Mar 11 2011 10:00am

Reader, I Watched Him: Jane Eyre On Screen

Jane Eyre 2011 posterI 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?

Jane Eyre 1971 posterThere 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.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte BronteThough 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

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Virginia Campbell
1. VirginiaCampbell
"Jane Eyre" remains one of my favorite books of all time. I have seen numerous screen retellings, but for me the definitive film version is the one starring George C. Scott and Susannah York. It made a huge impression on me as a young viewer, and I am still thrilled each time I see it again. There is something about the way George C. Scott says her name "Jane". He loads those four letters with different meaning each time he says the name, but each meaning contains a world of feelings.
2. Phyl
I agree that the George C. Scott version is the best one I've seen. I saw it on TV when it originally aired (I was 14) and a few years later my high school lit class read the book & then watched it in class. We had some great discussions about that book. I managed to see that version again about 10 years ago and to my mind none of the others have come close.
Lisa Cox
3. brontëgirl
As I've mentioned in another post, it's the '83 BBC adaptation (Clarke/Dalton), and also cf. Patsy Stoneman's Brontë Transformations: The Cultural Dissemination of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights (London: Prentice Hall, 1996) that discusses adaptations from the 19th century to the early/mid 1990s.
The adaptation that premiered in '96 . . . it was so bad that I nearly walked out of the theatre . . . and didn't go to the movies for another eight years (and saw Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban).
Regina Thorne
4. reginathorn
I like Jane Eyre as a novel much more than I like Wuthering Heights (the entire first generation of people annoys me, although I do like Hareton and Cathy in the second generation) but I think it's a harder thing to adapt cinematically because so much of the drama takes place within Jane's own psyche. I love the novel, but I've yet to see an adaptation that says "THIS IS JANE EYRE!" (Although all this discussion is making me want to read the book again.)
5. EC Spurlock
As a classic movie buff, I'd also like to recommend the original Orson Welles version. Yes, they did mess with the plot a bit but Orson made a wonderful, intense Rochester, and the film has an almost noir feel, with a lot of brooding depth. I also like the George C Scott version; he plays Rochester almost the same way he played Beast in the wonderful Hallmark version of Beauty and the Beast, and dang if it doesn't work perfectly for both characters.
romance reader
6. bookstorecat
I am curious to see this Orson Welles version that people have mentioned, but, for me, I suspect that the BBC mini-series with Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clarke will continue to be the interpretation. I am pretty confident that any attempt to cram the whole damn sweeping gothic bildungsroman into a standard length movie script is always going to come up short in more ways than just time elapsed.

Why do you think they have made another Jane Eyre right now anyway? It's been done so often--I wish they had made a movie of the musical instead, so that I might have had a chance to see that. (Have loved the album for several years now.) But, why another movie of Jane Eyre at all?
7. Fariba
Michael Fassbender plays a too sad Rochester. As if he is depressed or gravely striken with grieve. He doesn't have a tenth of the enigmatic, volatile, and energetic nature of Mr. Rochester. He gazes a lot. He only shows the mercurial tendency of Rochester with sudden harshness or rage in his dialogues. He doesn't cling, although he tries too hard to play artistically.

And above all, he doesn't have the face of an English man. He doesn't look like them, and he looks too modern for the role. About the movie, it is not at all what I imagined or wished to see. It discouraged me in lots of ways. I wish to see it be made one day.
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