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Des limites de l’adaptation

A Bold New Timeless Classic: Fukunaga’s Partial Reading of Jane Eyre

John Engle
p. 43-59


With its first person narrator, radical tonal changes, and wild blend of genres (autobiography, romance, Gothic melodrama, Christian exemplum, etc.), Brontë’s Jane Eyre is a case study in the difficulties of cinematic adaptation, as the filmmaker attempts to balance "fidelity" with contemporary relevance and entertainment value. This article examines Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 version, and in particular certain orientations animating his necessarily "partial" reading of the novel. Chief among these is the decision to begin the film when Jane leaves Thornfield; recounting much of the story in discontinuous flashback, the film manages simultaneously to admit Jane’s narrative voice while eliminating its potentially distracting nature. Fukunaga’s other choices include the toning down of the novel’s lurid Gothic quality, its overt romanticism, and—today an overly familiar romantic comedy stereotype—the teasing interplay between the two protagonists. Communicating in a compact language of visual symbol, he also uses the original’s "religious plot" as a tool for modern character analysis.

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  • 1 For references to quotations from the novel page numbers alone will appear.

1In the deceptive simplicity of David Daiches’s apt formulation, “selection” and “significance” are fundamental terms when discussing narrative (Daiches, 5). As the whole of a story can never be told, he argues, even the most refined critical thinking must return gravitationally to certain basics, notably the author’s sense of the important and the consequent numberless choices of what to leave in and what to leave out. Daiches specifically addresses the post-Victorian erosion of secure belief in a common world and public forms of authority, when aesthetic choices necessarily came to reflect a history-shocked modern sensibility teasing what value it could from the fleetingly inward and subjective. In a process both simple and endlessly intricate, storytellers have always filtered their countless selections through a mesh of personally, culturally, and historically determined significance. When the narrative in question is the adaptation of a century-and-a-half old literary text into cinema, a medium unimagined at the time of its composition, that process becomes newly complex. And exceptionally so in the case of Jane Eyre1, a novel at once indisputably anchored in 1847 England and almost futurist in its imagined dismantling of certain traditionalist assumptions.

2The complexity in layering a new stratum of significance-filtered selection upon the original has certainly not discouraged filmmakers, as witness the score of adaptations for screen and television since 1934 when Christy Cabanne first tried to strike a deal with Charlotte Brontë. For a character- and story-hungry system of entertainment production, the attractions of this classroom-friendly classic which has never been out of print are apparent: its fiery heroine and the gauntlet she so courageously runs have spoken to succeeding generations of stout resistance to injustice, the falsity of appearances, and integrity’s luscious rewards in a fairy-tale ending. Yet unfortunately—and, I would argue, not surprisingly—despite their moderate commercial success few of the resulting films have left an imperishable memory, even when such as Orson Welles and Franco Zeffirelli have tried their hand.

3To understand something of the recalcitrant nature of Jane Eyre as material for adaptation, a comparison with another much re-done classic, Pride and Prejudice, might help. Austen having invented the form, the latter’s romantic comedy narrative arc is, of course, immediately familiar to modern audiences. Jane Eyre may take its heroine into similar terrain, but the stark social realism of the first third of the novel emotionally darkens Jane’s entire journey, as does a personal integrity often difficult to distinguish from simple rigidity. Austen’s novel furthermore benefits from a relative unity of tone, whereas Brontë’s radically shifts registers, here grim naturalism or arch verbal play, there gothic shadows or lush romanticism, not to mention the odd bit of telepathy and a Byronic hero in gypsy drag. The stakes are so different as well. Jane’s vulnerability is achingly real, her decisions grave of import and even once of life-and-death importance ; Elizabeth’s worse-case scenario is a dull marriage not beneath her best friend. The gut-deep dramatic appeal of Jane Eyre’s tale has won successive generations of readers, but so far a Friday night at the movies has seemed to make better room for Lizzy’s self-possession cut by a drop of self-deprecation, her silvery peals of laughter, and the more gently satiric, certainly prettier world of Pride and Prejudice. No Jane Eyre has yet mustered sheer audience affection like that reserved for the 1990’s BBC series with Colin Firth or Joe Wright’s 2005 version.

  • 2 In January 2011 collated 143 reviews, with 123 considered as positive, 22 as neg (...)

4That said, the adaptations have never stopped coming, they have met with consistent if relative commercial reward, and no doubt a proposal for a fifth BBC mini-series is now on some London producer’s desk. Certainly, to judge from the swoony Internet anticipation and a 2011 pre-Continental Europe release take of over $ 31 million, the most recent contribution to the genre has again found an audience. Walking a promotional line between arthouse and multiplex, Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 Jane Eyre once more takes us to Thornfield, the moors, and the pedestal of infamy ; so far it has received mixed though generally positive reviews, but hardly iconic status2. In the pages to follow, I would like to examine Fukunaga’s film as a case study in the difficult narrative, casting, and staging choices in bringing to the screen this always promising, always stubborn subject matter. Crafting a film for the second decade of the 21st century, what in Charlotte Brontë do Fukunaga and screenwriter Moira Buffini find significant, and what notable selections do they make in transposing 380 pages of 19th century English text into a 121 minute American-produced feature released the same week as Battle: Los Angeles ?

5As contemporary thinkers like Linda Hutcheon or Erica Sheen have argued, discussions of an adaptation’s “fidelity” to some kind of Platonic, undisturbed “original” text are tiresomely sterile. “Faithful to what ?,” adds Donna Marie Nudd, “Is Brontë’s three-volume Victorian novel a romance ? a melodrama ? a gothic mystery ? a Christian morality tale ? a feminist classic ? a fictionalized autobiography ?” (Nudd, 523). In this case, the answer—or, more likely, answers—depends upon the collegial blend of at least two distinct readings of the novel, those of the screenwriter and director (as well as, inevitably, the personal inflections of actors, costume artists, sound editors, and others drawing upon their own individual readings). These multiple, intersecting individual interpretations arise, of course, from necessarily contemporary interactions with a 160 year old text, as well as with a by-now long history of prior small- and wide-screen adaptations. They are furthermore colored and shaped by the very concrete demands of the new cinematic medium with its own structural norms and audience expectations, with its instantaneity and evident strength as a visual medium so unlike the slow interiority of prose. A complex economic and production system weighs so heavily upon that medium that it is nearly impossible ever to speak about purely aesthetic filmmaking decisions.

6To hear Fukunaga interviewed is never to doubt his thoughtful approach to and passionate affection for Brontë’s novel, but it is also to recognize the contemporary perspective and mixed motives behind attempts to adapt a literary classic. This is a young director born in Seventies California now making his way in Hollywood. His first encounter with Jane Eyre, he says, was watching the 1944 Orson Welles version on videotape with his mother (Montagne). The eventual project was apparently no long-term dream but rather something that conveniently “dropped in my lap.” Fukunaga chose it, he says, because it was as “different as possible” from his Mexican gangster first effort Sin Nombre. “It just fit into the schedule,” he adds, “and the cast I wanted was available” (Fine).

7Hearing this, considering any modern adaptation’s complex layers of remove from a distant original, it is tempting throw up one’s hands and follow Michel Morlet in his insistence that “il n’y a pas de bonnes ou de mauvaises adaptations. Il n’y a que du bon ou du mauvais cinéma» (Morlet, 28). Leaving it at that would be disingenuous, however, for the implicit but still very clear promise of a film entitled Jane Eyre is to respect a certain minimum of Jane Eyre. To be sure, the newly created aesthetic object deserves independent consideration according to filmic standards, but an honest critical reaction to that object must consider what elements are eliminated or drawn from the original text, their embellishment or refocusing, rearrangement or extension. Again, the question is not one of slavish “fidelity” but rather creative selection in the service of a new entity which, while always rooted somewhere in the original creative vision of a Victorian curate’s daughter, will stand pruned and shaped in ways unimagined and unimaginable to her. Discussing Jane Campion’s adaptation of Portrait of a Lady, Dominique Sipière presents terms appropriate to any modern adaptation: the filmmaker, she says, “offre sa lecture, délibérement partielle et partiale, d’un ensemble évidemment plus vaste” (Bazin, 113).

8Partial: the word play here precisely recalls the complex simplicity of Daiches’s selection-for-significance. In brief, Fukunaga’s “partial” reading will render a Jane Eyre at once marked by fastidious attention to period authenticity and by the director’s search for what he calls the “timeless” and “inherently universal” (Barnes). The latter adjectives deserve parsing, for in his commentary on his work and his filmic practice Fukunaga seems to interpret “universal” as plausible and emotionally accessible to a modern audience, an attitude apparent in, among other things, the planing down of certain of the more flamboyant aspects of his protagonists’ personalities, as well as a reluctance to explore fully the novel’s Grand Guignol extremes. In interviews surrounding the film’s release, Fukunaga reveals a fascinating confusion of intention that seems implicitly to recognize the difficulty in coming to the “partial” reading that constitutes his adaptation of Jane Eyre. On one hand this “stickler” for fidelity to the historical claims that in his attempt to render the film timeless he preferred not to reinvent a new wheel but just “to make a really strong wheel.” On the other, he states that he was “seeking to do something different,” that his film is necessarily unlike any other, that (as he promises with more self-effacement than the statement per se suggests) “I will do me” (Barnes).

9The trailer captures this double vision perhaps best, for Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, the opening text intones, is a “bold new vision ... of a timeless classic.” While in many ways such is the pitch of all adaptations, its terms might apply with particular appropriateness to contemporary readings of Charlotte Brontë’, the angry young woman with one eye firmly fixed on the lived details of a sclerotic early Victorian world, the other looking “afar over sequestered field and hill” towards an ardently imagined future (93). Like her heroine Brontë is at once iconoclast and traditionalist, assaulting “conventionality” and “self-righteousness” yet remaining steadfastly devoted to “the world-redeeming creed of Christ” ; she stands for all who are “poor, obscure, plain, and little,” then offers her once rebellious heroine a deus-ex-machina inheritance tucking her safely within the institutionalized injustices of the class system (1, 216). Fukunaga rightly places her at the cusp of two worlds. Like Europe facing its Year of Revolution just months after the publication of Jane Eyre, Brontë and her heroine stand at “the dawn of the modern era” (Fine). While film Jane Mia Wasikowska is naïve in her breathless assertion that “were she to live in our world today she would just thrive”—perhaps because hypocrisy has been eliminated from our world ?—she’s correct to highlight certain indisputably modern aspects of the strict little governess (Featurette). Yet Fukunaga willingly points how unlikely it would be for someone today to refuse love as Jane does, because “it would go against her morals” (Montagne).

10Further complicating Fukunaga’s choices are his dealings with the patently heterogeneous nature of the manifold romance / melodrama / Gothic mystery / morality tale / feminist manifesto / autobiography recognized by Nudd. In their choices, he and screenwriter Buffini focus particularly upon the narrative challenge represented by Brontë’s particular blend of love story and creepy Gothic suspense: “Once you start mixing horror with romance, it’s very difficult to tell the audience what kind of film they’re watching. It’s rare that you can promote a love story and feel fear in a film” (Montagne). Highlighting the difficulties, the use of “rare” here may also hint at a sensed opportunity, and indeed this touchy mix was to lead indirectly to one of the most compellingly original narrative choices in Fukunaga’s film.

11Breaking with the childhood Gateshead torments leading off Brontë’s original and at least six of the prior adaptations, Fukunaga’s Jane literally hits the ground running at a point slightly more than seven-tenths into the novel. Plunging the spectator in media res, the camera offers a subjective shot of an upstairs window forced open, immediately followed by the heroine’s desperate flight across the field beneath the intimidating bulk of what we will discover to be Thornfield. Even without a torn bodice and a dark and stormy night, the scene has a lurid Gothic urgency aligned with Fukunaga’s target blend of “horror with romance.” Within a minute or two of film time, Jane finds herself at the ominous crossroads, then Beckett-lost in a desolate landscape back-lit by the dark beauty of distant storms. Subjective blurry focus and distorted sound follow, and the enigmatic, half-conscious “Jane Elliot” is saved by the Rivers siblings. Fracturing the narrative this way, Fukunaga says, was primarily a way to create “an interesting structure for mystery,” with the flashbacks to come nourishing suspense and introducing story elements as they become necessary to fill in gradually the troubling, intriguing backstory (Barnes).

12Fukunaga’s insistence upon horror and mystery is somewhat ironic, however, for he seems elsewhere consciously to be avoiding certain overtly sensational or grisly aspects of a text which can at times venture boldly into potboiler territory. To be sure, the lighting of many scenes by candle alone—a choice for the sake of 1840’s “realism” considered significant enough to be accorded a separate “Bonus” in the DVD package—emphasizes the wintry sepulchral darkness of Thornfield Hall. The effect, though, is less fearful apprehension than a simply confusing chiaroscuro sacrifice of detail. Shadows can be scary but only if appropriately contextualized, and here both screenwriter and director seem intentionally to be keeping distance from the abundantly available horror movie conventions. For example, the initial hint of the mansion’s mysterious upstairs tenant comes not—as it does in Brontë and nearly every other adaptation—from Mrs. Fairfax’s fraught warning to avoid certain floors and then Jane’s subjective experience of increasingly troubling nighttime noises. Instead, in added dialogue we only get second-hand talk of “ghosts” from frivolous little Adèle, a report furthermore not drawn from direct experience but from servants’ rumors. What Jane eventually does hear is little more than a breathy whisper outside her door the night of the fire in Rochester’s room. The name of Grace Poole—a sizeable locus for Jane’s multiplying fears elsewhere—is mentioned only once in the 2011 film, and that in a distant, overheard conversation ; the night of the Mason attack novel Jane’s expressionistic horror before the “canine” snarl and “deep human groan” of a “Grace Poole bursting out upon me” is reduced to a few vague scratches and clicks (179).

13“If you take away the costumes and the period settings it’s a very modern story,” says Mia Wasikowska (Barnes). Apparently agreeing, Fukunaga and Buffini seem determined not to risk frightshow extremes in their attempt to cleave to the contours of a story plausible by modern standards. Bertha is, accordingly, far from the purple, bloated monster of Brontë. While no adaptation even approaches Brontë’s description of the repugnant night creature the eve of Jane’s wedding, this Bertha is particularly undistressing, with Valentina Cervi’s lovely features prettying what is usually a more jolting revelation scene and nothing like the drooling, lunging menace of the Stevenson or Zeffirelli films, or the 2006 BBC adaptation. Limp and needy, his Bertha could be suffering from bi-polar disorder. Fukunaga’s narrative program seems to include some edgy suspense as Jane’s enigmatic past reveals itself, but no full-on fright apparatus to distract from the central narrative of Jane and Rochester’s romance.

14Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Rochester too comes off a more subdued figure, less Bluebeard or dangerous Byronic rake than a troubled near-victim. Beneath Michael Fassbender’s initially stern features, gruff empathy quickly trumps irony: “I want to bring you out,” he earnestly confesses to Jane in a telling, anachronistic early dialogue addition. Doing little more than gently teasing Jane before popping the question in the garden, he is far from the near sadism at this moment of the Dalton, Hurt, or Stephens performances. And his uninsistent Rochester, clearly reformed after his Continental excesses, would never threaten the self-respect of his “plain, Quakerish governess” by dolling her up (220). Emphasizing his male lead’s vulnerability and not his menace, Buffini again inserts dialogue that renders the character more palatable, and perhaps more comprehensible, to 21st century audiences. Particularly striking is Rochester’s new justification of his treatment of his mad wife, referred to compassionately as “my own demon” as he protectively cradles her: “Have you ever set foot in a madhouse, Jane ? The inmates are caged and baited like animals. I spared her that.” The poor man did it for her, and look at him now: in the selection of this focus director and screenwriter clearly have chosen not to explore the more troubling aspects of Rochester, his tyrannical class pride, reflexive sexism, and almost obsessive cruelty. Nor do they in any way interrogate his tainted fortune’s source in Caribbean slavery or suggest that Creole Bertha might perhaps also emblematize that historical “crime ... incarnate in this sequestered mansion. (179).

15Written and acted with little of what one critic identifies as Rochester’s inherent “creep factor,” Jane’s love interest comes off what another calls “a thinking girl’s half-inappropriate crush object” (Winter, Scott). Again, the question is not one of exact fidelity to Brontë, but of choices intended to secure a certain cinematic validity in 2011 ; and so far, as oriented by script and direction, the performance of Fassbender—Hollywood’s new kid in town—has certainly been warmly received by reviewers and audiences. Wasikowska has, however, done somewhat less well, criticized and praised in roughly equal measure for the dry, taciturn reading she and the creative team bring to her iconic character. Beneath a mousy nest of immutably bound governess plaits, this Jane is exceptionally quiet, reserved, and modest, considerably more so than even a Charlotte Gainsbourg whose performance has been described, somewhat unfairly, as “static,” “monotone,” and “squashed” (Aleva). At its best, Wasikowska’s intense inwardness abruptly released can flair into sudden visibility and beauty, a failing cupped match catching a draft of pure oxygen. As when Jane fears that Rochester’s proposal is just another nasty prank: “Do you think because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless,” she spits, cleaving verbatim to some of Brontë’s most memorable lines in a half-sob of love and vituperative despair that is perhaps the film’s most moving moment.

16Too often, though, quiet is nearly mute, reserved something close to glum, and the modest result a kind of ambient morosity. Should words come with such pained difficulty to the woman of words which, beneath her timid discretion, Jane is ? One of the tangy pleasures of Jane Eyre, and Brontë’s evident inheritance from Jane Austen, is the heroine’s moments of saucy verbal interchange with Rochester. At some level her retorts to his provocations must dance on the breeze, for almost from the beginning these two enjoy each other’s company intensely ; the champagne sparkle of Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens in the 2006 BBC series, for example, takes the Jane-Rochester relationship in an entirely different direction than the considerably more serious tack chosen by Fukunaga. At one point Buffini’s script makes another revelatory addition. “Do you never laugh, Miss Eyre ?,” Rochester asks the strict governess, but his question might better be asked of the film’s audience. It is tempting to speculate that, dodging many of the future couple’s twinkly back-and-forths, Fukunaga may be reacting to the cheesy norms of contemporary TV and the Hollywood romantic comedy production industry, with their utterly predictable putdown chit-chat the inevitable prelude to romance. Understandable perhaps, but unfortunately here when Jane returns a broken Rochester’s frail serve in the film’s closing scene, teasing that he always was horrible to look at, her response falls flat. It sounds somehow out of character and not as it should, a crystalline echo signalling the couple’s easy return to their happy ways after the Thornfield tragedy and their long separation.

17Portraying Jane’s unique blend of rebelliousness and obedience, of active demand and passive acceptance, is of course one of the challenges of film adaptation. It’s an unusual girl whose liberating step forward in life is to choose, exclamation point and all, “a new servitude !” (72). The opening images of the 2011 Jane Eyre seem to take on this challenge. The initial subjective shot of a hand forcing an upstairs window from the inside recalls Jane’s memorable first visit to the upper floors of Thornfield—a scene evoked with brief effectiveness in the new film—where she looks out and delivers what Adrienne Rich correctly identifies as a “feminist manifesto” (Rich, 475): “I wish a woman could have action in her life like a man. It agitates me to pain that the skyline over there is our limit,” she murmurs in the film’s condensation of Jane’s famous remarks. Indeed, this is a woman taking very demonstrable action, sighting and then moving from protective, limiting cover towards a beckoning, sensed horizon—yet instantly the succeeding shot reveals a distraught figure class and gender dominated by a hulking mass of aristocratic property as she flees, minuscule, across a field. One critic takes issue with this scene for the way it seems to highlight fear and weakness, presenting Jane as a “mute hysteric,” but this is to misunderstand the effect of suspense that Fukunaga aims to create via his displaced opening and flashback technique (Schama). Linked with the Rivers episodes, the progressive revelation of the backstory to follow will, among other things, gradually impose a reinterpretation: Jane’s flight, we see, is not motivated by fear but by courage. Painful as her choice is, she is again leaving a freely selected servitude. For another, the viewer soon sees, Jane’s third position as an instructor, this time in the rudimentary hamlet school of St. John Rivers. The imposing walls of Thornfield thus give way to a drafty cabin hunkered down lonely against the winter, a weathered image of Jane’s courage (and one of an impressive range of naturalistic decors that makes the staging of many prior adaptations seem dusty and airless).

18Setting up his initial intriguing glimpses of a strong then frail girl in this way, before very gradually revealing the events that brought her to decisive flight, Fukunaga effectively exploits his “structure for mystery.” Yet, oddly, he does not refer directly to another significant contribution offered by his discontinuous narrative. Jane Eyre is, of course, a story related from a vantage point some two decades after the occurrence of its earliest Lowood events by a happy, independently wealthy mother married to a great fortune and the desperately fated love of her life. How to deal with Brontë’s first person narration is one of the most important questions when planning an adaptation. The Stevenson / Welles version opens with the “novel’s” pages spread open to a condensed, rewritten text that sets the scene in the Reed house, then occasionally reappears to further the story ; other versions begin with a voiced narration, or plunge directly into the tale with later intermittent voiceover to recall Brontë’s narrative choice, or eschew first-person narrative altogether for their “chronological” Lowood to Ferndean story progression. With her decision to re-structure the original narrative and tell much of the story in flashback form, Buffini’s screenplay goes in an intriguingly new direction, one which simultaneous eliminates and admits the novel’s narrative voice.

19On one hand the choice is cinematic immediacy over the double distancing involved in referencing the layered Brontë / adult Jane narrations, a decision that seems aligned with Fukunaga’s limiting elsewhere of verbal play, emotional outpour, and macabre histrionics potentially distracting to the modern audience. Yet at the same time the flashback form implicitly grants the presence of Jane’s narrative voice and with it something of the dual perspective that conditions the novel’s narration. While the perspective is different—Jane’s fevered imagination at Moor House vs. the confident retrospection of Ferndean—the tale of the consecutive details of her past life is all the same shaped by a present sense of their aggregate meaning. In the novel and in the recent film, that meaning is obviously somewhat different for in the latter Jane has not yet reaped Providence’s full harvest. She has, however—and in rapid order—been saved from death, assimilated into a new family unit, and offered a sufficiently rewarding new servitude. Not surprisingly, then, the movie Jane likewise sees her story as one of meaningful struggle and valiantly defended integrity, and places that story within a similar framework of fate-directed larger purpose. A small but appropriate dialogue addition takes place when St. John presents the possible limitations of the position he proposes as a teacher of poor “cottage girls.” “What,” he asks, “will you do with all your fine accomplishments ?” The response is that of someone who has already seen, or at least dimly sensed, a larger picture: “I will keep them ‘till they are wanted.”

20The at-last happy and fully loved protagonist’s sense of Providence at work plays an important role in what Peter Allan Dale and Jerome Beaty have referred to as the “religious plot” of Jane Eyre. As these critics have so cogently argued, 19th century readers, even their smallest of domestic libraries inevitably furnished with the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress, would have had little difficulty discerning a tale of wise, redemptive religious submission alongside the warmer pleasures of Jane and Rochester’s love story. Yet, despite the fact that Jane gives deep consideration to missionary work in India and accords St. John’s religious zealotry pride of place on the closing page of Jane Eyre (with “Jesus” literally the novel’s last word !), adaptations have traditionally offered very short shrift to the novel’s religious dimension. This is unsurprising, given more secular modern norms, as well the proven cinematic appeal of the parallel alternative narratives of romantic love and of personal struggle and self-discovery. When they appear, the evangelical St. John Rivers and his quieter sisters have tended to matter more for their roles in the novel’s improbable jackpot pre-conclusion—the magical inheritance and discovered Eyre family ties—than for any weight St. John might carry as a religious signifier.

21Beginning his story so far along and basing Jane’s memory flashbacks at Moor House, Fukunaga’s film devotes considerably more time to St. John’s religious zeal than other adaptations have. This is a “slow but very important part of the novel,” he says of Jane’s stay with the Rivers, adding that “most kind of skirt through it because the central narrative is her and Rochester’s relationship” (Barnes). Exactly why it is significant, he doesn’t say, but one clue may lie in a particularly bold visual addition contributed by Buffini’s script. During her long period of recuperation, keeping her deep inner ache private while, Jane-like, getting on with things, the young girl has been drifting in and out of pained (and chronologically ordered) memories of Gateshead, Lowood, and Thornfield. She sits knitting in her simple cottage in the depths of winter when an urgent fist bangs on the rough door. As she eases it cautiously open, a swell of violin and ... it is Rochester, come for her ! But as the juxtaposition that follows makes clear, her lover was only present in Jane’s overheated dream life, and instead the earnest St. John Rivers stands at the door, come to inform her of her inheritance but equally to fumble through the repressed emotions drawing him to Jane.

  • 3 Dispensing with the Rivers-Eyre family connection, the film counters modern discomfort with consang (...)

22This Rivers, the juxtaposition makes abundantly clear, is Rochester’s rival3. So explicitly drawing the parallel between the two contenders for Jane’s hand (and, less explicitly, between Rosamond and Blanche, and the Rivers and Reed sisters), Fukunaga pays homage to similar patterns in Brontë. More importantly, he exploits their essential meaning as indicators of the intriguingly split nature of Jane, this fiery rebel who yearns to utter the word “Master.” The film indeed accords far more time than any other wide screen adaptation to St. John’s display of his obsessive piety and missionary projects to his receptive audience of one, but the intent seems less to signal religious stirrings in Jane than to illustrate the coldly self-effacing, rigidly pure, even otherworldly side of a personality willing to refuse her fondest dream rather than profane her self-respect. These scenes serve more as modern character study, in other words, than as essential elements in any kind of explicitly “religious plot.”

23The complement to this aspect of Jane’s character is, of course, the inordinate craving for fervid, passionate love in this world ignited by her Rochester. While Wasikowska’s performance rarely warms enough to communicate this ardor, Fukunaga concludes the Moor House section with a radiant image of Jane’s divided self—and her defining choice. Walking the moors where she once was lost, she rejects not the selfless mission but instead the icy loveless union St. John proposes. At this instant, she hears Rochester’s call, less audible than a dreamt whisper, and turns towards higher, wilder ground to follow that inner voice in a scene that quietly echoes Jane’s decisive flight from Thornfield. Crepuscular, hauntingly lit, Fukunaga’s wide angle shot takes in Jane’s entranced figure distancing itself with each step from the cold purveyor of Spirit and the Word. The whole of Jane is in the pure religious ecstasy with which she blindly advances towards a new and final servitude in a resolutely earthly paradise.

24Fukunaga rightly understands that much of the force of cinema resides in such visual images. Among other things, the adaptor’s role is to seek objective correlatives capable of rendering, within the time constraints of the two hour film or four hour mini-series, something of the emotional power and rich nuance of long, careful reading. Admittedly, his Jane Eyre draws one of its most trenchant images—Jane at the window—directly from Brontë’s original, but it is through repetition and embellishment that the image comes to effective cinematic meaning. In the novel Jane is memorably reading in the window-seat at Gateshead when seeking refuge from Reed family hostility, and later her opening a window at Lowood punctuates eight years of routine with an ardent desire for liberty that will, a page later, find her advertising for her first position. Clearly evoking these moments (as well as Jane’s yearned-for “power of vision” on the upper floors of Thornfield), Fukunaga leads off the film with his shot of a hand fumbling at a window clasp before the two panes swing tentatively open. The scene progresses from dark to light, inside to outside, from static confinement to a liberating mobility requiring further interpretation.

25This movement, of course, is essentially that of Jane Eyre, whether novel or film. Fukunaga places Jane at a window no fewer than ten times in the film, always plausibly within the physical movements of his staging, but always tellingly, as when a wistful glance at a larger outside world precedes Jane’s meeting with Rochester or when her return to the dying Aunt Reed includes, a scarred retina’s afterimage and measure of her personal growth, a reflective stop by the fateful window seat. A certain cumulative effect makes clear how that thin invisible pane, a nothing and so much, separates, promises, imprisons, beckons. In another scene, Jane slips into a window seat at Thornfield after a geography lesson for Adèle based on the study of an enormous globe. From its swelling expanse of possibility she ventures tentatively into a tightly restrictive garden before settling down by the window, where she opens her book to begin sketching. Taken together, the images speak eloquently of spiritual yearning and confinement, of promise and circumscribing frames. Like the drawings that fascinate Fassbender’s Rochester before their artist does, her sketchbook is transparently a window to a soul. It is also an open field on which that soul will flee until it knows where it should be running.

26Releasing his fearless governess on this field in his film’s telling opening, Cary Fukunaga displays the first of countless choices made in the crafting of his Jane Eyre. Critics have recognized certain as successful, notably the film’s inventive structure, the rough-hewn historical fidelity of its settings, and its discreet camera eye alert to symbolic import and nuance. Others have raised more debate, like the unusually muted quality of Mia Wasikowska’s performance or the way Fukunaga and Buffini strain against the romantic grain and steer so decisively wide of the melodrama of Brontë’s often-melodramatic original. Such mixed results should not surprise, given the particularly intractable nature of that original, where the virtually insoluble problems only begin with, say, the casting of Jane and Rochester—those misshapen figures with whom a movie audience must, of course, fall in love. That a reviewer recognizes the “quite excessive handsomeness of the leads” is less a mark of infidelity to Brontë than it is fidelity to norms of a different artistic medium anchored in another economic reality (Quirke). In any case, literally every adaptation has had to plead for an instant of suspended disbelief when Jane and Rochester teasingly avow how homely the other is, for we are in the movie house and not curled up alone with Jane’s subjectively nuanced voice. Affectionately directed, intelligently structured, Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre is not a moment of pure communion with that voice but rather a heterogeneous real world achievement. It is what an adaptation must be, a complex new significance created by selection, a partial and partial reading.

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Films cited

Jane Eyre, Monogram Pictures, 1934. Director: Christy Cabanne. Screenplay: Adele Comandini. Actors: Virginia Bruce, Colin Clive. 65 minutes.

Jane Eyre, 20th Century Fox, 1944. Director: Robert Stevenson. Screenplay: Aldous Huxley, Robert Stevenson, John Houseman. Actors: Joan Fontaine, Orson Welles. 96 minutes.

Jane Eyre, Miramax, 1996. Director: Franco Zeffirelli. Screenplay: Franco Zeffirelli. Actors: Charlotte Gainsbourg, William Hurt. 112 minutes.

Jane Eyre, Focus Features, 2011. Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga. Screenplay: Moira Buffini. Actors: Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender. 123 minutes. (DVD: Four Star Collection, Universal, 2011.)


Jane Eyre, BBC Two, 1983. Director: Julian Amyes. Screenplay: Alexander Baron. Actors: Zelah Clarke, Timothy Dalton. 250 minutes.

Jane Eyre, BBC One, 2006. Director: Susanna White. Screenplay: Sandy Welch. Actors: Ruth Wilson, Toby Stephens. 232 minutes.

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1 For references to quotations from the novel page numbers alone will appear.

2 In January 2011 collated 143 reviews, with 123 considered as positive, 22 as negative; 77% of the participating site audience “liked” the film, with an overall rating of 3.8/5.

3 Dispensing with the Rivers-Eyre family connection, the film counters modern discomfort with consanguine relations while also rendering the plot more plausible.

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John Engle, « A Bold New Timeless Classic: Fukunaga’s Partial Reading of Jane Eyre »Babel, 24 | 2011, 43-59.

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John Engle, « A Bold New Timeless Classic: Fukunaga’s Partial Reading of Jane Eyre »Babel [En ligne], 24 | 2011, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2012, consulté le 28 novembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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