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Jane Eyre (1943)

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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Posted by on August 7, 2015 in Movies

 

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Villette (1853) – Charlotte Brontë

villette-charlotte-bronte-paperback-cover-artVillette is an odd book, though it is a fascinating one. It reads like a dream, like living inside someone’s head and looking out. What I call living in your head is when you are so self-aware and thoughtful that you are referencing the outside world from your own sensations, as if your internal life were more real than the external one. The protagonist of Villette, Lucy Snow, though she maintains that she is not particularly imaginative, lives in a constantly imaginative world of her own senses that feels to the reader (at least this one) as if it were as real as the physical alone.

Since Villette is generally considered to be the chronicle of a woman both lonely and set apart from her surroundings, this is very well shown by Brontë. The novel is told in first person by Lucy Snowe, whose background she does not explain. There is some family tragedy and she seems to be left without family or fortune. She leaves England and travels to the fictional city of Villette, in the fictional country of Labassecour, where she becomes a teacher at a girl’s boarding school.

The school is run by the imperviously immovable, calm and cold Madame Beck, who has a distinct flair for espionage on her pupils and staff. She knows everything there is to know about everyone and will even snoop in their private possessions, always neatly putting everything away, of course. Another teacher is M. Paul Emanuel, who is Madame Beck’s cousin and teaches literature and is a temperamental, imperious, but also utterly sweet man. Lucy also reconnects with her godmother, Mrs. Bretton, and her godmother’s very handsome son, Dr. Bretton. There is also Paulina Home and her father, friends of the Brettons who Lucy knew in England.

The book could almost be called a psychological novel and is less about what Lucy does and more about her isolation in Villette (religiously, since Labassecour is Catholic, culturally and physically – people view her as insignificant and she has a habit of withdrawing for people) and her attempts to reconcile herself to what she considers to be her destiny. As a woman without money or beauty, she believes she must forge her own independence and suppress all strong feeling and love, first for Dr. Bretton and then for M. Emanuel. She feels that the most she can hope for is a degree of independence, as achieved by Madame Beck, who owns and runs the school.

The most fascinating aspect of the book to me is how Lucy perceives herself. She is not a reliable narrator. There are things she doesn’t say, such as the unnamed tragedy in her background. Even the ending is ambiguous: does Paul Emanuel die or doesn’t he? She makes incorrect statements about herself. She says she does not suffer from an extreme imagination, which is palpably not true. She considers herself timid and retiring yet travels to Europe alone, with very little money and no prospects. She quells defiant students. She gets pushed into a play and finds that she likes it very well and does well at it.

But not only does she not see herself correctly (or is she deliberately misrepresenting herself, or is she being ironic or is it a blend of all three?), but no one else understand her, either.

The light in which M. de Bassompierre evidently regarded “Miss Snowe” used to occasion me much inward edification. What contradictory attributes of character we sometimes find ascribed to us, according to the eye with which we are viewed! Madame Beck esteemed me learned and blue; Miss Fanshawe, caustic, ironic, and cynical; Mr. Home [de Bassompierre], a model teacher, the essence of the sedate and discreet: somewhat conventional perhaps, too strict, limited and scrupulous, but still the pink and pattern of governess-correctness; whilst another person, Professor Paul Emanuel, to wit, never lost an opportunity of intimating his opinion that mine was rather a fiery and rash nature – adventurous, indocile, and audacious. I smiled at them all. If any one knew me it was little Paulina Mary.

Ironically, it is not at all clear that Paulina knows her any better than anyone else. And in truth, Lucy’s character contains aspects of all these traits. Even Paul Emanuel, the only person to see the fire underneath, does not see all.

Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte Bronte

One other fascinating thing about Lucy is how much Madame Beck and she have in common, though Lucy has more heart than Madame Beck. Madame Beck’s extreme phlegm is something Lucy admires and Madame’s habit of espionage is something that Lucy engages in, too. This is partly because she often seems to be a looker on of life, rather than a participant, which lends her an air of voyeurism. She watches people, she sees them when they are not aware of her, she listens when people don’t know she’s near. Like Lucy, Madame Beck wants to marry Paul Emanuel, though she never says so, and is aligned with Emanuel’s priest to keep them apart. She’s like a mirror image of Lucy, grown cold and calculating, a frightening possible fate for Lucy. Dr. Bretton calls Lucy a shadow and Madame Beck certainly acts like one, stealthily shadowing people, spying on them, a cipher to everyone except Lucy.

The prose in Villette is quite unique, but thoroughly enjoyable. At times, she engages in incredible flights of imagination, describing her emotions in pictorial terms that are almost florid, which is ironic considering how much she despises the pomp, ceremony and excess complexity of Catholicism, Italian arias and the Dutch masters. She values simplicity and realism in art, is a relatively plain Protestant, yet her expressions are by no means temperate or plain. For her, emotions almost become animate objects or living things. Here is her description of how she felt, waiting for a letter from Dr. Bretton, whom she loves.

“I suppose animals kept in a cage, and so scantily fed as to be always upon the verge of famine, await their food as I awaited a letter. Oh! – to speak truth, and drop that tone of a false calm which long to sustain, outwears nature’s endurance – I underwent in those seven weeks bitter fears and pains, strange inward trials, miserable defections of hope, intolerable encroachments of despair. This last came so near to me sometimes that her breath went right through me. I used to feel it, like a baleful air or sigh, penetrate deep, and make motion pause at my heart, or proceed only under unspeakable oppression. The letter – the well-beloved letter – would not come; and it was all of sweetness in life I had to look for.

But she is also ironically funny. Her description of the governess of Madame Beck’s children is fresh and unexpected: she describes a “coarse” and drunk woman as a “sleeping beauty” and “heroine of the bottle.” There is a bit of French in Villette, which is frustrating if you don’t know French (which I don’t, alas). There are exchanges of several sentences in French, though Lucy’s reactions and thoughts can sometimes give a vague idea of what is said.

Ultimately, Villette is a less satisfying book than Jane Eyre, but perhaps more interesting to think about. It’s a book of several moods. Sometimes she makes the reader privy to intimate feelings and at others it seems she holds them at a distance. I alternated between pity, mild exasperation, admiration, and humor. She never explains her ultimate fate, but the reader is left with the impression that she did not find happiness in life. She seems to have found independence, but never mastered the art of suppressing those powerful emotions and longings. But perhaps it is a good thing, otherwise she would have become Madame Beck.

 
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Posted by on March 5, 2015 in Fiction

 

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Jane Eyre (Musical) – by Paul Gordon and John Caird…and the challanges of adapting the character of Jane Eyre

383px-Charlotte_Brontë_2I have long loved the book Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. However, I have never found a satisfactory movie adaptation, which is ironic since there have been over ten different versions. It’s admittedly a difficult movie to adapt, although I never realized it until recently. Last Wednesday, I went to see a musical version of Jane Eyre and afterwards the cast, director and dramaturgist talked about what it was like doing the musical and how they prepared for it. It was a lot of fun to listen to them talk, but the person I enjoyed hearing most was the dramaturgist. She was clearly passionate about her job and about the book, Jane Eyre. She had done extensive research and provided packets about the characters and the time period for the cast in preparation. And she highlighted something I had not thought about before: how difficult it is to portray the character of Jane Eyre in a movie.

The difficulty, she said, was in how silent Jane Eyre comes across to people, but how passionate her inner life is. The book is written from her perspective and we are privy to all her thoughts and emotions. In a movie, however, we are necessarily excluded from her thoughts and any actress who plays her must somehow find a way to convey the storminess of her inner world whilst maintaining a quiet demeanor.

And that, argued the dramaturgist, is what a musical allows – specifically the musical by Paul Gordon and John Caird, which opened on Broadway in 2000. A musical, after all, is not just about characters communicating to each other through song, but is also about a character expressing intangible things through song, like their emotions, feelings or thoughts. That is the real strength of musicals. For example, the only reason that My Fair Lady is a romance is because of the music. It is not even the words that they sing in the songs. There are no love duets – in fact, there really are no duets – and Higgins and Eliza never speak of love. Our only clue comes from the breathtakingly beautiful and romantic music.

And this ability to convey emotion is the strength of the musical version of Jane Eyre. She is allowed her usual, calm demeanor in her interactions with people, but in her songs about herself, she is allowed to cut loose with what she actually thinks. And in this respect, the musical is far more satisfactory than any movie version I have ever seen.

It is also satisfactory in many other respects. Although there are several significant plot changes – especially near the end regarding the character of her cousin St. John Rivers – the spirit of the story is quite in alignment with the book. The unique combination of Jane’s faith and passion and desire are present. We can hear her thinking her way through her decisions, such as her decision to leave Mr. Rochester after he asks her to stay with him even though he is married. We hear her despair when she believes that he is going to marry Blanche Ingram. There is her anger as a child directed against her abusive aunt, her desire for freedom and independence. And in the musical, even more than any movie, she is always present on stage, which is as it should be, since the book is told entirely from her perspective.

I also like how the musical handles Mr. Rochester’s character. In most movies I have seen, they tend to de-emphasize how proud he is and how much he has been humbled at the end and how that humbling has made him a better person and more her equal. Because of what he has gone through, it is no longer as a grand lord conferring a favor on her by marrying. He now comes to her as much in need of her as she needs him. He talks a lot in the book and emotes often, so it was always easier to translate his character from the book to the screen, but he has more character arc, I feel, in the musical.

The songs are lovely…though perhaps not as catchy as some musicals I have heard. They further the plot, however, excellently and allow the characters to express their inner turmoil and thinking. I have been familiar with the musical for quite a while, solely from the CD I had of the cast recording. It stars Marla Schaffel as Jane Eyre and James Barbour as Mr. Rochester. James Barbour has one of the most beautiful baritone voices I have ever heard, rich and warm with wonderful range and capable of singing so softly and tenderly and then thundering the next minute. He is one of my favorite Broadway singers of today. I once saw him play Lancelot in Camelot when the musical came to Seattle on tour. After he sang “If Ever I would Leave You” I could literally hear sighs from various women all around the audience. I think I might have been one of them.

I really was glad to see Jane Eyre live as a musical. It was a fairly small theater space, but they used it very well and the performers were all excellent – though the Mr. Rochester could become a trifle theatrical at times. It was a lovely production and as far as adaptations of the book go, I think I prefer the musical above any movie I have seen so far.

Here is a clip of Marla Schaffel and James Barbour, giving a taste of the musical to audiences in New York City, before the show opened on Broadway. They are singing the song “Secret Soul.”

 
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Posted by on August 9, 2014 in Musicals

 

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