Jane Eyre 1983 wedding

Three Of The Greatest Jane Eyre Adaptations

In last week’s post we looked at the life of Jack Kay, the fortune teller of Haworth who inspired the fortune telling scene in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Included in the post was a picture of Timothy Dalton as Rochester in his fortune teller’s guise, and I was asked why that scene is so rarely included in television and film adaptations of this great novel? It’s an excellent question, so that’s something we’re going to look at today, as well as assessing three of the greatest recent Jane Eyre adaptations.

I will also be calling upon some expert help today in the form of my wonderful girlfriend Emma Langan. We were in Scarborough this week to visit Anne Brontë’s resting place, and we also celebrated Emily Brontë’s 202nd birthday on Thursday with some lovely Victoria Sponge cake at the appropriately named Bonnets cafe. Emma is passionate about the Brontës, Jane Eyre and its adaptations, so I was thrilled when she agreed to helping me with this post.

With my fellow contributor Emma Langan in Anne’s beloved Scarborough this week

After reading my post last week, Amy Louise Maris commented, ‘It’s always been a source of great disappointment to me that most (all but one?) adaptations in film omit this great scene in Jane Eyre. It is one of my favourites. Interesting post!’ Thanks Amy, and thanks to everyone who comments on my posts, they’re always welcome.

I’ve always found the fortune telling scene to be a very interesting one, and one that serves well to move the plot forward – Rochester is becoming ever more enamoured of Jane, despite the attractions of Blanche Ingram, and this odd ruse is his attempt to discover if his feelings are reciprocated. It shows Rochester in a more playful light than he had hitherto been seen, but it also shows his capacity for self-interest as it is, after all, rather a cruel trick to play. Why then isn’t this pivotal scene in many adaptations, other than the 1983 series starring Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clarke? Emma Langan takes a look:

As much as it pains me to highlight a flaw in the timeless masterpiece that is ‘Jane Eyre’, it is worth noting that the fortune telling scene seems a little far fetched even for someone as imaginative and filled with genius as Charlotte. With fortune telling and interest in the supernatural being extremely popular in the 19th century, a fortune teller at a party would not have gone amiss. Premonition games were heavily included at Halloween and Christmas parties in the rural countryside (where Thornfield Hall appears to be set). Whilst claimed professional experts of the supernatural laid the cards for the most rich and accomplished ladies and gentlemen in some of the most superb drawing rooms across the country.

The issue I find is that Charlotte felt Rochester had to secretly pose as the fortune teller rather than just hiring a real one, and how this segment in the story passes without anyone seeming to notice any familiarity until Jane Eyre herself is called. Could this be because a genuine fortune teller would not have been able to sense Jane’s presence and would not have been so pushy as to have called Jane to have her fortune told? Or was it to slightly hint at the fact that Charlotte herself may have been a cynic when it came to the habits of self-proclaimed mystics? Would a real fortune teller have been as detailed in telling the stories as Rochester was?

This could be a possible explanation as to why the fortune teller scene is cut out in most of the film adaptations of Jane Eyre regardless to how well the rest of the film is true to the novel. In 1846-47 when Jane Eyre was written, fortune tellers were criminalised under the 1824 Vagrancy Act, as the following excerpt explains: “every person pretending or professing to tell fortunes, or using any subtle craft, means, or device, by palmistry or otherwise, to deceive and impose on any of his Majesty’s subjects…shall be deemed a rogue and vagabond.” Could Charlotte have used a fake fortune teller to avoid breaking any laws in her novel unlike her trailblazing sister Anne in the Tenant of Wildfell Hall? And is the fortune telling scenes often cut out of the movie adaptations because supernatural abilities are often a cause of controversy across the world and because the 1824 Vagrancy Act is still an official act of parliament even 196 years later?

A fascinating theory from Emma, and it could well be that Charlotte was influenced by a cynicism when it came to supernatural phenomena and psychic abilities. Whilst society in general is much more open to the possibility of some psychic phenomena, it’s still true that a healthy cynicism remains prevalent and that some people find the possibility of such phenomena to be contrary to their religious beliefs. With that in mind, film and television producers may be tempted to consign this interesting scene to the dustbin.

There is another scene which is often overlooked when it comes to adaptations. In the aftermath of her supposed wedding day to Rochester, the ever proud Jane determines to leave Thornfield Hall, and the man she still loves, forever. She eventually finds herself on the desolate moors of the Peak District, but most adaptations show Jane wandering dejectedly around the moors and then finding herself, hungry and bedraggled, at the home of the Rivers family in Morton (based upon the real life Derbyshire village of Hathersage visited by Charlotte and Ellen Nussey).

Jane begs for the pigs’ porridge

In choosing this route, the adaptations miss a very moving scene in which a starving Jane is forced to beg for scraps of food that were intended for pigs. I believe this scene is important because it shows the physical and emotional nadir that Jane had reached, but it also shows her finally overcoming her pride that until then had been an unconquerable, controlling emotion. I believe that Charlotte is showing us that both Jane and Rochester have to overcome their pride before they can finally find a lasting love together – Jane’s epiphany comes as a result of her sudden poverty and hunger and Rochester’s as a result of his sudden blindness and disability. Charlotte is saying that despite their different social backgrounds, Jane and Rochester are the same emotionally and spiritually, with the same frailties – they are indeed equal, just as they affirm so powerfully in the beautifully and moving proposal scene.

In my opinion, Jane Eyre adaptations would be even better with these two scenes included, but there are still some brilliant adaptations out there. Three of the most modern adaptations have to be among the very best, so let’s take a brief look at them now:

1983: We’ve already encountered the 1983 adaptation by the BBC, and it was one that did show Rochester’s fortune telling farce. Against very fierce competition, this has to be my favourite adaptation and that’s down to three things – the first two being its leads, Zelah Clarke as the eponymous heroine and Timothy Dalton as Edward Rochester. For me, these two will forever epitomise these roles.

Zelah is small, determined and pronounces her words very clearly and deliberately, which I think is perfectly fitting for the determined and proud governess. Her Jane is often reserved, but the strength of Zelah’s portrayal is that you are never in any doubt about her hidden passions and fire within.

Some have commented that Timothy Dalton is just too handsome to play Rochester, as the protagonist is described as plain, even ugly, by Charlotte. These adjectives could clearly never be applied to Timothy, famous now as a James Bond, and yet I find him entirely convincing. This Welsh actor delivers a very convincing northern accent throughout, but once again we can see his inner emotions despite a bluff, uncompromising exterior.

Jane and Rochester 1983
Zelah and Timothy as Jane and Rochester

The third positive for me in this adaptation is that it remains incredibly faithful to Charlotte Brontë’s original text, which surely has to be a positive. I think this trilogy of factors reaches its zenith in the proposal scene – Rochester looks troubled and feverish, Jane looks angry at first, but the denouement of this scene is entirely romantic and entirely believable. I’d also like to take a moment to praise the gentle, yearning theme music by Paul Reade, which is entirely in keeping with this loving and loveable adaptation.

2006: The BBC returned to Jane Eyre in 2006 for a four part adaptation which is many people’s favourite version, and which gives the 1983 adaptation above a real run for its money in my opinion. Our protagonists are played this time by Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens. They handle the roles with aplomb and the only real criticism is the one levelled against Timothy Dalton: namely that they’re just too good looking to play Charlotte’s characters. That we soon forget this, however, is testimony to their acting and the directing by Susanna White.

Rochester and Jane Eyre finally find love and happiness
Toby and Ruth are brilliant in this adaptation

This is a very stylish and lavishly filmed production, with a series of almost cinematic scenes that hold great visual appeal. Even so, it never fails to engage the heart and mind as well as the eyes, and there’s real chemistry between the main characters. Toby already had a fine Brontë pedigree when he stepped into Rochester’s shoes, as he had played Gilbert Markham in the BBC’s 1996 adaptation of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall. Starring as Helen alongside him on that occasion was the brilliant Tara Fitzgerald who can also be seen here as Jane’s wicked aunt Mrs. Reed.

There are some differences from the original novel, however. Firstly, Rochester doesn’t disguise himself as a fortune teller but hires one, which as Emma has explained above may be a more realistic interpretation of what was happening in country houses at the time. Secondly, Jane’s flight across the moors is condensed, although Ruth Wilson still does an excellent job in portraying Jane’s despair and vulnerability at this time. Finally, Emma will take a look at what is arguably the greatest film adaptation of Jane Eyre:

2011: Director Cary Fukunaga’s and script writer Moira Buffini’s 2011 film adaptation of ‘Jane Eyre’ is my favourite adaptation of Jane Eyre because, despite the unconventional start to the film, I feel that it is excellently cast and true to Charlotte Brontë’s original narrative. It does the novel justice and lingers in the memory, which is difficult considering how many adaptations there are.

The beginning of the film starts with Mia Wasikowska’s perfectly parted Jane Eyre running away from Thornfield Hall and being rescued by Jamie Bell’s St John Rivers and his sisters. Then the film carries on in the same sequence as in the novel revealed in a series of flashbacks. Jane adjusts to her new life with the Rivers siblings until she comes into unexpected fortune and makes her way back to Thornfield triggered by the haunting voice of Rochester calling her.

Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre

Some scenes that you would not find in the novel have been subtly added, such as Rochester emerging from a snowstorm and somehow finding Jane at her pokey school mistress lodgings and embracing her. The film is excellently cast throughout except for Rochester’s faithful and energetic companion Pilot who is played by a lovely cross breed rather than a Newfoundland, but that is easily forgiven. The connection between the solicitor Mr Briggs, Mason, St John Rivers and Jane is a little non-descript compared to how it is made evident in the novel but I found this only a minor error.

As someone who does not judge others by their looks and believes looks can fade very quickly, it’s almost impossible for me to describe any actress who has played Jane in any adaptation as ugly or even plain as Charlotte and Jane both describe themselves and the same applies to Mia Wasikowska who portrays Jane as quiet, pious, virtuous, self-assured and strong willed to the point that the actress emanates Jane herself, as if Jane has stepped directly onto the big screen straight from the novel. Michael Fassbender’s Edward Rochester is neither dark nor ugly but perfectly balances out the combination of secret hopeless romantic and his broody aloofness and handsome arrogance. Judy Dench is as iconic as ever as the talkative housekeeper Mrs Fairfax to the extent where once you’ve seen her in the role, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else portraying Mrs Fairfax. Sally Hawkins is almost unrecognisable in her portrayal as the menacing Mrs Reed especially as only four years before this adaptation of ‘Jane Eyre’, she portrayed the quiet and sweet Anne Eliot in the 2007 adaptation of Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’. Freya Parks is excellent in portraying the positivity and wisdom of Helen Burns in such a way that we see the closest we have ever come to seeing her inspiration of Maria Brontë brought to life. With this brilliant cast and an emphasis on passion, this is the greatest big screen ‘Jane Eyre’.

All three of these adaptations are well worth watching, and there are many other Jane Eyre adaptations to try too, including the recent National Theatre adaptation with the very first version being filmed in 1910. If you have a spare hour or so, why not watch this 1934 film version right here, but be warned that it’s not quite as, er, sophisticated as some later adaptations:

There’s a Jane Eyre for everyone, which is a fitting tribute to the power of Charlotte’s work. Join me next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post, thank you to the wonderful Emma Langan for her hard work and her contribution, and thank you all for reading it. Stay happy and healthy, keep reading the novels and watching the films.

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6 thoughts on “Three Of The Greatest Jane Eyre Adaptations”

  1. Thank you for all the opinions of the 3 versions of Jane Eyre. I’ve seen the Timothy and Zelah adaptations & like it very much. But I also enjoyed director Robert Young’s version, starring Samantha Morton as Jane and Ciran Hinds as Mr Rochester. I’ve read Bronte’s Jane Eyre but after reading Emma’s excellent insights, I think I’ll re-read it and also watch the other recommended versions. Being an author I sincerely thank you for sharing your excellent knowledge about one of the greatest women writers of all times (of course I’m including Jane Austen as also one of the greatest).

  2. I agree on the first two. I’ve only seen 2011 once — but the 1983 and 2006 are the finest and I’ve watched both at least twice. There are moments in the one in the later 1990s with Ciarhan Hinds and Samantha Morton that are very fine.

    FWIW, to me the finest of the Wuthering Heights are a BBC in 1978 (it takes us through the whole novel) and the 1992/3 with Fiennes and Binoche. There are moments in that original 1939 which are unbeatable too.

    I do like the Tenant of Wildfell Hall with Rupert, Graves, Toby Stevens (again) and Tara Fitzgerald

    Ellen

  3. Thanks so much for your interesting comments on ‘Jane Eyre’ a source of endless interest. You will be interested in my upcoming book ‘The Sexual Politics of Jane Eyre: Fear and the construction of Text in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre’ which is a new reading of the novel and in which I pay attention to Jane’s sojourn as a beggar (contextualised within Thomas Malthus’s comments) http://www.eerpublishing.com/erskine-sexual-politics-of-jane-eyre.html

    1. I greatly enjoyed your insights into Jane Eyre productions. The 1983 and 2006 versions are my favorites out of the many I’ve seen (and reviewed at JaneEyre.net), though the definitive Jane Eyre has yet to be made. However, I found the 2011 film unconvincing for a variety of reasons, including Fassbender’s subdued performance, though every Judi Dench scene was enthralling.

      I agree that including Jane begging would deepen the viewer’s grasp of her desperate straits and the lines she is forced to cross.

      It’s interesting to learn why Charlotte may have chosen to include the gypsy scene in the matter she did. That scene strained belief a bit — both in print and in some films (it was a real weakness of Timothy Dalton’s mainly solid performance in 1983). Thanks for adding to my knowledge of that period!

  4. Thank you Nick and Emma. Lovely post.

    Do you know of any modern adaptations of ‘Shirley’ – it does have some bits we might now find unacceptable but very intriguing also. Is an adaptation overdue? There is, of course the silent film of 1922 but this has been lost forever unless one of your readers may know where it might be found.

  5. I am very surprised no mention was made of the 1943 film adaptation of JANE EYRE starring Orson Welles, Joan Fontaine, the wonderful child actress MARGARET O’BRIEN, and, in an uncredited role, ELIZABETH TAYLOR as Helen Burns. The screenplay was written by the great 19th century writer, ALDOUS HUXLEY and the film was directed by ROBERT STEVENSON, best known for directing MARY POPPINS, 20 years later. In my opinion, Welles as Rochester, never had an equal. He captured Charlotte Bronte’s ill-fated, anticlimactic hero as brilliantly as Academy Award winner Joan Fontaine’s sensitive depiction of Jane as she grows from a shy, uncertain creature to a strong, independent woman. This transition is central to the writings of each of the Bronte sisters, whose shared vision, and single most important contribution to literature, and the world, was acknowledging and celebrating the Independent Woman. No other Jane portrayed by the actresses in any of the several subsequent film adaptations seemed to have understood this. The character of Jane is a survivor by necessity, but becomes a woman of courage as she comes to realize that a purposeful and honest life does not come from what others expect of you, but rather, from what you expect of yourself.

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