Over the years, there have many film versions of Charlotte Brontë’s marvelous novel about an orphaned girl struggling to find happiness in Victorian England’s rigid society. Those of us who love this story have suffered through one inadequate version after another: some get the casting of at least one of the actors right, then fail with the other (usually, one of them is too pretty, and it isn’t always Jane!); some get the casting just right for the leads, but then fail for everyone else (why, oh why, is Blanche Ingram always blond?); some give us wonderful characters, but butcher Charlotte’s language; and finally, not one of them has managed, even the miniseries versions, to understand the need for most of the plot.
And so I suffer. I love this book. If someone wants to send me an “I <heart> Jane Eyre” t-shirt, I’ll wear it proudly. I have read much of the classic literature of the world in the course of teaching and consuming it for the last twenty-five years, and nothing has ever come close to this novel in my estimation of great books. The only book I’ll admit might be better is Heart of Darkness, but it’s a novella, so it doesn’t count. How many times have I read Jane Eyre? I would estimate it to be somewhere in the nature of 35-40 times. My first reading was while I was working in the mall as a teenager, at the maternity store. Bored out of my mind, I read the book because it was on my mom’s bookshelf, and she said it was good. I thought it was a cracking romance, with more to it that I couldn’t quite explain. Since then, I’ve read it about twice a year for the last twenty-four years. I’ve taught it at least eight times. I know this book so well, that when my students would write me papers on it I would have to issue this caution: “make sure you reread the sentences around your quotes, because I’ll know if the previous sentence or the one after it would have been a better choice.”
In the course of falling in love with this book, I’ve also come to know the period in which it was written. I understand the Victorians. I don’t love them, but I get them. And no, I wouldn’t want to live then. I don’t even wish I could go back for a single day. The level of dirt would probably cause my OCD little brain to explode the moment I stepped out of the time machine.
Since my recent visits to Haworth and to Haddon Hall have kept this book freshly in my brain, I think it’s high time someone explained to the filmmakers (and viewers) of this world why their versions of this novel are so woefully inadequate. In the process, if you are a student of this novel, and this explanation helps you, as it did my students, better understand the complex richness of the text, well… you’re welcome.
Five Points Hollywood Needs to Understand to Get Jane Eyre Right
1. It’s not a romance novel.
Tempting as it may be to simply write those words and move on, I think some explanation is warranted. There is a romance in this novel, true. But the point of the novel is not so Jane can get laid, or learn about her sexuality, or gain a rich husband. This book may be a coming-of-age story, or it might be better termed as a thematic exploration of an individual’s moral awakening in a hypocritically righteous society. What it ain’t, is a romance. If it were, Rochester wouldn’t be such an astounding dickhead. Take a good long look at all the chick lit out there: the hero may be misunderstood, but underneath it all, he’s a great guy who’s good in bed and rich to boot. Rochester is not a “great guy.” He alternates between treating Jane as an equal, and treating her with complete contempt. He doesn’t really consider her feelings, he tramples on her modesty, he tries to marry her while he’s still married, and then attempts to tempt her into spending the rest of her life as his mistress. Unlike those stud-ly romance novel heroes, he’s unattractive (though powerful), and by the time he’s had his comeuppance and learned the value of love, he’s lost an arm, been burned and scarred, and blinded. His beautiful mansion is destroyed. He lives in what I can only call a sort of grander hovel. Can you imagine a romance novel where the hero ends up with serious burn scarring on his face? I rest my point.Some Rochesters past (dogs, all of them… ehem):
2. The beginning matters.
In every film version I’ve seen of this book, the beginning and ending of the story, where Rochester isn’t in Jane’s life, are given pretty short shrift. Even in the five-hour miniseries, which certainly had room to devote an entire episode to Jane’s childhood, her formative experiences at her aunt’s home and at Lowood are glossed over in a few minutes. Yet, as readers, we know that these early chapters are critical to Jane’s development as a person. We have to see her rebel against the cruelty of her Aunt and her cousin John, and we have to understand that she is ignored for being plain while her snotty cousin Georgiana is spoiled simply for looking like the Victorians wanted little girls to look. We need to know that her other cousin, Eliza, is a miserly little snit. Jane has to be preferable in our eyes to all the Reed children, so that we can feel the keen injustice of how everyone ignores her good qualities to focus only on her outward appearance (both in looks, and in personality). And we have to see her spirited rejection of their religiously-tinted hypocrisy to understand how she can, nearly ten years later, reject the broader religious hypocrisy of her cousin St. John and society itself in order to please herself.
The time at Lowood is so important that most filmmakers attempt to leave it in, though they aren’t quite sure why they need it. Let me make it clear: they need Helen Burns (the very character they mostly leave out). More on that in a moment. The tortuous scene where Jane is forced to stand on a stool in front of everyone is important, yes. But it’s important because it shows just how hypocritical (I’m going to use that word a lot) this hyper-religious world is, not just because it’s mean. Without understanding Helen Burns, Mr. Brocklehurst, Miss Temple, Miss Scratcherd and the others, the scenes at Lowood simply become part of a horror story where children are mistreated, rather than the important criticism of Victorian society’s religion that it is.
3. The other characters matter.
Helen Burns: Yes, Jane is interesting: but she’s interesting because of the contrasts Brontë creates with the other characters in the story, not just Rochester. She starts with Helen Burns. Helen is Jane’s angelic friend at Lowood School. Her intensely pure religiosity sets her up as the perfect foil to Jane’s hot-headed passion. Helen truly turns the other cheek, embodying perfectly the Victorian picture of the angel-virgin girlhood they so idealized. And you know what? She dies. This is really important! Helen’s brand of pure Christian goodness may be Biblically correct, but it’s also deadly, and Jane must reject it in order to survive. Without realizing that she’s “no Helen Burns,” Jane can’t later make the choice to reject her society’s versions of Christian perfection. There’s no St. John Rivers, without Helen Burns.
St. John Rivers: Of course, in most versions of the book brought to film, there’s no real interest in St. John Rivers anyway. The casting directors usually ignore Brontë’s description of his gloriously manly good looks in favor of a wan, red-headed wimpy young man. We can’t have a St. John who rivals our main actor, can we? Yes, readers clamor, we can! That’s the whole point! St. John Rivers gets nearly a third of the book. The reason he does is because Jane has to NOT fall in love with him, and it takes time for her to do that. She must reject his glorious good looks, his passionless expressions, and his mighty morality. At one point in his proposal she notes that while he doesn’t love her, he’d be perfectly happy to sleep with her once she was his wife. Isn’t that important to understand? Rochester’s great sin was to love her outside of marriage. St. John’s sin is that he will marry her outside of love. One is socially unacceptable, the other is fine. Jane has to see how profoundly stupid this is in order to make the right choice. Give St. John his one third of the book, please! We need him.
Blanche Ingram and Rosamond Oliver: Blanche and Rosamond are in this story for multiple reasons. They are set up to contrast Jane. Blanche, to start with, is hot. She’s exactly the kind of woman men admire, but don’t marry – she’s proud, well-built, exotic, and frisky. Rosamond is beautiful, soft, sweet, rich and a bit air-headed. She would make someone an ideal wife. Both are wonderful Victorian tropes, but they aren’t human beings with whom we can empathize. They are there to remind Jane that the Victorians may have disapproved of her in many ways, but that they were also wrong about the values they imposed on women. Blanche’s sexuality gets her into trouble (Bertha’s even more so), and Rosamond’s gentle dullness costs her the man she loves. Brontë suggests with these two women that a middle ground is possible: smarts and passion (in moderation) will win the day. Hurrah!
The other, more minor characters are all important in their own ways: Mrs. Fairfax contrasts perfect Victorian domestic workers with Jane’s feisty love of her master; Miss Temple shows Jane that goodness and desirability are possible in one woman; the Reeds cast down the upper levels of society so that Jane can understand the worth of her own place in it, as well as giving her a good excuse to show how much she has grown-up and overcome; the Rivers sisters give Jane a perfect family so that while she may still want Rochester, she doesn’t need him; and so forth. Skipping over these people means we lose the fact that Charlotte carefully constructed a world where Jane’s best qualities are highlighted by her interactions with those around her. This isn’t just a novel about a girl growing up, it’s a critique of the society in which she lives. Without the rest of that society, that critique can’t exist.
4. Looks matter.
Oh boy do they matter. I know, Jane is never quite plain enough and Rochester is always a bit too handsome, but surprisingly, that is not usually my biggest problem with the casting of this book to film. I get it, Hollywood and the BBC: we need the actors to be at least somewhat attractive, if quirky, to like the film. The real problem is that the screenwriters and casting agents and directors never seem to quite get why looks matter here. Brontë is very, very specific in her descriptions for a reason. It isn’t just that Jane and Rochester are somewhat plain: both overcome this through strength of personality that makes them sexy, and that’s why we like them (because we all want to believe the same is true of ourselves). But the other characters have to look a certain way to set up the contrasts that Brontë intended: Blanche must resemble Rochester’s sensualized Creole wife: therefore, casting a blond actress to play her makes no sense. Adele should look like a younger version of the same woman, because that’s who Rochester’s been attracted to, prior to Jane. Rosamond and St. John are meant to showcase that old adage that beauty isn’t everything: both are gorgeous, yet neither finds real happiness in love. The Rivers sisters are prettier than Jane because they are the societally accepted versions of her: what Jane would have been like with a happy, loving home. Georgiana must be fat and blond and pretty; Eliza must be thin, and dark, and severe. They are societal types that need to be eliminated. In short, the only unattractive people in the entire story are Jane and Rochester, yet in most film versions, they are the most attractive of the bunch! The whole point of the story is that the importance society places on looks, is wrong. So how on earth does a film make that point if everyone else is less attractive than its stars?
5. The ending matters.
Rochester and Jane spend about a third of the book in each other’s company, yet the film versions inevitably compress the beginning and the end of the story down to less than a fifth of the film. While I get this from a cynical “sex sells” standpoint, I’m not sure that “sex sells” is really a relevant marketing tool when one is talking about a classic novel written in 1840. Can we just agree that readers like the book for more than the simmering romance, here, please? Jane has to go to Marsh End. First off, Jane has to suffer. She needs to punish herself for loving a man who treated her like dirt, and then she needs some distance and time to realize that underneath all the badness, there was genuine passion, fear and love in the man she left behind. Then she has to meet the stunningly handsome St. John Rivers, and she has to find him cold, passionless and cruel, despite his exterior Christian goodness. Without the revelation that someone can be perfectly sinless and good and still be an utterly reprehensible jerk, Jane can’t make the decision to go back and “check on” bad old Mr. Rochester (thus enabling her to find out his wife is dead and he’s now free to love her). Society says that St. John is a “good” man, and Rochester is a “bad” one, yet Jane chooses Rochester. She can’t do that if St. John is an ugly, dull, simpering little wuss who provides no contrast to the man she left.
Jane also needs money and connections. One of her biggest fears is that Rochester will treat her like a mistress (and we know how much he enjoyed the ones he had), and part of that is a fear of being kept. With her small fortune, she becomes an independent woman, able to make her own choices for the first time in her life. This is what allows her to go back to Thornfield: Rochester can’t own her anymore. No one can. She has to gain a family, as well, so that as I stated above, her need for Rochester isn’t quite so overwhelming. She’s not alone in the world now: she chooses to be with him.
Finally, the ending matters because Jane does something incredibly daring and reckless for a Victorian woman: she goes back to Thornfield. Oh I know… she’s got all sorts of rationalizations about just checking in on Rochester… just seeing him from a distance, for a moment… just having a quick conversation… just seeing his face… blah, blah, blah. We know better. I always asked my students: given what you know about Jane now, about her money and her rejection of St. John (and therefore the Victorian standard of marriage as a social contract for religious good)… if Bertha Rochester hadn’t died in the fire, what would Jane have done? Would she have just had a quick peek and gone home? Or would she have taken Rochester up on his offer to travel the world at his side? Not one of them thinks she’d have gone back to Marsh End and taken up her German lessons again. Jane gets lucky, really. Brontë gives Rochester the thoroughly epic smack-down he deserves, and in the process, makes him the sort of man Jane can marry: humble, a bit helpless, less-rich, less-grand, and most importantly… single. But even if she hadn’t, you’d have to have read a different book entirely to believe Jane’s lines to herself about just checking in. We all know she was going there to get Rochester back. Admit it, Jane! That’s why the story ends the way it does: with a letter from the societally-sinless, and now martyred, St. John Rivers. The Victorians would still consider Rochester a rake, and Jane a fool for marrying him, and she seems to say: perhaps they are correct. But even so, the one held up as the perfect image of Christian manhood is dead, and here I am, readers, writing this book. So there!
I have a lot more I could say about this book to help people understand it better, but that’s for another day. For now, Hollywood, may I suggest that the next time you take on this marvelous work, probably the greatest novel in the English language, you give me a call. I’m happy to work up a nice little 20 page treatment for you, and then cast it correctly, and then write the screenplay and then, if I must, direct it. You know: if I must.
Should you watch the latest version, with Michael Fassbender? Sure, why not? He’s a cutey. He’s not a damn bit like Rochester, but you know, whatever. I like Toby Stevens and Ruth Williams best, but the screenplay reads like the writers said to one another: “I know this book is like, really popular and great and all, but I bet we could improve it by totally ignoring most of the dialog and just writing our own stuff. Because this Brontë lady had no idea what she was talking about, you know? Hey, have you seen the latest episode of How I Met Your Mother? Funny, huh?” And yes, I’ve seen the versions with Orson Welles, Timothy Dalton, Cairan Hinds and William Hurt. Hated them all.
Hollywood… why do you make me suffer?