Jane Eyre (2011): Another Movie Adaptation

The perils of making a movie of a well-known literary classic that already has over 20 adaptations are: If you are faithful to your source, there bound to be scenes that look like you have just taken out from previous versions; if you are not, you risk accusations from the purists. On top of that, you will have to condense a relatively long story into two hours of screen time. So, why would anyone want to do such an arduous task? Hopefully there is an answer waiting when we come to the end of this post.

What would you do differently to appeal to 21st century viewers? A splash of defiance and independence from Jane could work. But still, even the smart and cerebral lines uttered by her we have all heard before, for they are written by Brontë. So what merits can a new adaptation claim?

Another way to retell an old tale to today’s audience is offering a fresh perspective. Here, director Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre, 2009) has effectively crafted a non-linear structure of storytelling. Even for those who have not refreshed their classics memory lately, the movie’s smooth time changes should not pose a problem, for they are quite well done. It begins with Jane running away from Thornfield, desolate on the moors, but fortunate enough to be rescued and cared for by the pious but stern St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell of Billy Elliot fame, 2000) and his sisters. Upon questioning, Jane’s abused childhood and her time at Thornfield are revealed through flashbacks. It picks up from the opening scene again about three-quarters of the way, and pushes towards the anticipated ending.

Mia Wasikowska (Alice In Wonderland, 2010) faces a huge challenge to portray a Jane that’s convincing, and has to be compared to so many who had attempted in the past. Now Mia is the young Australian actor who has turned down the coveted role of Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” trilogy’s English version, and opted for the role of Jane Eyre. In an interview, she reveals that it all started when she was reading Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel about two years ago. By Chapter 5, she talked to her agent on the phone and asked whether by any chance there was an adaptation in the works. She knew she had to be Jane. Not long after that she received the screenplay by Moira Buffini. Thus began this newest cinematic rendition of Jane Eyre.

As a 19 year-old at the time of production, Mia was the right age for the role. That’s when Jane leaves Lowood School and heads out into the world to seek her own destiny. Brontë offers us a heroine who has a firm grip of self-respect and moral direction despite an abused upbringing. This is the Jane that has captured the hearts of so many throughout the years and who still appeals to us modern readers.

So our protagonist meets her fate as she lands a job at Thornfield as a governess to Adele, the ward of the enigmatic Edward Rochester, played by Michael Fassbender (Fish Tank, 2009). Fassbender just may have replaced Ciarán Hinds as my favorite Rochester. At 34, he might not be old enough to be faithful to the novel, but his performance is captivating and convincing. The two make a visually compatible pair. However, I have one major issue: the romance seems too restrained that it almost fails to ignite, especially on the part of Jane. With a movie like this, of course we go not so much for the Gothic, but for the passion. I wanted eagerly to be enthralled. But what I saw was a passionate Rochester wooing a repressed Jane. It’s ironic that almost throughout the film I remained emotionally disengaged, albeit thoroughly enjoying the performance of both characters.

Ultimately it comes, the scene that captures my heart. After the disclosure of the dark secret and the wedding called off, Jane desperately tries to fight off her deep yearning and love for Rochester by refusing his advance and embrace. She literally has to run away from Thornfield to uphold her moral choice and escape from her heart. And finally, for those who long for a cathartic reunion of the lovers, the ending again teases us by offering a closure that’s a bit too short and swift.

Still another and probably most effective way to appeal to modern viewers is the visuals. Kudos to both the director Fukunaga and cinematographer Adriano Goldman. They have answered the frequently asked question of “Why make another movie adaptation of a literary work?” We love to roam in our own privately constructed imaginary world when we read. A movie is the visualization of that world. It is an artistic display of a filmmaker’s interpretation and private imagination. It may not match our own, but surely can still be an enjoyment if it is presented with cinematic beauty.

We see Jane running away from Thornfield, our destitute heroine determined to make the moral choice despite the yearning of her heart. The fragile figure pitted against the harsh and barren moors, or the overhead shot of Jane standing at the crossroads … all effective visuals to present the literary, and by so doing, augment our appreciation of it. Here, you can see your own imagination realized, or see what others have conjured up in their minds. The few scenes where we have the shaky camera must be mentioned also. Generally I’m not a fan of hand-held camera work, but here in the film, such jerky moments are effective in depicting Jane’s troubled soul and inner turmoil. The camera lens following her has become the portal into her agitated and unsettling state of mind. Just another way the literary can be effectively translated into the visual.

Yet another movie adaptation of Jane Eyre? Why not… and I’m sure, there are more to come. I appreciate a filmmaker’s attempt to display the visual artistry that can be extracted from the literary. Words and visuals, they can go hand in hand in this image-driven age. And hopefully through popular screening and the viral medium, we can give recognition to the source materials that have entranced us for so long, giving credits to both the author and the writing.

~ ~ ~ Ripples