I was able to revisit C20th Fox’s classic film version of this story in a good quality 35mm print at the National Media Museum. There was also a panel discussion before the film. This is an adaptation from one of the most potent novels in English literature written by Charlotte Brontë and published in 1847. I first encountered it at the start of my teens, and read it twelve times in the space of a couple of years. Jane Eyre’s passionate, tenacious and truculent resistance to being put down and patronised struck a strong chord with me. I have since seen at least six official translations to the screen and a number of other films clearly influenced by the novel.
This 1943 version is one of the most famous and was preceded only by four fairly short silent versions [varying in length from one to seven reels] and a relatively short feature length version in 1934. The latter is stagey and suffers from the limitations of early sound. It also rewrites the plot in a way that diminishes the story. So we get quite a lot of the book, but extremely condensed. Unlike some later versions we meet [St] John Rivers (Desmond Roberts), but only in one short scene. Jane is played by Jean Darling as a child and Virginia Bruce as an adult. In both cases she is too attractive and too stylishly dressed. Both Adele (Edith Fellows) and Blanche (Aileen Pringle) describe her as ‘pretty’. Colin Clive as Rochester is miscast. He completely lacks the dark mystery of the novel’s characterisation. And the film also lacks any Gothic trappings. The house is affluent and cosy: indeed the staircase to the attic where Bertha (Claire Du Brey, who hardly seems mad at all) resides looks like any ground to first floor stairs. And to cap this Rochester is daily expecting his marriage to be annulled. We do get the fire and subsequent blindness.
The 1943 version does to a great degree dramatise the book and has become one of is the most influential film versions. It was filmed at the C20th studio at Century City and runs for 97 minutes in crisp, black and white Academy ratio. It has a crew of stellar names, both in front of and behind the camera and microphone.
It is worth restating one of the models frequently used in analysing adaptations of literature to film. There is the adaptation that aims at relative fidelity to the source novel. Then there are the versions that reinterprets or even deconstructs the novel. And the third approach is one that re-imagines the novel, using selectively whatever fits. The 1943 Jane Eyre is clearly a film that aims at a degree of fidelity, allowing for both the stylistic conventions and dominant values of the studio film. Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ could be seen as a novel that deconstructs the original, and the film (1940) follows suit. While Jean Rhys’ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ would seem to re-imagine the original: a filmic equivalent would be Val Lewton’s production of I Walked with a Zombie (1943). All of these later works offer interesting illuminations on the novel and on the film adaptations.
The screenplay for the film is credited to Aldous Huxley, the film’s director Robert Stevenson and John Houseman. The latter was a key associate with one of the stars of the film, Orson Welles. Welles’ The Mercury Theatre on Air had broadcast a radio adaptation in 1938 of the work with John Houseman collaborating in the writing. This film, to some degree, was developed from the that version. Welles also produced ‘Rebecca’ for his later radio series The Campbell Playhouse. Bernard Hermann, composer for the film, provided music for that broadcast.
Lowood school in the 1943 version
The screenplay deftly cuts the novel to fit the reduced space in a 97 minute running time. So scenes are cut or abbreviated. A good example is right near the opening of the film. We see a candle [repeatedly used with low key lighting throughout the film] held by Bessie (Sara Allgood) accompanied by a manservant as he opens the door to let Jane [Peggy Ann Garner] out of what is [in the book the red-room] some sort of or cellar store room.. This follows the altercations with her cousin John which is elided though referred to in the subsequent dialogue. Far more drastic changes occur later in the film. The characters of Miss Temple at the Lowood School and St John Rivers, who with his sisters provides shelter for Jane late in the film, are both missing. However, they are in a way substituted by an additional character, Doctor Rivers (John Sutton) who is seen several times in the sequences at Lowood School. He stands in for Miss Temple, especially in relation to the illness and death of Helen Burns (Elizabeth Taylor). He is also given some of the maxims that St John Rivers opined in the book. After the death and burial of Helen he tells Jane, with reference to ‘duty, that she needs,
“to do God’s work…” and that this requires “an educated woman”.
Much of the dialogue is taken from the novel or is fairly close to that. Moreover the film uses literary devices common in Hollywood adaptation of classic literature. The film credits present first the embossed cover of the novel and subsequent pages setting out the title and production credits. Then we see the opening page of the opening chapter. A voice [that of Joan Fontaine] reads out the opening paragraph. This device is repeated five more times in the film. On each occasion we are shown the page and particular paragraph in the novel, read out by a voice-over. However, at the end of the film Jane’s voice reprises the end of the novel without any use of page or book.
St John Rivers is a character that is frequently missing in film adaptations, though he gets fully developed characterisation in the 2011 version. Another character, but minor, also frequently missing in film adaptations is the gypsy fortune teller, who turns out to be Edward Rochester in disguise. In this adaptation the plot information that was presented in this way is covered by an additional scene, differently scripted, between Edward Rochester (Orson Welles) and Blanche Ingram (Hilary Brooks). This is one of at least two sequences where the narrative departs from what Jane herself can know. The other is a sequence between Rochester and Mason (John Abbott), the brother of Rochester’s actual wife Bertha. Note, the actress or extra playing Bertha does not appear in the credits, probably because she is only glimpsed briefly through a doorway.
Through the use of the voice-over the film attempts to provide the personal narrative voice which is one of the real successes of the original novel. But, apart from the scenes mentioned, this device is not consistently used in the film. Whilst Jane’s voice is a constant in the book, not only explaining the plot but commentating both on the characters and her own feeling and responses, in this film I counted seven such sequences, all only a paragraph from the book. We get leaving Gateshead, arriving at Lowood, Jane’s early thoughts on Rochester, her first awareness of the ‘mystery in the tower’, her thoughts after Rochester has proposed marriage, her return to Gateshead, and the final summing up for the conclusion. Key sequences, as that involving the actual Bertha or Jane’s subsequent flight from Thornfield, offer no such comment. Moreover, despite the presentation these are not the words that Brontë wrote. The opening page and voice-over offers,
“My name is Jane Eyre …. I was born in 1820, a harsh time in England.”
After more on social conditions and attitudes we get a reference to Gateshead and to Aunt Reed. But the original novel opens with,
“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. “
It goes on to describe the events that led to Jane’s incarnation in the red-room. It is only half-way through chapter two that Bronte allows Jane her comments on Mrs Reed. The same is true of the later ‘extracts’ and only the final un-illustrated voice-over comes close to the novel with the details of Edward Rochester’s recovering sight and his first-born. The novel though goes on toe inform the reader about the sojourn of St John Rivers whose religious commitment closes the book. I incline to think that these passages are taken from the earlier radio version and are designed to help the audience into the story and to follow its plot.
Peggy Ann Garner as the young Jane catches her rebellious spirit. In both the Reed household and at Lowood, she resists the impositions on her by adults. The film’s emphasises the power of this world by using low angle shots from Jane’s point of view of both her aunt Mrs Reed (Agnes Moorehead) and of Mr Brocklehurst (Henry Daniell) . Agnes Moorehead is suitably icy as the uncaring Aunt. Daniell is a little overbearing as the sadistic head of the Orphanage. The film emphatically stresses this aspect with an additional scene which shows Jane and Helen burns forced to perambulate in the rain with signs bearing the label ‘rebellious’ and ‘vain’. The latter notice refers to Burns’ ringlets. The punishment exacerbates Burns illness and it is after her funeral that we hear the religious strictures from Doctor Rivers.
The rebellious spirit is more muted when the Jane transforms to the adult woman played by Joan Fontaine. However, she still displays a firm determination, especially in the exchanges with Edward Rochester. This is a much more confident and determined young woman than the unnamed heroine of Rebecca. However, the film leaves out all the plot and discussion about her paintings, an aspect of the story that brings out Jane’s imaginative world. So the film lacks the intellectual relationship between Jane and Edward described in the book..
Kate Ellis and Ann Kaplan commented on both this film and the 1970 TV film version directed by Delbert Mann:
“[this] is a story of a woman who understands instinctively the inequities of patriarchal structures but who cannot, finally, move entirely beyond them. … Jane’s strength comes to the reader through the clear, strong voice of the first person narrative . . . Neither film version (1944, 1970) is ultimately able to retain the centrality of Jane’s point of view. (The English Novel and the Movies, 1981).
Fontaine does have a problem in the overbearing presence of Orson Wells as Rochester. Once he appears he dominates the film and even after tragedy strikes he is till the most potent presence on screen. Referring to the finale of the novel and film Ellis and Kaplan ask,
“(could Welles ever appear chastened?) . . . “
And it is worth noting that at their first meeting, when in an unexpected encounter Rochester is thrown from his horse, he does not need Jane’s assistance to remount as he does in the book.
Adele (Margaret O’Brien) is pleasant but clearly cannot achieve the French quality which is important tin the book. Blanche Ingram is suitably arch. Mason is underdeveloped and, as noted, we do not really see Bertha at all. The film does essay presenting Jane’s point of view, but not consistently. Two shots stand out, as the camera, sited behind Jane, includes her in a shot of Rochester with Blanche in deep staging. In fact the film uses deep focus/staging and chiaroscuro for much of its length. In that and other ways it resembles Citizen Kane. Here though we have cinematographer George Barnes. He had worked on the earlier Rebecca, where equally there was a frequent use of chiaroscuro sand a gothic feel.
This gothic feel is emphasised by the Production Design of William Pereira, who also acted a second unit director. Together with the Art Designs by James Basevi (who worked on Wuthering Heights) and Ward Ihnen and also the set decoration of Thomas Little the film seems to come from some C18th Gothic novel rather than the C19th Brontë. Thornfield is like a castle and most rooms have bare stone walls. There are battlements and a tower where Bertha resides. And there are frequent shots of the battlements as the plot darkens. Thornfield is a building full of shadows. The film was shot in a studio but through back projections, matte shots and the use of models it generates a feel of a Yorkshire landscape, wild and turbulent. There are frequent dissolves as transitions between scenes, the work of special effects specialist Fred Sersen. Another trope is the use of staircases, a conventional Hollywood setting for moment so drama and transition. There are at least nine sequences set on a staircase, more than a in any other version of the novel that I have seen. They appear when Jane leaves Gateshead, when we meet Helen Burns for the first time, in several scenes involving Jane with Rochester and, of course, as a spiral, in the tower where Bertha is hidden.
The director of the film was Robert Stevenson, who had worked in the British film industry and then moved to Hollywood. But this gothic-style film is unlike his other films of the periods. However, it is very like the work directed by Orson Welles, and seems at times to borrow from the style of Citizen Kane (1941). Welles, when negotiating the film, asked for a producer credit, but was only contracted as an actor. However, it is clear from reminiscences that he also ‘assisted’ in some of the direction. Citizen Kane, of course, had an immense influence among the Hollywood craft community. The expressionist style and atmosphere can be seen in numerous examples across the studio films. But Welles was also assisted in this case by the number of his associates working on the film. John Houseman worked with Welles in the theatre and radio in New York. Welles apparently picked a member of the Mercury Theatre, Agnes Moorehead, for the role of Mrs Reed. The Jane Eyre film also crosses over in at least one way with I Walked with a Zombie. This was filmed at RKO , Welles old studio, where he was still working when not acting, on re-cutting his It’s All True [only to see the light of day in 1993]. And the score for Jane Eyre by Bernard Herrmann at times seems to recall that in Citizen Kane: in fact, it appears that Herrmann used orchestrations and themes in this film from the score he composed for the earlier Rebecca.
Rochester and Jane in the 1943 version
Welles, like the dominant studio model of the time, was not strong on independent women. And the film does not generate the sense of female autonomy for which Jane struggles throughout the novel. There is no mention of the inheritance which gives her economic independence in the novel. When Rochester and Jane meet again in the ruins of Thornfield, it is almost as if the former is the savaged persona of Kane. There is a brief but passionate kiss between the couple, dominated by Rochester. Then Jane’s final comment tells the audience that Edward recovered enough sight to see his first-born son.
There have been several film versions of the book since the C20th Fox feature. Ellis and Kaplan note that a later film of Jane Eyre, a UK/USA TV film production in 1971, came after the period of Hollywood’s flirtation with film noir and when values around the representation of women had changed:
“But Mann’s [The director Delbert Mann) version made in the period when the new wave of feminism was at its most exuberant, optimistic phase, humanizes Rochester and Bertha …”
The film is in Eastmancolor, with George C. Scott as Rochester and Susannah York as Jane. In some ways the film returns to the 1934 version, with a more obviously attractive Jane and Thornfield as an elegant mansion, though more in keeping with the period of the novel. Bertha is a catatonic character, rather than the violent person of novel and the earlier film. This version omits the opening in the Reed household but does include St. John Rivers (Ian Bannen, excellent) and his sisters. There is no mention of an inheritance for Jane. And when she returns to Thornfield her meeting with the now blind Rochester is in a wooded walk where he first proposed to her. She tells him “I’ve come home, Edward, to stay.” ‘Coming home’ is one of the classic endings in Hollywood films. The film did have a theatrical release in the UK but was shot for television. It does have some odd ellipsis which may be due to this, cuts where one feels that material is omitted. And the Eastmancolor does not serve the drama as well as black and white film.
Rochester and Jane in the 1970 version
There was another TV film version for London Weekend Television in 1997. This has Samantha Morton as Jane and Ciarán Hinds as Rochester. The film opens as young Jane (Laura Harling) is bundled into the red-room after the incident with John Reed. There is quite an amount of play with the effect of this on Jane. This leads to her moving to the Lowood School, Miss Temple (Emily Joyce) does appear here but is an undeveloped character as is Helen Burns (Gemma Eglinton). Eight years pass and she takes up employment as the Governess at Thornfield. It is at this point that we get the first of the occasional voice-overs with Jane’s comments. Rochester and Jane are well presented, and include the responses to Jane’s paintings. When we come to the climatic revelation of Bertha she is vividly portrayed and with quite a lot of sympathy. The film does address how much or how little knowledge Mrs Fairfax (Gemma Jones) has of Bertha, something the novel is slightly ambiguous about. Jane’s journey from Thornfield is detailed and we meet St John Rivers (Rupert Penry-Jones), but with only one sister, Diana ((Elizabeth Garvie). Again there is no reference to an inheritance and when Jane returns to Rochester the emphasis is on the union and subsequent children. The film makes quite a lot of play with landscapes, though shot in Cumbria rather than Yorkshire. This version also uses less of the dialogue from the book than other versions but with the most distinctive Pilot, a Newfoundland / Landseer.
A family ending in the 1997 version
The 1996 film version is produced by Miramax and involved several European film companies. It was directed by Franco Zeffirelli. For much of its 112 minutes it has a high degree of fidelity to the book, but takes bizarre turn late in the film. There is a strong cast, led by William Hurt playing Rochester in a low key and Charlotte Gainsborough as an admirably determined Jane. There are also some Yorkshire landscapes. The film opens with a powerful rendering of the red-room incident. When Jane moves to Lowood we have a recognisable Miss Temple and Helen Burns, with the original religious emphasis. And an interesting detail, we see Helen and Jane’s locks loose before Mr Brocklehurst as he wields the scissors. This is the only time in the film that Jane’s hair is completely loose. When we arrive at Thornfield the building has the recognisable battlements, and the interiors are affluent but also limited in the C19th style. Rochester and Jane study and discuss her paintings. Later she makes the trip to the dying Mrs Reed. At this point St John Rivers appears as the local vicar and with only one sister. Also at this point we learn about the inheritance that waits Jane. Here as with Bertha the film brings in the West Indian connection. After the interrupted wedding and the revelation of Bertha Jane leaves Thornfield. Immediately Bertha starts the fire that kills her, and Grace Poole and maims Rochester. Jane meanwhile receives a perfunctory proposal from Rivers but returns to Thornfield. Now the couple are united. In this final scene it is Jane who is passionate in the kisses and embraces. So the film offers an effective representation of the original, marred by some careless plotting.
Jane kisses the blind Rochester in the 1996 version
The most recent version on film was produced by Focus Features and BBC Films in 2011. It was scripted by Moira Buffini, whose earlier Byzantium (2012) was impressive in its treatment of a pair of vampiric sisters. The director was Cary Joji Fukunaga whose earlier Beasts of the No Nation (2015), set among child soldiers in Africa, was good, though I thought the plotting was slightly problematic. This colour film retains much of the plot and dialogue of the novel but changes the structure. So the film opens with the adult Jane standing in a doorway. She leave Thornfield [following the attempted wedding ceremony] and endures a difficult and distraught journey to the door of the River’s household. As she convalesces Jane has a series of flashbacks, first to the red-room incident at Gateshead and then [briefly] to Lowood school and her friendship with Helen Burns. Now follows her taking up the post of governess to Adele at Thornfield. For this we have one long and uninterrupted flashback. She meets Rochester as he falls from his startled horse. Note, this is the most undeveloped Pilot in the whole cycle. At Thornfield Rochester discusses her painting with Jane: their conversation brings out the imaginative side of Jane’s character. The film uses a series of visual motifs and tropes to illuminate the developing relationship. One example is picture that Jane examines twice, a nude woman reclining on a sofa. This is a film where the sexual aspect of the relationship is acknowledged. The other, possibly a subtle point, is a brief glimpse of a black coachman when Jane arrives at Thornfield. When Blanche Ingram appears we also see Jane’s journey back to Gateshead and Mrs Reed’s confession of Jane’s relative John Eyre. The only voice-over in the film gives us the wording of a letter that Jane writes to him.
Back at Thornfield we hear Rochester’s proposal, see the interrupted wedding and the mad Bertha. This flashback includes part of the journey already seen at the film’s opening. There are two differences: one is a shot of a distraught Rochester calling after Jane at a window: the other a dramatic overhead shot of a distraught Jane lying in the heather. Back into the film’s present, we see Jane working at the school and then St John River’s proposal. Now she also learns of her inheritance. In an open-air encounter Rivers questions her continuing passion for Rochester. At the sound of his name Jane runs off into the surrounding moors. We then see her in a carriage journeying to Thornfield. Finding Rochester, in the spot where he originally proposed to her, the couple are re-united. There is no dialogue about wedding or children,. just a long shot of the entwined couple.
The interrupted wedding in the 2011 version.
The organisation of the flashback is slightly odd. The series of flashbacks at the River’s house of Lowood draw a parallel between the two settings: places where Jane’s education, formal and informal, occurs. However, the later shot as she runs towards the moors does raise a question as to whether the final sequence is actual or imagined?
The panel discussion that accompanied the screening of the 1943 film version was chaired by Samira Ahmed with Lauren Livesey, Amber Regis and Michael Jackson. They were all interesting but none of them was a film specialist. This was an aspect that was not fully explored.
The three panellist talked about aspects of the novel and the various adaptations, both on film and on television. There are also several foreign language versions. The television versions, they suggested, offered much more detailed versions of the novel. It also appears that there have been a number of pornographic film versions based on the novel and that Fifty Shades of Gray is an example. Laura suggested that this related to the master/servant relationship in the novel. This aspect is one that varies considerably in the film versions, though more recent films treat this with greater complexity.
They noted how the films tended to project a ‘brooding Byronic hero’ with Jane the ‘right kind of woman to tame him’. This is especially true of the 1943 and 1970 film versions. The more recent films tend to a less strident characterisation. But as Amber pointed out all the films in some way present ‘a damaged English character [who] needs saving’. They also noted how certain characters or events, Gateshead – the Rivers family, the Madeira inheritance – are not always included. And the sequence that is uniformly missing is Rochester’s impersonation of a gypsy and his fortune telling trick. It is worth adding that the characterisation of Bertha varies considerably. From a violent and malevolent hag to a damaged and catatonic woman.
Bertha raises the point that is dramatised in Jean Rhys novel, the West Indian connection. There is a hint of this in the 1943 version, which intriguingly in places has a similar feel to that of I Walked with a Zombie: filmed in the same year at RKO. Both film’s have the heroine walking in mist, and with an oppressive silence. The RKO film has a plot that includes voodoo, which is where it crosses over with the Rhys novel. It also brings out the horror aspect that is a sub-text in the Bronte novel. Whilst recent versions have shown the influence of feminism in treating the novel, the colonial subtext has yet to be exploited. This is present in the Rhys novel through Rochester’s first marriage in Jamaica and also through Jane’s inheritance of estates in Madeira, where the Portuguese operated a slave system.
There is a 1993 film version of the Rhys novel produced in Australia and a BBC TV film made in 2006. The 1993 film is the more faithful to the novel: it received an 18 certificate in the UK for sex, nudity, violence and profanity. The novel and the films chart Edwards Rochetster’s [but not named as such] relationship with Bertha, originally Antoinette and renamed by her husband. Antoinette is Creole and comes from a slave owning family. Her mother was mentally unstable and the same malady blights her marriage. However, in this version Rochester is not the victim and already in the early days of wedlock he has had sex with a servant. The novel takes in Antoinette’s childhood right up to her incarceration at Thornfield and the subsequent fire which will lead to her death. The novel has multiple voices, including Antoinette and Rochester. In this and in other ways the Rhys version picks up on the form, motifs and tropes in the Bronte original. The use of narrative voices is present in the 1993 film, as are a number of the motifs. The 2006 versions lacks most of these, certainly the narrative voices.
There was only time for one question, which raised the issue of female consciousness. All the panellists agreed that the narrative voice of the book is crucial to this. The films vary in their use of this. Only the 1943 and 1996 version use this extensively, though the 2011 version does essay a subjective viewpoint through the camerawork. What is interesting is the choice of dialogue. Jane’s intelligent response to Brocklehurst’s vision of sin and hell,
‘I must keep well and not die’
seems the most favoured. The missing line in most that strikes me is the rhetorical,
‘Reader, I married him’.
This decisive statement undercuts the seemingly conventional ending to the work, the bonding of heroine to hero. The closest to this is Charlotte Gainsborough’s Jane who ends with
“And so I married him.”
Judging by these adaptations even a work aiming at fidelity only offers a partial rendering. Condensing a book that can take many hours to read into the space of two hours has its impact. Television can offer a more leisurely perusal. And writing a story is rather different than rendering it in images and sound. Having noted that I found it odd that there is so little use of the voice-over in the film versions. Then there are the changing mores of the times. the original Jane Eyre has a concentration on religious values that do not speak to effectively to a more secular time. Likewise child rearing has changed in immeasurable ways in English/British society: even more true of the English-speaking society in North America. However the films do bring out aspect of the work. This is especially true of the gothic atmosphere of the novel and the implied horror. Jane actually uses the word ‘vampire’ when describing Bertha in the novel. In the sequence after Bertha attacks Richard Mason he claims,
“She sucked the blood: she said she’d drain my hear,” ..
The 1943 version has “sank her teeth into me..”, the 1970 “she bit me..”, 1996 “drain my heart …”, the 1997 “bit and clawed me … like a vampire..” whilst the 2011 version has a silent Mason. The later colour versions offer a more graphic depiction of the actual wounds, peaking in the 2011 version with exposed and bloody flesh.
From that point of view I prefer to have read the novel prior to seeing the film as this illuminates Bronte’s masterpiece: a status |i feel none of the films achieve.