I long ago reconciled myself to the fact that no film adaptation can really do justice to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and I’ve seen six of them so far. I think the musical actually comes closest to capturing the character of Jane Eyre, because it allows her to maintain her quiet exterior, yet still express her private thoughts and feelings in song. Which is not to say that I do not enjoy some of the film adaptations, particularly the 2006 BBC miniseries, with Toby Stephen and Ruth Wilson.
And last week I watched director Robert Stevenson’s 1943 Jane Eyre, starring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles and Margaret O’Brien as Adele, and I thoroughly liked it, despite its imperfections. It’s a gorgeous film, with its black and white photography and use of shadows, the fog and mist, the desolate moor, the moody atmosphere. The emphasis is definitely on the Gothic elements of the story, in a way that no color adaptation could ever achieve. Thornfield Hall is even a forbidding, brooding castle that looks like it would be perfectly at home in a medieval story.
One of the elements of the book that tends to get glossed over in most of the movies is the beginning, when Jane Eyre is a child. It is usually treated as a part of the movie to get through quickly because it’s in the book, but you can tell the filmmakers just want to get to the part where she grows up. But in this film, it is actually used to feed into the motivations of Jane Eyre, and even if those motivations are slightly different from what they are in the book, they are perfectly consistent in the film. Peggy Ann Garner plays Jane as a child, with a terrific blend of rebellion and anger with a touching desire to be loved. When Jane’s unloving aunt (Agnes Moorehead) sends her to a boarding school run by the righteously hypocritical Mr. Brocklehurst (Henry Daniell – the best, most memorable Mr. Brocklehurst I’ve ever seen), Jane meets the first person who ever cares about her, Helen Burns (Elizabeth Taylor). I was struck by the scene of the two children laughing and running near the school with the vast waste of the moor all around them; a lovely visual.
The movie Jane Eyre is often compared to Rebecca: Gothic story, Gothic house, mysterious leading man, Joan Fontaine stars in both films. They both even begin with a voice-over narration by Fontaine. And when people discuss Jane Eyre, they usually dwell on the similarities between Fontaine’s Jane Eyre and Mrs. de Winter. However, I feel equating all Fontaine’s quiet roles together is like assuming all of Barbara Stanwyck’s femme fatales are the same and it obscures real differences in her characterization. Quiet people are not all the same.
Fontaine’s Jane is certainly quiet (though Jane appears quiet to most people until they get to know her), and perhaps less rebellious, but she is not weak. She does what she intends to do and she speaks her mind, something Mrs. de Winter would never have dreamed of doing. She’s just not flashy about it. Her eyes don’t really flash with inner fire, either, but I’m not sure too many cinematic Jane Eyres manage that trick. Interestingly, the film doesn’t try to pretend that Jane Eyre is not pretty (since Joan Fontaine is clearly not plain). At an inn, a man openly admires her and in preparing to marry Mr. Rochester, several other people comment on her looks. Her own assessment of not being as beautiful as Blanche Ingram, though, is not inconsistent with a person who is neither fashionable in manner or in dress and who is used to being called drab. But she’s not a shrinking violet and she’s fairly no-nonsense; she’s just not spunky in the way we visualize heroines today. Mrs. de Winter has an entirely different ethos going on: intimidated, insecure, very young and naive.
Orson Welles is perhaps one of the more unexpected Mr. Rochesters in film. Not conventionally romantic (though Mr. Rochester isn’t supposed to be in the book), he makes for, at times, an intimidating presence, as he towers over Jane. With his fur-lined cloak, striding through his castle with his dog at his heels, he looks like a medieval lord. His Mr. Rochester could very well be dangerous, and yet when he’s not being volcanic and peremptory, his eyes suddenly turn pleading and tender. What threw me is how young he looks (he’s in his late twenties, Mr. Rochester is supposed to be in his late thirties). He’s the youngest Mr. Rochester I’ve ever seen and his face does not match his voice or his presence.
One weakness of the film is that Welles and Fontaine seem like a slightly odd romantic fit and they don’t quite click. What they both do bring, though, to the film is a palpable desire and longing to be loved, which partially covers their lack of chemistry. That desire to be loved is the theme most prominent in the film, apart from the general Gothic mystery and sense of weird danger.
I did gain a new insight into the book while watching the movie. I always thought it was rather insensitive of Mr. Rochester to pretend to make love to Blanche Ingram and try to make Jane jealous, but I finally understood why (and I should have realized before). He is not sure if she loves him and he’s not really sure if anyone could love him. And he can’t tell because of how calm she is and he’s trying to elicit a reaction, any reaction, from her that would indicate how she feels. That’s why he keeps asking her questions and teasing her about her feelings on leaving Thornfield. In many ways, he’s more insecure than Jane is. She longs for love, but she’s fundamentally comfortable with who she is.
The ending is bit abrupt (I’ve always been slightly disappointing with the movie endings of Jane Eyre), but they don’t make the mistake of trying to rush through the portion where she meets her cousin, St. John Rivers. They wisely remove that entirely, turn her cousin into a Dr. Rivers and do not have him romantically interested in her at all, which keeps the movie fairly taut and consistent and prevents the film from having new characters introduced in the last fifteen minutes. In fact, the entire film is well paced and I liked how they adapted it, purist objections aside. I’ve been becoming more broadminded. Several years ago, I would have ranted about all the differences. Now, I think it is a lovely film that stands quite well on its own.