Probably everyone is aware by now that the 2011 Jane Eyre adaptation made its first claim to originality by substituting flashbacks for the novel's linear bildungsroman narrative. The first shot is of Jane fleeing Thornfield. Unfortunately, I couldn't find an image of this first shot, but those who know anything about Pre-Raphaelite art will immediately recognize the cloak, braided hair and detail of the door and thicket as strikingly Pre-Raphaelite.
This film also boasts the first red-haired Jane, which fits well with the Pre-Raphaelite influences revealed in the cinematography. I am not the first to notice that Mia Wasikowska looks like Dante Gabriel Rossetti's wife, Pre-Raphaelite model Lizzie Siddal. Besides the apt Pre-Raphaelite appearance (which I will elucidate on further below). Wasikowska's portrayal of Jane is solid and should even be commended for bringing her youth and inexperience to the forefront.
I wasn't as impressed with Fassbender's Rochester, although that may be because Bronte/Jane describes him so minutely that my image of him is indelibly carved into my imagination. Fassbender's Rochester struck me as too polite and, yes, too handsome. There is something in both his appearance and some of his conversations with Jane that is too modern and light for Byronic, Vulcan-like Mr. Rochester.
Perhaps the major flaw of this film – extreme attenuation - is unavoidable in the feature film format. However, to leave out the things and persons that contribute to the formation of Jane's character as a child – the capricious Bessie, books and narratives that form her sense of self and justice, Miss Temple's combination of justice and stoicism, and Helen Burn's unearthly renunciation and unorthodox Christianity – is to rob the story of its intelligent dialog with Christianity, the plight of women and of the poor.
Later, when we get to Thornfield, Mr. Rochester's (suspiciously seductive) revelation of his liaison with Celine Varens to his virgin governess is supplanted by a bright, cheerful scene of Mr. Rochester planting a shrub while Jane plays shuttlecock with Adele.
(While this adaptation's emphasis is on pretty, every-day activities, rather than Spinx-like conversations, the gothic, or the supernatural, it does have an interesting way of presenting Thornfield's mystery. Perhaps borrowing a device from the 2006 version and symbolism from Bronte's novel Villette, it is a painting of a voluptuous woman that awakens Jane to the mysteries surrounding Mr. Rochester's past, which is inextricable from the mystery of sexuality.)
The novel's dialog is as piquant and pithy as ever was written, so the dialog lifted directly from the novel for this adaptation was wonderful. But I found the contrast with some of the invented dialog quite laughable. “The flesh is torn as well as cut,” the surgeon Carter says. “Very, very unpleasant.”
There is no Grace Pool in this adaptation, so when Jane asks Mr. Rochester who “did this violence” he can only say, “I cannot tell you." He quickly goes on to banally tell Jane, “You transfix me quite.”
By the time we get to the courtship scenes the sense of danger and biting allusions to slavery are lost in montages of bright sunshine and apple blossoms. I shouldn't have been surprised that there is no “spiteful tearing of the veil” and (which is worse!) Jane appears to wear the extravagant veil for the wedding.
One of the most interesting scenes is when Jane and Rochester talk after the ill-fated wedding. With its combination of desperation, heart-break, and barely-restrained violence and eroticism, it may be the best portrayal of this fraught scene, so like slipping over seething rapids in a canoe. (See my thoughts on how it reminded me of Millais' Mariana, below.)
The depiction of the Rivers family was disappointing. Early in the film Diana and Mary's roles as models for Jane are depreciated when Mary is depicted as a reader of sentimental and gothic novels with “woebegone maidens and dramatic deaths”, rather than the self-taught reader of German and independent governess.
St. John Rivers may be a character harder to portray well than Mr. Rochester. I'm afraid that this film and actor didn't catch St. John's strange charisma and patriarchal authority over Jane or his own cold, hard control over himself. (The best portrayal of St. John is in the 1980s (Timothy Dalton) adaptation, which has the distinction of being the most faithful adaptation, with the best “minor” characters. Unfortunately, neither of the “leads” looks the part.)
The film also cuts out the fairy-tale coincidence that the Rivers are Jane's cousins, which is perhaps only to be expected with its fear of the novel's weirdness.
Jane returns to Mr. Rochester (who in the tradition of Zeffirelli's adaptation appears to be living in the ruins of Thornfield with Mrs. Fairfax) and the film wraps up so quickly you can scarcely notice that Mr. Rochester did not have to sacrifice the hand that offended, and that he looks more like a hobo than a Vulcan or a blind Samson.
It seemed to me that some of the deleted scenes could have added much, such as this conversation between Lady Ingram and Blanche: “The worst of it is that you're given to have opinions... He must know that he can mold and shape you in his vein.”
“Then I shall endeavor to be blank, Mama. A white canvass on which he may paint,” Blanche replies.
(Personally, I think Blanche Ingram is what Emma Woodhouse could have become if she were not rich and independent, with Mr. Knightley to be a true and faithful witness. So while this brief conversation and its implied sympathy with Blanche is nowhere found in the book, I like the attention it draws to the constraints on women of the higher classes.)
I suppose it's clear that this adaptation only confirmed me in my conviction that, to paraphrase Marianne Dashwood, I will never find a JE adaptation I can truly love. Reviewers have virtually fallen over each other praising the adaptation and I long to imitate Charlotte's style in the preface by reminding them that newness is not necessarily freshness, normalcy is not always reality and brevity does not insure pith. From Mrs. Fairfax being the one to call Jane's lot a "still doom" to St. John shouting at Jane, the characters are subtly misrepresented and drastically attenuated by a weak script. (The most perspicacious (though perhaps most critical) review I have read yet was by Miriam Burstein at The Little Professor blog and I highly recommend it.)
HOWEVER, I was fascinated by the Pre-Raphaelite elements of the adaptation, so here are some further thoughts on that. I was recently reading in a student's guidebook to the novel (Twayne's or Twaine's - unfortunately I sent it back to the library without copying the quote) that Charlotte Bronte wished to be a painter, but her eyes were too poor. The book went on to compare Charlotte's attention to detail to that of the Pre-Raphaelite artists.
Here are several paintings of Elizabeth Siddal, with comparable images from the film.In the picture and painting above we see the Pre-Raphaelite association of loose hair with eroticism.
The intricate braids of Jane's wedding-day hair are also comparable to the hair of women in Burne-Jones' paintings.
In the scene where Mr. Rochester is desperately trying to persuade Jane to stay, she stands up and he grasps her waist, to which her hands also go, in a posture that reminded me of John Everett Millais' painting Mariana. (The hair also resembles the way Jane wears her hair most of the time in this film.) When it was first exhibited the painting had the following caption from Tennyson's poem Mariana, based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure.
She only said, 'My life is dreary,
He cometh not,' she said;
She said, 'I am aweary, aweary,'
I would that I were dead!'
So while Millais' painting is about the frustrations of denied female sexuality, the film's image is about the dangers of illicit female sexuality. Female imprisonment in domesticity is also a theme in both the painting and the novel; Mariana embroiders at her table, rejected as a wife because of the loss of her dowry, and in a famous passage (criticized by Virginia Woolf for its awkwardness) Jane rebels against the "tranquility" of women's lot. This film adaptation is also intrigued with windows which in the painting also symbolize imprisonment and freedom.
Ruskin called the painting the "representative picture of its generation" and I may on a future occasion speak more on its similarities to (and divergences from) the themes in the novel.
So, has anyone watched the 2011 adaptation? Even if you disagree with my thoughts, I'd enjoy discussing this adaptation and its relation to its predecessors and the novel. Go ahead and mention scenes or themes not discussed in this post, since I still have six pages of reactions that I didn't include here. ;)