I think that most people will agree that the definitive Jane Eyre adaptation has yet to be made. Recently there's been a lively discussion about whether Michael Fassbender is ugly enough to play Mr. Rochester in the theatrical release, which opens today, that also stars Mia Wasikowska in the title role.
I agree with many of the comments: the Timothy Dalton version is the closest to perfection, though he is indeed too handsome and the prosthetics at the end were laughable. The Ciaran Hinds version was a couldabeenacontender tragedy, the Toby Stephens' version was a lovely movie but not Jane Eyre, and the William Hurt version . . . well, it is best left unsaid.
So what of the others not mentioned?
There are, in fact, two adaptations that are not very well known and not often discussed, though those familiar with them extol their virtues. The first is from 1971 and stars George C. Scott and Susannah York. I vaguely remember watching this on TV when it came out (I was just a child, you know. Ahem.), but I haven't seen it since, and so was looking forward to watching it again. I was shocked at how short it was—only 110 minutes—but pleased with what they were able to pack into it. Scott does have that craggy look to him that we expect of Rochester, the gruffness with a touch of vulnerability. Too bad about the accent. It sounds like he tried to do an English accent for the first 10 minutes or so and then said, “F-it. I'm from Virginia” and gave it up as a lost cause. York's Jane is very good. Quiet, but steely, and made plain enough to pass. St. John Rivers (Ian Bannen) is creepy with a capital CREE. St. John is supposed to be, but he really skeeved me out. I feared for Jane's safety there for a while.
The second is a five episode BBC miniseries from 1973 starring Michael Jayston and Sorcha Cusack, and it is very good. It has the length of the Dalton version and so covers all those aspects of the novel that get short shrift elsewhere: Lowood, Mrs. Reed, Jane's inheritance, etc. This version also uses voiceovers by Jane with lots of the original text, harking back to the first person narrative of the book. Perhaps in compensation, the fleshly Jane is a bit too silent and almost completely overshadowed by Rochester, something that is all too possible.
Though the book is called Jane Eyre, Rochester is such an overwhelming presence and character (maybe that's why we differentiate the adaptations of the book by their Rochesters—the Dalton version, the Stephens version, etc). Jayston's Rochester is maddening and charismatic, and his sorrow and desperation when Jane says she's leaving him is quite yummy (Don't you love to see your romantic heroes tortured? I know I do, and lord knows they deserve it. Especially Rochester).
Both of these adaptations are available on DVD and well worth the viewing. However, neither is THE Jane Eyre. Where is it? I want to see it. And will we ever see into the heart of the perfect Rochester? Maybe it lies beneath the embroidered waistcoat of Michael Fassbender—who knows?
Cheryl Sneed reviews for Rakehell.com