was vividly reminded that Kitty and Lydia are mere teenagers, part of a herd of shrieking, irresponsible girls who have been placed in the giddy position to make decisions that can ruin the rest of their lives. The film expects less of the characters than Austen did: Mrs. Bennet, Charlotte Lucas, and even Lydia are given the chance to explain and justify actions that the novel judges harshly. Mr. Bennet becomes a benevolent patriarch in the film, rather than a curmudgeon whose neglect of his daughters is subject to the same clear-eyed criticism that those daughters themselves receive. Austen holds her characters to a high standard and judges them for their failures – but she also judges those who judge, forcing Lizzy and her father to revise their hasty condemnations. The film, on the other hand, understands all and forgives all – it makes a very deliberate choice to be kinder to these characters than Austen herself was.

I am not a purist when it comes to the adaptation of text to film. The Harry Potter movies bore me because they are simply visual representations of the text: they are too faithful, adding nothing, interpreting nothing. It is in their departures from the text that good adaptations illuminate it: even when I reject the offered interpretation, I often feel I’ve come away with a better understanding of the novel. And when the novel is one I’ve read as often as Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice, that is a valuable gift indeed.


Becky said...

I just had a similar conversation with a friend of mine regarding the adaptation of The Lord of the Rings series... I'm curious to hear what you have to say about that one.

I regret that I have never read anything from either Bronte sister. I was always more of a science fiction and fantasy nerd... the closest I came was reading a number of Hardy books when I was in high school.

penelopeto said...

oh cool, i totally kept wondering when the parable to motherhood was coming in, and then i realized that this is purely a post about your bronte fetish!

loved it. and to echo what you write, i could not believe how well, girlish, the girls from p&P were when i watched it again last year. (bbc version, of course)

or, perhaps i'm just getting old.

Mimi said...

I can't believe I haven't seen the KK version of P+P.

But, I get irked when Mr. Bennet is allowed to be the wise and sarcastic and detached dad, sans consequence -- that always strikes me as paternalistic (um, literally). I mean, his girls are mostly dolts, and the ones that aren't, succeed despite his parenting rather than because of it. His moment of realization in the book I have always found to be a powerful one, if because he might so easily have excused himself from it. Hm.

Lovely to think about books ...

Tina C. said...

Yea for Jane. Loved the moors and other outdoors scenes - they were very well-done, and so was the spooky house. mr rochester was indeed very handsome and younger then i imagined him, but this version is much easier on the eyes.

Robbin said...

I MISSED the Wuthering Heights. I am just going to have to buy the DVD's.

I love it when they actually portray the ages accurately. Sometimes it is hard to remember how much responsibility was placed on the very young in all but recent history. It is the one thing I loved about the movie "Lady Jane" about Queen Jane Grey. They portrayed her as she was - just a young girl placed in a very serious place and living out her idealism with fatal consequences.

Beck said...

I disliked the Kiera Knightly Pride and Prejudice, despite thinking that it was a very fine film in many ways - the animals running through the house, the girls' worn clothing, and Mr. Bennet as a regretful, loving man - that scene where he hugs Mary brought me to tears. But Kiera's lantern-jawed Lizzy did nothing for me...
I watched the first half of Jane Eyre. Exhaustion kept me from watching the other half, but I was VERY pleased with what I saw.

Robbin said...

Oops - I meant to write Jane Eyre! I was thinking of picking up and re-reading Wuthering Heights and I had it on my brain.

That's what happens when my finger-brain connections bypasses the reason center.

Kelly said...

You've made me want to set aside the contemporary literature I always seem to turn to, and dig old my dog-eared copy of Jane Eyre.

Scatty said...

You have inspired me to "decloak" at last.

What are your thoughts on the adaptation of Austen's "Mansfield Park". A very different treatment of the typical BBC fantasy. I admit I haven't read Mansfield Park - so I don't know how many liberties were taken. It's more "raw" in its approach and finally acknowledging the truth about why these families were so wealthy - due to success in the colonial plantations. It feels less sheltered (but also less magical) than the BBC portrayals.

The absolute best adaptation I've seen is "The Door in the Floor" - taken from the first third of John Irving's novel "A Widow For One Year". The movie was powerful and haunting... the novel meandering and dull.

metro mama said...

This is one instance where I wish I had cable. I'll have to wait for the DVD.

I agree, I prefer when adaptations are not too faithful to the original. I love it when they update a story for the times (a la Apocalypse Now or Romeo + Juliet).

Mad Hatter said...

Loved the Jane Eyre adaptation for its focus on the supernatural, the emotional, and the sexual. As for the latter--holy heavy breathing, batman. I am still a little unsettled from it all today and don't even ask me what I dreamed about last night. Suffice to say, I felt a need to confess my dreams to my husband somewhat sheepishly this morning.

Where the adaptation didn't ring true for me was in the segment with Saint John Rivers. I do wish the director had taken more time or screen space to develop Saint John's spiritual zeal. Saint John is one of the most icon characters in literature and his presence in Jane's life does jeopardize her relationship to Rochester--at least in the book it does. In the book Jane is more evenly split between passion and spirituality. In this adaptation, Saint John's character was too much of a throw-away. (Oh and I have to admit that little Miss No Sleep prevented me from even seeing the first hour and a quarter so I can't even speak to the role of Helen Burns--the other slice of spiritual bread in the Jane Eyre passion sandwich).

Otherwise, I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED this adaptation and wondered what a resurrected CB would think. Yes, she'd be horrified at how the passion had such a sexualized presentation (can't you tell I'm having trouble putting this behind me) but I wonder how she would have responded to the film's overall mood. To me, that overriding mood captured the book perfectly.

Oh, and I was thrilled that Bertha was allowed to retain her beauty rather than be the horrific monster I remember from the book. Now I must go back to the book to see if she actually is that horrific in the text or whether I projected this onto her each time I read it.

BTW, I also liked the film version of Prisoner of Azkaban. It was the one adaptation of the Harry Potter books where I thought the director(Cuaron)actually did see the story through a filmic lens.

Once again, blah, blah, blabby, blah. If I don't stop commenting like this you're going to have to start listing me somewhere in your bloggy credits.

Mad Hatter said...

And, I might add: this is why the blogosphere kinda sucks. Now all I want to do is go out for coffee with you, unleash the kids on the unsuspecting toys at Chapters, and have a good old fashioned chin-wag about adaptations of Victoriana.

Ho hum.

Christina said...

Wah! I didn't even know it was on TV, and missed most of it! I got to watch the last half hour last night, and I was impressed with what I saw. I liked their casting for Mr. Rochester - on a first quick glance, I thought he looked rather rough around the edges, but his looks softened upon viewing him longer, and I found him to be quite the understated handsome man.

Did you know they made a musical of Jane Eyre? It was short lived on Broadway, but I still have the CD, because the music was so hauntingly beautiful and perfect for the story. I still listen to it at least once every few weeks.

bubandpie said...

Becky - LOTR is one of those adaptations that improved the book: Boromir and Legolas are two characters that I could never appreciate in the novel (with Boromir, I could never get past his untrustworthiness, and Legolas was just a weenie). In the film, Boromir's death is achingly tragic, and Legolas makes me get what Tolkien was on about with the Elves (who seemed like real cowards in the book, ditching Middle Earth when the going got tough - I'm glad they showed up for the battle in The Two Towers, even if it does turn the last alliance of men and elves into the second-last alliance of men and elves).

Scatty - I really enjoyed Mansfield Park, even though it departs dramatically from the novel. I could never quite bring myself to like Fanny Price in the novel (she's spineless and a bit of a prude), so I very much enjoyed the sharp-tongued film version (whose lines are derived mostly from Austen's letters and earliest fiction).

MH - Yes, please let's meet at Chapters later today, shall we? Should I fly there or do you want to fly here? I'm not sure my AirMiles will reach quite as far as NB, so I'll take your points one by one here:

Supernatural: I don't know how they did it without making it seem cheap and comical, but when Rochester called out to Jane across the miles, it gave me goose bumps. And I thought the red bit of fabric representing Bertha's presence worked so well: her eerie laughter is much better imagined than heard, so the red fabric became a visual substitute.

Sexual: You're not kidding. But I do think CB would accept the heavy breathing - after all, her novel is full of it, only slightly better-disguised.

Bertha: I like the way her racial ambiguity was emphasized - and she retained her dignity, even in madness. In the novel, Jane has pity for Bertha, though the novel as a whole does not, and in the film her face had just enough pathos to expose the brutality of the way she must be sacrificed to pave the way for the happy ending.

St. John: Yep, he was totally wrong (though I found it a bit of a relief because my response to the character in the novel is so intense). Helen Burns was all wrong as well: she advises Jane not to be too rebellious as a kind of tactical manoeuvre (part of her long-term escape strategy); the spiritual ideal of resignation is omitted entirely. I did think that the use of the Lord's Prayer as Jane lay on the heath did its job, though: it made it clear that Jane has placed herself in God's hands, and the unlikely coincidences that follow become plausible as the Providential outworking of that.

Prisoner of Azkaban: I felt the same way when I saw the movie in the theatre: finally a film that transforms the story and uses the film medium to tell it. But when I rented the movie about a year later and watched it again, I was too bored to sit through it - still too close to the original.

And I agree with you about the mood of JE - it was exactly, immediately right. And Ruth Wilson simply is Jane (in the same way that nobody but Colin Firth can ever be Mr. Darcy).

bubandpie said...

Mad - One more thing. I've been wondering all day why they changed Rochester's invitation to go abroad. In the novel, his intent is clearly sexual, while in the film, he claims that he would never invite her to a life of sin. It seemed odd to me that a twenty-first-century adaptation would need to clean up the text, but your comments on sexuality and spirituality have made me rethink.

Obviously part of the meaning of that scene is the almost laughable contrast between his words and what is clearly happening as he says them. The sexual nature of their relationship is evident in every scene. (Especially when Jane rescues R. from his burning bed and they are shown in silhouette trying not to kiss each other - it's the trying not to that's always the sexiest isn't it?)

The film has no difficulty conveying sexuality, but spirituality is another matter. With Helen and St. John reduced to mere shadows of their textual selves, Rochester becomes the mouthpiece for Jane's rectitude and faith. Rather than have Jane proclaim her determination to do what is right (always difficult to do without being priggish and annoying), the director made Rochester the one to point out that Jane could never do a wrong thing, even if he asked it.

nomotherearth said...

Oh, now I am so very sad... Jane Eyre is my tied for first place as my favourite novel of all time. However did I miss the BBC show?? (Not that Mr Earth would have agreed to watch it, naturally, but I could have taped it). Sad, sad day!

The other book in first place is The Blue Castle. I wish they would adapt that for the screen...

Julie Pippert said...

Very interesting.

I'm sad to say I missed it.

I am a Bronte literary fan. Even considered taking a page out of Green Card and naming my daughter Bronte but I lacked the professorial position to back it up so we abandoned the idea. ;)

Despite the above, I adored Jean Rhys' semi-magical realism moodily extravagant novella Wide Sargasso Sea. For some reason, I like to read it with Pink Floyd alternating with the soundtrack from The Sheltering Sky (another movie I think only I liked and I adored the book).

That said...Have you read The Eyre Affair (and have I already asked you that) and if so, what did you think?

And in the end, I agree. I like an interpretation, a unique and insightful representation of someone's perspective of the story.

That's how I've liked the movies I have based on the books I adore.

And isn't O Brother Where Art That just as intersting as the classic?

But...I'm not sure I can jump on the adaptation bandwagon completely.

I'm okay with most of it up until it hits the point of changing for the sake of money, KWIM?

Mad Hatter said...

Yup, I agree with your point that the film oddly enough made Rochester the mouthpiece for Jane's spirituality. It still seems weird to me though that she is never once pictured with a bible or any other talisman that might have tipped the viewer off to the spiritual/moral pull she felt upon leaving Rochester. Throughout the film she is more closely affiliated with nature than with spirituality. But then, I guess the director was going with the "witchy" notion of Jane's unearthly pull on Rochester. Too many bibles would fit oddly with that kind of character presentation.

I also think that Rochester's suggestion that they live like brother and sister was put in to stand in stark contrast to the chilly formal scene in which Jane suggests the same arrangement to Saint John. Here is Saint John refusing to live as brother and sister even though it is clear that theirs will be a sexless marriage and there is Rochester proving amply how he and Jane could never possibly have a sexless union the whole while making claim to such a possibility.

As for the supernatural and the overall mood, I think my favourite sequence was Jane's first entry into Thornfield--as she walked across the grounds with all that silence and foreboding. Brilliant and spine-tingling.

What's with the BBC and the trope of entry into the estate? There's the scene I just mentioned, Jane's other returns to Thornfield, Lizzie's first view of Pemberly, and the ultimate hot literary scene of all time: D'Arcy's dive through the pool on his way back to Pemberly.

Mmmm, now that we've had our coffee, I'd like to invite you back to my place for a marathon viewing of all the BBC Victoriana adaptations. Perhaps it's lucky for our children and our careers that we do live several provinces away.

Mad Hatter said...

Hate to say it but I loathed The Eyre Affair. Uggghhh. I must get back to work now.

bubandpie said...

Julie - Yes, I've read The Eyre Affair and the first of the sequels (hence my selection of "all the elves in Christendom" as the archetypal example of terrible dialogue). I thought The Eyre Affair was fun and creative (though Thursday is curiously lacking in character - she seems more like a placeholder than anything). It seems as if the sequels will just get increasingly formulaic, though.

Mary-LUE said...

Jumping in on the conversation here. I only saw last night's half of the movie and thought it was great although my movie heart belongs to the version of Jane Eyre with William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsburg. I think that one was fantastic. When Hurt's Edward says to Jane, "Sometimes I have the strangest feeling about you. Especially when you are near me as you are now. It feels as though I had a string tied here under my left rib where my heart is, tightly knotted to you in a similar fashion. And when you go to Ireland, with all that distance between us, I am afraid that this cord will be snapped, and I shall bleed inwardly," well, my heart just melts.

However, I am usually quite willing to love more than one version of a movie. I love both the BBC P&P and the recent feature film. And, while I swooned over Firth's Darcy, I also swooned over Matthew MacFadyen's more openly vulnerable take on the character. (I do prefer Ehle's Lizzy, I must say.)

Oh, and Julie, I am a big fan of The Eyre Affair and its sequels. The madcap insanity of them all tickles me no end.

Alpha Dogma said...

In general, I'm not a fan of any Bronte work. Their collective novels seem very juvenile - the historical equivalent of fan fiction, and don't bare criticism or analysis very well.

That being said, I'm in the midst of The Eyre Affair and am enjoying that very much. Having read this discussion, I'm a bit annoyed that I chose to watch Crossing Jordan last night. Sounds like this BBC offering was the superior option.

I really loved the latest P&P movie. There were so many dimensions added to the characters, especially Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Bennet. I disagree that Mr. Bennet faired well in the Joe Wright version. If anything I saw clearly Mr. B's impotence as a father and husband. Whereas Mrs. Bennet became more powerful and sympathetic, but still infuriatingly obtuse, at times.

Perhaps it is my age, that makes me now up to the task of looking at things from the side of Mrs. Bennet and Lizzie. Lizzie does appear to be so innocent at times.

In the movie, I especially love when Lizzie accuses her mother of thinking only of marriage and Mrs. Benett says, "When you have five daughters, Lizzie, tell me what else will occupy your thoughts, and then perhaps you will understand. "

This layer of characterization humanized the collective Bennets, made Lizzie's tale all the more amazing, but did not take away from the skill of Austen.

Anonymous said...

i watched jane eyre on masterpiece theatre and i really enjoyed it.i liked tjis adaptation.rochester was both surly,moody and petulantly funny at same time.jane was smarter and more savvy than i imagined but enjoyed it immensely.

Em said...

Two of my favorite novels... I'll have to look out for that BBC adaptation (hasn't come to Australia yet). It sounds fantastic - I've enjoyed all the discussion!

Haley-O said...

Can't wait for this to come out on DVD. I'd LOVE to see this adaptation of one of my favourite novels.

I actually liked the Keira Knightly Pride and Prejudice. I was pleasantly surprised by her portrayal of Lizzy....

Rock the Cradle said...

I'm eager to see this. One of my gripes about adaptations is there is nearly always something that misses the mark. Jane is too subservient, or too boring, Rochester to smug in himself, too elitist, the romance flat and uninspired. Sounds like they've avoided these mistakes.

I have high hopes for the most recent Bleak House as well. (Costume drama queen here)

Ultimately, of course, what I see on screen will almost never match what I have in my mind. An old acquaintance of mine refused to see The Lords of the Rings for that reason. She had powerful images she had created for herself, and didn't want anything to interfere with those images.

I for one, was thrilled to see Legolas as a warrior and not a wimp. And the development of Faramir was well done. I always had a fondness for that character, and thought he deserved more of a personality than Tolkien gave him.

More to add to the Netflix queue...

Aliki2006 said...

I didn't get to see the MT adaptation--I'll have to look out for it on DVD or elsewhere...

I was glad to read your reaction to LOTR, though--I thoroughly enjoyed the films and I agree with you about how the film versions enhanced certain aspects of the novel(s)--particularly with respect to the characters you mentioned.

espressomom said...

Heathcliff, Rochester, both of them unforgetable men. By the way, it was very refreshing to read your thoughts on P&P.

Lawyer Mama said...

Missed Jane Eyre. Perhaps they will run it again.

I have to admit I can't see the Kiera Knightly Pride and Prejudice. I love the book too much and I'm afraid to watch it butchered. Plus, I loved Jennifer Ehle in the BBC version and I have a hard time picturing anyone else as Lizzie now.

I also adore the BBC version of Mansfield Park and I love how they incorporated more of Jane Austen's personality into the character of Fanny Price. In the book Fanny was far too frail and timid. She never really had a spine. I like the BBC Fanny/Jane combo much better!

Mommy-Like Days said...

What?? Can I borrow the tapes? This is what I get for only watching TV on DVD--miss all the promos.

gingajoy said...

I've not seen that BBC Jane Eyre, but I did like the film from about 10 yrs ago--that Jane was certainly plainer. But William Hurt as Rochester...hmmm.

I really disliked the movie of P&P, it was so truncated (which might be avoidable). I am an ardent fan of the 1990s miniseries, which does a much better job of dealing with those complexities and hypocrisies. Oh. and the book.

Now. WHEN is a decent version of Wuthering Heights going to made? Am I dreaming, or was there a rumor of a Johnny Depp Heathcliffe? (swooning already).

Karen said...

by the way, Toby Stephens is the son of Maggie Smith...
no wonder he's so good....
so, there's full circle on the book/movie adaptation - and I agree, much as I love Maggie Smith, the Potter movies bored me (even fell asleep in theater while prego!)...simply "too many notes" to quote a different film altogether.
gotta run, I've yet to watch the second half of Jane Eyre, the sooner I feed, bathe and put my kiddos to bed, the sooner my date with TIVO...wish it'd be followed by tea and talk with ya'll!

Crunchy Carpets said...

The 1997 version is my fave..

With Samantha Morton as Jane and Ciaran Hinds as Rochester....

I thought they nailed it.