Movie Night: Jane Eyre (2011)

I’ve been waiting, extremely impatiently, to see this movie since its initial limited release in March. And then I got so busy with Japan and the beginning of school, that I missed when it was released on DVD.  So tonight was a greatly anticipated movie night.

It was worth the wait, worth the impatience. Seriously. This movie is gorgeous. If it didn’t have a plot (and what a plot!), but was comprised only of shots of the country side, it’d still be worthwhile.

The houses and the grounds are beautiful; the wide angle views of the land and the sky, stretching out for miles, are breathtaking.

As to the novel adaptation and the character portrayal:  I’m a fan. There are differences, sure, but nothing I completely hate.  I thought the order in which the story was told—first the mad dash from Thornfield, then all of the previous (Mrs. Reed’s house, Lowood Institution, Thornfield Hall) revealed in flashback—was an excellent choice for a cinematographic adaptation of the novel. In so many of the movie adaptations, you have to slog along for an hour or more of watching her survive a hideous childhood, before you finally finally get to the good part. In this adaptation, the time at Mrs. Reed’s and Lowood is told very quickly, and the focus is on Jane as an adult. Excellently done. Didn’t eliminate any major elements of her backstory, but kept the focus on the story we came to see.

The movie is somewhat more obviously erotic than the book. While the novel doesn’t ignore the erotic element of romance, rather than overtly discussing it, the novel suggests it by allowing the characters to find themselves in “improper” situations. (She’s in his bedroom in the middle of the night after saving him from burning by dousing his bed. They meet, alone, in the garden at midnight, the end of which a shocked Mrs. Fairfax witnesses.) Even after the romance is acknowledged—during the rather short-lived engagement—the erotic is subverted as Jane teases Rochester into a temper every time they are alone. (I don’t think she’s just being a tease, as a rather stupid boy said about her in a recent class discussion. I think Jane is utilizing whatever methods possible to retain her virginity/reputation/ability to support herself by working until marriage/security was achieved. As Judi Dench’s Mrs. Fairfax points out in the movie, Rochester was of a class not usually known to marry governesses, regardless of promises made in the garden at midnight.)

The movie doesn’t change the plot, but it makes the erotic elements more legible to the less sensitive modern audience. The charged conversation after Jane douses the flames in his bed isn’t substantially changed, but as they speak, they get closer and closer, and the focus of Jane’s eyes noticeably shifts from his eyes, to his lips, to his eyes, to his lips, lingering ever more obviously until they seem merely a breath from a heated embrace. Check out the collection of screen shots above. The screen positively sizzles.

There were a few other minor changes—the supernatural elements of the story are either skipped or barely touched upon. (Some of them are included in the deleted scenes feature, which you don’t want to miss. Particularly the one of Bertha trying on Jane’s wedding clothes. Creepy.)

Some of the elements of Jane’s assertions of independence are changed: she doesn’t hesitate to accept the wedding clothes and jewels that Rochester bestows (quite a change), she doesn’t ‘tease him out of countenance’ during their engagement, she doesn’t refer to spiritual laws as a reason for her inability to consent to a bigamous relationship with Rochester. 

I don’t think the part about the wedding dress and jewels substantially changes her character. The book highlights her need of economic independence a bit more, but her acceptance of things in the movie isn’t coded as a sacrifice or even a compromise. It’s just not addressed in quite the same way.

Rochester is a bit different as well—I found his character in the movie a bit more appealing than he is in the book. (Shocking, I know. Don’t tell the lit police.) The machinations and manipulations that he subjects her to in the book are positively excruciating. He wants her to believe that he is going to marry Blanche Ingram. He demands her abjection—until she collapses and says she can’t stand to leave him, can’t stand to go all the way to Ireland for a governess position–he doesn’t admit the true direction of his affection. Ugh. This Rochester isn’t so hard, so controlling. It’s implied that the assumption about his engagement to Blanche is just a misunderstanding, and once he realizes what Jane thinks, he hurries to admit his love.

That is the primary difference that I noticed between this most recent adaptation and the novel. The power struggles in the relationship between Jane and Rochester that are so prevalent in the novel—those little and frequent assertions of personal autonomy–are either eliminated or downplayed in the movie. The movie relationship is a conventional romance (mad wives in the attic and differing social statuses aside). The relationship in the novel is much more complex: Jane’s oft-repeated need for independence is not fundamentally changed by her love for Rochester. Her most insistent assertions of self-sufficiency come after the relationship is established. She is afraid of being turned into someone else, afraid of losing herself in a relationship—even a relationship that she desires. The novel introduces complicated characters, with difficult emotions, and then moves them toward finding a compromise of equal strengths. The movie is allowed to sidestep many of those minor but significant reassignments and renegotiations of power in their relationship as it never completely utilizes the complexities that are presented in the literary versions of Jane Eyre and Rochester.

All that to say: Great movie. Loved it. Highly recommended. 


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