In which Mia is visited by the ghost of Jane Eyre past.
All right, gang. This post is for the nerds. And by nerds, I mean the kind of people who pregame the release of the new Jane Eyre adaptation by staying in on a Saturday night to re-watch the 1944 adaptation (starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine) because it’s a CLASSIC. You know the person: the kind who keeps getting distracted during the movie because they have to pause every few minutes to email their blogging partner urgent comments like, “The opening credit sequence is in the form of turning pages in a book, which is one of my favorite opening credit cliches.” Because it’s true! I wrote that! Let’s talk about Jane Eyre, nerds!
Now, true Eyre fans (Eyre-heads? Do I dare?) will be as mildly outraged as I was to realize that the film opens with “Jane” reading aloud from the first page of the book, which is not, in fact, the first page as Charlotte Brontë wrote it. The screenwriters, in their infinite wisdom, replaced Brontë’s famous, evocative first line (“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”) with this winner: “My name is Jane Eyre.” Surely, I should have heeded this as foreshadowing of the over-simplification of the story that was to come. (Fun fact: The screenplay was co-written by Aldous Huxley. Do you know how hard I’ve tried to come up with a pun about this? Not very hard: Brave New Jane Eyre, indeed.)
To be fair, this adaptation is pretty serviceable, as far as adaptations from the Golden Age of Hollywood go. The screenwriters cut out the most boring part of the book (pious cousins UGH) and added in a ton of fog machines. But I have to question some of their choices. For instance (and this was another urgent e-mail), they cut out the character of Miss Temple, Jane’s kind school teacher – who I ADORE because of that one time she gave Jane and Helen Burns (played in this film by a young Elizabeth Taylor) extra-thick slices of cake as compensation for the fact that Helen was dying or something – and replaced her with a kind male doctor, who seems to be an amalgamation of several of the book’s characters. “What was the point of that substitution? OTHER THAN SEXISM, that is,” my outraged e-mail read.
But I know there’s only so much they could fit into a 90-minute film. The essence of the story is what’s most important, so this is what really puzzled me: according to my extensive research, the film’s tagline reads: “A Love Story Every Woman would Die a Thousand Deaths to Live!” Um, no. And this is where I think the Jane Eyre detractors (or, should I say, the people who criticize the book without having read it) always get confused: Jane Eyre is not, say, Pride and Prejudice. In Pride and Prejudice, you’ve got your smoldering, mysterious hero who’s really rich and kind of an asshole. Except we learn at the end that he’s not actually an asshole. But he’s still really rich and looks like Colin Firth and totally wants to marry me, er, Lizzy Bennet. I’m not sure what dying a thousand deaths entails, but it would maybe be worth it to live at Pemberly?
Not so for Jane Eyre. This book is BRUTAL. There’s that time that Jane is locked in a POSSIBLY HAUNTED room as a child; she’s pretty much starving for her entire adolescence, and then her best (and only) friend DIES; fast forward a few years, and she learns that she can’t marry the love of her life because he’s already married and concealed this fact by locking his insane wife in the attic (WHOOPS); then Jane wanders the moors and nearly starves to death AGAIN; then she inherits some money and finds out she actually has some living family, but of course, St. John is SO BORING and righteous; and then – and only then – is she able to reunite with her true love, who is, at this point, maimed and living in (even greater) seclusion. Do you, ladies, really want to live that life?
Of course this adaptation barely shows Jane’s struggle. Never has a starving woman wandering the moors looked as fresh and dewy as Joan Fontaine. And we don’t even get to see the madwoman Bertha Rochester – she is a menacing, faceless threat, presumably too hideous, too distracting from the plot’s central love story. But, as countless bloggers (and, one would assume, scholars) have recently noted: the appeal of Jane Eyre isn’t strictly in the love story. And this is where I think 1944 Hollywood underestimated its female audience and felt the need to turn this powerful story about the road to self-love and self-discovery into a schmaltzy love story. Joan Fontaine’s Jane isn’t the passionate, fiery, yet plain and chaste character Brontë intended; instead she’s the classic Hollywood love object: beautiful and quietly elegant with starry-eyed adoration for her leading man.
It’s this implicit insistence – so prevalent in our culture – that women only buy stories about (hetero) love that bothers me. I mean, sure, there’s a love story in Jane Eyre, and it’s a great love story. But, for me, it’s always been more of a coming-of-age story, a woman who is the culturally unfortunate combination of “poor, obscure, plain and little” attempting to assert herself in a world where the poor, obscure, plain and little are usually ignored.
This is all a long way of saying that Lindsay and I are going to see the new adaptation this weekend, and our greatest wish is for it to capture the passion and the pain of book in a way that the 1944 film did not. As you may know (laying all my nerd cards on the table now) I’m a huge fan of British miniseries based on classic novels; I’ve seen my share of Jane Eyre adaptations, and when you’ve got four to twelve hours to fill, it’s no surprise that you’re going to come away with a film that’s pretty faithful to the original book. The challenge is to convey the power of Jane Eyre in a feature-length film. By all accounts, the new adaptation lives up to our expectations and pays appropriate homage to one of the best English novels of the 19th century. Well, the sure-to-be feverish emails between nerdy feminist bloggers will be the true test! Check back next week for the Canonball review.