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Jane Eyre (1943)

07 Aug

jane2I 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.

Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles

Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles

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.

EYRE-JP-3-popupOne 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.

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9 Comments

Posted by on August 7, 2015 in Movies

 

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9 responses to “Jane Eyre (1943)

  1. The Animation Commendation

    August 7, 2015 at 9:02 pm

    I’ve never read the book and the only adaptation of this that I’ve seen was the Mia Wachicowska (or however the heck you spell her name) version. I didn’t know there was a musical about it too.

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    • christinawehner

      August 7, 2015 at 11:59 pm

      It wasn’t as successful a musical as others – like Les Miserables. I only saw it once, as an amateur production, but the soundtrack is lovely.

      Actually, I think the one with Mia (not sure, either, how to spell her last name) was even closer to the book than the 1943 version. I read somewhere that there are over fifteen different film adaptations, which seems incredible!

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  2. Judy

    August 8, 2015 at 1:37 am

    Wonderful review – I especially like your point about Jane being a different character from the second Mrs de Winter, and that “Quiet people are not all the same.” You’ve just inspired me to try to work out how many adaptations of this novel (probably my all-time favourite) I’ve seen – I’ve definitely seen 7 but it might be 8, since I’m not sure if I saw all or just part of the 1973 TV series with Sorcha Cusack. I did like the Gothic atmosphere of this version, and the casting of Fontaine and Welles, but found it a shame that so much was missed out.

    I’m not sure which my favourite is – maybe the BBC version with Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens. The 1980s mini-series with Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton keeps in much more of the book’s language, so I love it for that, but I don’t think the school part is done very well in that version and Clarke seems all wrong as Jane, somehow.

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    • christinawehner

      August 8, 2015 at 10:35 am

      It’s amazing how many adaptations that have been made! I wonder if there’s ever been a book that has inspired more…a great testament to how rich the novel is!

      The first Jane Eyre I ever saw was with George C. Scott, who didn’t match my idea of Mr. Rochester at all. I also recall enjoying the one with Ciaran Hinds, but it seemed like the more advanced the story became, the more it departed from the book.

      I always liked the one with Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens best, too. I haven’t seen the one with Dalton in a while, but I always had the impression that it was the most faithful. Jane Eyre does seem best suited for a miniseries than a feature film, though, doesn’t it?

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      • Judy

        August 9, 2015 at 12:33 pm

        That George C Scott was the first one I saw too – we had it shown at school on a projector and it made a big impression on me at the time, but funnily enough I don’t really remember him at all now, just Susannah York as Jane. I should really revisit that version.

        I enjoyed the Ciaran Hinds/Samantha Morton version too and felt Hinds perhaps came the closest to my imagining of Rochester from a visual point of view, but I agree it departed from the book in the later sections. Definitely agree that mini-series have more scope to adapt the novel than a feature film, which have to rush through so much – though, having said that, I’m always tempted to rush through the school section myself now when I watch another adaptation!

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        • christinawehner

          August 9, 2015 at 1:53 pm

          True! The school scenes too often seem like they are just thrown in there because they have to so they don’t get accused of being untrue to the book. And the ending where she meets St. John Rivers generally seems to get short shrift, too. It must be hard, in adapting it to film, to leave Mr. Rochester behind in the story for so long while she goes off and meets her cousins.

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  3. Grand Old Movies

    August 8, 2015 at 8:57 am

    Lovely, perceptive post on this film; you bring out many great points on how this adaptation works and about Fontaine’s quietly strong performance. Like you, I’ve always found Welles’s Rochester a bit startling: he’s not the older Rochester of the novel brooding over the mistakes of his youth and also aware of his own deficiencies (he’s not a handsome man in the book). I think Welles makes it a more conventional romance–who wouldn’t want to marry this hot guy?–although there’s that peculiar quality of detachment I’ve always noted in Welles’s performances, as if he’s too busy thinking about where he should place the next shot (there are rumors that Welles took over direction of part of this film; though those rumors surface in about every film Welles was hired just to act in and not direct). The cinematography, as you note, is gorgeous–the scene when Jane meets Rochester on the moor for the first time is visually exciting in its contrast of stark black and white (it’s also well edited in how it creates tension and terror in the meeting). The film is both gothic and noir in its atmosphere, very much of the 1940s.

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    • christinawehner

      August 8, 2015 at 10:09 am

      “That peculiar quality of detachment” – that is beautifully expressed. I was wondering about why Fontaine and Welles don’t make for a slightly more intense romantic couple, with better chemistry than they had, but your observation explains that. He does seem a bit removed from the proceedings, like he’s not entirely entered into the spirit of the character.

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