Mia and Lindsay discuss the latest film adaptation of that book which, contrary to popular belief, was not written by Jane Austen.
Lindsay: This weekend Mia and I took a Canonball Field Trip (an activity we previously would have referred to as “hanging out”) to see Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation of Jane Eyre. And having a few days to reflect, we’re prepared to share our thoughts. Mia, have you readied your arsenal of “Reader” puns?
Mia: “Reader, I loved the movie.” “Reader, I gave it two thumbs up.” I’ll trust our readers to insert the proper puns as our conversation continues.
Point is, this was one of my favorite Jane Eyre adaptions that I’ve seen. As I said to Lindsay as we were exiting the theater, even though some parts of the book were omitted – including, notably and lamentably, the scene where Mr Rochester dresses up as a female gypsy – I feel like this film captured the emotion of the story. And that includes humor, which I’d never seen so well-executed in a Jane Eyre adaptation. How did you like the film?
Lindsay: Sorry to disappoint the readers who are looking for some Siskel & Ebert style carnage, but I loved it too. I think we both agreed that one of the film’s biggest strengths was the way it played with the novel’s chronology – using what you rightly identified last week as the most boring part of the novel (St. John and the pious cousins) as a frame story rather than an unwelcome and overly coincidental tangent in the narrative. And Fukunaga’s approach to the novel’s chronology also echoes the refreshing way he approached the source material in general: with neither stuffy reverence nor over-the-top, Baz Lurman-style modernization. It felt like a film that really found a happy medium between those two impulses.
Mia: Agreed. And while we’re going over the basics, I guess we’ve got to talk about whether the actress who plays Jane was plain enough? My feeling is no; no actress is ever plain enough to fulfill all the plain fantasies I’ve had about Jane’s plain, plain face. That being said, Mia Wasikowska is a bit of an unconventional beauty so I guess we can sort of pretend she’s unattractive. Perhaps more importantly, though, she’s actually young, and she played Jane a bit less stiffly than I usually imagine the character – which is good; she seemed like a real person.
Lindsay: Yes, I agree that Wasikowska struck just the right note of plainness, thanks in part to her vaguely Kirsten-esque ‘do. But we were also joking earlier about how frustratingly unavoidable the “Is she plain enough? Or is she too pretty?” question is when discussing the many actresses who, over the years, have played Jane. The terms of the discussion are kind of dumb, but at least in this case they’re often also applied to the male protagonist, to whom Jane refers at least once in the book as “ugly.”
Mia: True! And, if we were having that discussion, I might point out that this Rochester (Michael Fassbender) was way too handsome. Even after he was in that awful fire, he just looked like some skinny, bearded dude who just biked to some house party you’re at. I guess unattractive romantic leads are too subversive for such a widely released film? But there are some aspects of this film that are noteworthy. Mostly, all the reviews have been talking about how the director is a man whose last film was not, in fact, a costume drama. Do you think people are more inclined to take this Jane Eyre seriously, as a result?
Lindsay: Hmm, that’s a tough one. Upon leaving the theater, I had this weird inclination to applaud Fukunaga for perhaps challenging gender stereotypes and providing a sensitive, personal take on what’s traditionally been seen as a “women’s story.” But then I was like, “Wait a minute, basically every other adaptation of Jane Eyre was directed by a man, too!” Hollywood certainly tolerates men telling women’s stories much more readily than women telling men’s stories – just think of the recent hubbub surrounding Catherine Hardwicke saying she wasn’t even allowed an interview when she expressed interest in directing The Fighter.
Mia: That’s a good point. And, while on one hand, I’m suspicious of the sentiment behind reviews that applaud Fukunaga for making the film dark and un-costume drama-y (read: not a “woman’s story” which are less important than men’s stories and are therefore alienating toward male viewers), on the other hand, I have to agree that Jane Eyre is better dark because it should be dark. Because a woman’s story can be dark! I think he does a wonderful job of making that apparent. And if he wins over some unlikely viewers in the process, I’d say it’s as much a testament to his vision as it is to Bronte’s story.
On that note, I want to put the Bronte-Austen comparisons to rest. I was ranting earlier about the number of reviews I’ve read that call Jane Eyre the original chick lit novel. Which is like, no. And I’m not denigrating chick lit, because the genre’s legitimacy is a whole other conversation. I’m just saying, if you’ve read Jane Eyre, you MIGHT HAVE NOTICED that it’s not a light story.
Lindsay: Hear, hear. And I like that point so much that I am just going to quote what you said in an email to me earlier: “I think the Austen comparison that comes up again and again (hell, I just used it) is telling: there’s not enough room in our English-speaking cultural history for more than one female author from the 19th century. People assume that Jane Austen’s witty, middle class stories are the history of all women from the entire century.”
And, personal tangent alert, I bought into this thinking well into college. I personally have never been an Austen fanatic, and my freshman year of college I had to take a British Lit survey. When I saw Charlotte Bronte (who I’d never read, mind you) on the syllabus, I distinctly remember turning to a friend of mine and saying, “Oh, GOD.” I was also contemplating changing my major at the time. Well, suffice to say, I resisted my bratty, defeatist urge to drop the class. I read Shirley. I loved it. My prof did a queer reading of one of the scenes between Shirely and her female cousins and my bratty little 18-year-old mind was blown out the back of my skull. And then, Reader, I declared my English major. Point is, I feel like we are culturally primed to lump “all those female authors” together rather than tease out their differences. Sort of like, I dunno, women?
Mia: It is a truth universally acknowledged that all women are the same. That’s a great anecdote though because I feel like one of the wonderful things about feminism is that, once you start questioning everything as you’re bound to when you become a feminist, you realize all the cool woman-centric stuff you’ve been missing out on. Like Charlotte Bronte, for instance.
Lindsay: Although. There are admittedly genre conventions to some of these novels, and especially their contemporary film adaptations. At the risk of sounding like the President of the Dana Stevens Fan Club (which is RIDICULOUS; as I am merely the Treasurer. James, you’re late on this month’s dues!), I enjoyed her take on the film, especially for this assessment of Rochester: “if Fassbender took the low road and chose to make a career as the thinking woman’s literary dreamboat, I wouldn’t complain.” Which leads me to ask, Mia, is there reverse sexism going on in the way modern women respond to this familiar trope? Is the Thinking Woman’s Literary Dreamboat (see: Colin Firth, Alan Rickman, and feverish adoration thereof) merely the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in drag?
Mia: Hold on, I have to watch this Rickman video in its entirety before I can formulate an opinion.
Well, my feeling is that the Thinking Woman’s Literary Dreamboat tends to be a more developed character than the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. He tends to have a backstory and a life outside of our female lead, which is perhaps a result of how society was and is structured: men went out and DID stuff, while ladies stayed home. Whereas the MPDG exists only as a wacky foil to the male lead. That being said, I do think we might crush on these dreamy male characters to a ridiculous degree. And I include myself in that group. I’m just sayin’ that Mr. Rochester probably isn’t the kind of guy you should waste your energy on. Because if a guy will lock his first wife up in the attic, god only knows what he might do to you.
Lindsay: Truth. Well, Mia, I hope we’ve convince people to go see this movie and perhaps even to think more critically about the way they talk about Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, and the TWLD. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to run off to go dress up like a gypsy and read Colin Firth’s palm so that I can tell him he’ll soon fall in love with a plain but spirited feminist blogger. (OK, that’s a lie, I’m actually about to go cut an Alan Rickman fan video to the tune of an Evanescence ballad.)
Mia: Let’s hope the next Jane Eyre film stars Alan Rickman. Until then, readers, may you find no madwomen in your attics.
Lindsay: And may your rich uncles bequeath you all exorbitant sums of money at the most convenient of times. Until next time, dear Readers.