Home > Movies > A Guide to the Cinematic Jane Eyres

A Guide to the Cinematic Jane Eyres

The book-to-movie phenomenon is nothing rare; neither is it new. As long as movies have been around, moviemakers have been cribbing stories from books. Jane Eyre, one of the greatest British novels of all time (and, in my opinion, the best of the output of the three Brontë sisters—sorry, Wuthering Heights), has been filmed dozens of times. Why it is so attractive to filmmakers is pretty clear: it features a wonderful, sensitive role for a woman and a bold, tour-de-force role for a man, it’s got tragic elements as well as feel-good elements, and OF COURSE the great romance. My IMDb search showed that—in addition to the Hollywood Jane Eyres (they do one about every twenty years) and the BBC Jane Eyres (they do one about every ten)—there were multiple Eyres filmed in the silent era (pre-1927) and multiple Eyres from multiple cultures (for example, Greece, India, Brazil and the Netherlands). Several years ago I even saw a ballet version of the story.

I couldn’t watch every adaptation, of course; some were just not obtainable. But I did my best. So, presented for your consideration, the seven major Jane Eyres.

Jane Eyre 1934

Jane: Virginia Bruce

Rochester: Colin Clive

Directed by: Christy Cabanne

Everything you need to know about this version of Jane Eyre can be summed up in one sentence: Jane is blonde. As a little girl she wears her hair in sausage curls which are cut off her head when she gets to the Lowood School, because, as well all know, curled hair is a sign of vanity! When Jane finds herself at Thornfield, she does not let being the governess stop her from dressing in big, bustled gowns. This is all par for the course for the 1930s. They wanted actresses to be blonde and glamorous (Dorothy Gale almost was). So much for literature’s greatest Plain Jane.

None of the other characters really work either. Rochester’s ladyfriend Blanche Ingram looks ready to retire. She’s supposed to be youthful and beautiful and glamorous, not a washed-up old hag. Adele, Rochester’s ward, in the grand tradition of movie kids, is routinely annoying, but 1934’s Adele is gifted in this arena. She falls into a giant vase and screams, feet waving. She is practically developmentally delayed. And Bertha! The crazed wife in the attic! In this version, there is no wedding for a spurned brother to ruin—they never get there. Instead, Bertha is discovered when she just kind of wanders into the room, singing and wide-eyed, more in the broken-mind Ophelia camp of crazy than the psychotic camp.

The movie cuts out a great deal of the story—again, par for the course when your average movie run time is 85 minutes—but it does an all right job of condensing the material. The film cuts out the entire “Jane lives with the Rivers family sequence,” and, after she leaves Thornfield, she goes to work in a poorhouse instead. She returns to Thornfield after hearing of Bertha’s fate from a Thornfield servant.

The worst of this version is what is done to the main characters’ personalities. Jane’s blonde hair is the tip of the iceberg. She struts around, flirting, singing, full of smiles and brimming with confidence. She does not seem to carry a lifetime of privation on her shoulders, which is so crucial to Jane’s character. Rochester is worse. He is polite and moons over Jane almost immediately. He is gentle with his young ward, Adele. He has no anger, no bitterness, no sharpness. When Jane leaves him, she writes a note to him on Adele’s school slate. By this point I was so tired of his milquetoast behavior I was chanting “Smash it! Smash it!” He sets it down carefully.

Verdict: Jane = Bad, Rochester = Bad, Romance = Adequate, Gothicism = Nonexistent, Overall = SKIP

Jane Eyre 1943

Jane: Joan Fontaine

Rochester: Orson Welles

Directed by: Robert Stevenson

Other notables: Margaret O’Brien as Adele, Agnes Moorehead as Mrs. Reed, Elizabeth Taylor as Helen Burns

A big Hollywood production, starring Joan Fontaine, who had won an Oscar the year before (for Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion) and Orson Welles. Watching this film, I face an immediate problem: I hate Joan Fontaine. There are very few actors and actresses that I hate from the classic era, but they do exist: Van Johnson, Fred Astaire, Carole Lombard. And Joan Fontaine. She always played (at least every role I’ve ever seen her in) timid and skittish, and she had a strange, crooked mouth that made her appear to be almost constantly nauseated. This actually worked to her benefit in Suspicion, and in her other most famous role, as Mrs. De Winter in Rebecca. Both those characters suffer from the belief that someone in their household is trying to kill them. The character of Jane Eyre, on the other hand, while timid, is not skittish; she is measured and calm, to an extent that makes her (according to Mr. Rochester in the book) almost other-worldly. He likes that he can’t rattle her like he does everybody else. There’s a moment from the book that is revisited in most movie versions where Mrs. Ingram—the mother of Jane’s rival for Mr. Rochester’s affections—makes a speech about how awful governesses are, either not realizing or not caring that Jane is in the room. Some cinematic Janes straighten their spines at this moment because Jane, regardless of class distinctions, is better than Mrs. Ingram and she knows it. Fontaine’s Jane responds to this slight by dashing out of the room and crying. She looks like someone punched a bunny.

On the other hand, you’ve got Orson Welles, who is a more-than-adequate Rochester. He was still relatively young and thin here, and not afraid to be a villain. (I just saw The Stranger, where he is a Nazi sympathizer hiding out in New England. He also plays the villain to excellent effect in The Third Man.) As Rochester, Welles growls; he lashes out with Rochester’s bitter rage. Taking a walk with his betrothed, Blanche Ingram, he lays her flat with his honesty: he knows she is only marrying him for his money, and he is OK with it. She is mortally insulted, of course; he says not to be coy. They break it off, which was his ultimate goal the whole time: Jane has been made adequately jealous and so he can kick Blanche to the curb now. (YES. He is Rochester. He behaves badly. OFTEN.)

Another excellent feature of the 1943 film is the Gothicism. I am a lover of the dark and brooding, and the book has plenty of that, but most movie versions set it entirely aside. This one is dark, there’s mist. Thornfield has spires and disturbing statuary and any number of unexplored corners. Importantly, there’s the climactic thunderstorm and the tree struck by lightning that foretells Jane and Rochester’s parting.

Funnily enough, the biggest star in this movie is not even credited for the role she plays. For about ten minutes at the beginning, while Jane is still a child and going to Lowood, her best friend is Helen Burns—a truly underrated character, who is beatific in the face of death and thus, teaches young Jane how to let go of bitterness and forgive. She lays out the entire moral framework for adult Jane. In this version she is played by an 11-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, who does a great job.

Verdict: Jane = Bad, Rochester = Great, Romance = Adequate, Gothicism = Great, Overall = SEE

Ahead: Janes from 1983, 1996, 1997, 2006, and 2011

Jane Eyre 1983

Jane: Zelah Clarke

Rochester: Timothy Dalton

Directed by: Julian Amyes

So this Jane Eyre is the weirdest of the ones I watched. According to Netflix reviews (it streams there, for any interested parties), it is the favorite of many of the book’s fans and I am somewhat baffled by this popularity. It is NOT GOOD.

Let’s get my initial bias out of the way. Look, it can’t help that it was produced in the 1980s. The BBC was in high gear back then putting all of its classic literature to film, and I’ve seen the Austens and the Dickenses and everybody’s hair is bad and everybody’s clothes are bad and the film quality is poor and that was the ‘80s. The decade and its limitations is likewise to blame for Jane Eyre ‘83’s reliance on cheap, plastery interior sets, and for it being recorded on videotape instead of on film. The lighting and the musical cues were probably meant to invoke (in Britain) a respectable filmed stage play, but its bad luck is that it looks and feels exactly like the cheapest and hackiest of American soap operas.

Now an unfair bias: this Jane is awful. And the reviewers love her, too! I don’t get it. She is about four foot seven, to begin with, and I know that Jane is described as being pixieish and slight and everything, but she looks ridiculous standing next to Rochester. (According to the internet, which knows everything, Timothy Dalton, as Rochester, is about 6’2”.) She’s already young enough to be his daughter—that’s scripted by Brontë herself—does she also need to look like it? She is not particularly pretty—especially compared to Dalton, in his prime—and, not helped by the oversized bonnets and the miserable tentlike dresses in which she is garbed, which made me look her up on IMDb to see if she was, in fact, eight months pregnant when the miniseries was filmed (she was not); she looks like nothing so much as an elderly little girl. Needless to say, when things get romantic between the two it is emphatically Not Hot.

But then, they don’t seem to be aiming for hot, and neither do they aim for passionate or dramatic or Gothic or anything that dips beneath the veneer of British reserve. It’s an incredibly academic Eyre.

There are eleven episodes, each 30 minutes long. To its credit, this version’s writers adapted the story excellently to that format, ending each episode on a important moment or change of fortune to draw us back in for the next. With that much time to spare, they were also able to include just about every setpiece from the book—the game of charades, the fortune teller bit, the ripping of the veil (my personal favorite of the usually-skipped scenes), and even the drawn-out process of Jane and Rochester’s reunion. In the book, Jane doesn’t just come back, kiss him, and everything is decided! Love, again! There is this strange, lengthy emotional negotiation, and this adaptation covers it. It’s compelling in the book. On film, unfortunately, it seems extremely anticlimactic.

Maybe this is why the booky crowd is so taken with this version; they want to watch the one which is most like reading the book. As for me, someone who is equally enamored with movies as I am with books, I want an adaptation that uses the sight and sound of film to do something new. Not something different, necessarily, but something that justifies the adaptation process. This miniseries was not a filmmaker’s endeavor; it was the result of somebody saying, “There are no faithful adaptations of Jane Eyre,” and making being faithful to the book top priority—top over visual interest, watchability, narrative pacing, etc. If I wanted it to be exactly like the book, I would just reread the book.

Verdict: Jane = Bad, Rochester = Adequate, Romance = Bad, Gothicism = Nonexistent, Overall = SKIP

Jane Eyre 1996

Jane: Charlotte Gainsbourg

Rochester: William Hurt

Directed by: Franco Zeffirelli

Other notables: Joan Plowright as Mrs. Fairfax, Anna Paquin as Young Jane

This would have been the first adaptation of Jane Eyre that I saw; it came out about two years after I read the book for the first time, and so for awhile I had an unearned attachment to it. It was an awards-baiting period piece from the mid-90s, directed by an Italian auteur (Franco Zeffirelli, who did the preeminent film version of Romeo and Juliet in 1968), but like many of the awards-baiting period pieces in the 1990s (not a good decade for them) it came off as a bit stodgy and airless.

Charlotte Gainsbourg, as adult Jane, looks like the Jane of my imagination, more than any of the other actresses I saw. I assume this is a function of her resemblance to the lady on the cover of my first edition of the book. That’s basically the extent of the usefulness of her performance; she does nothing special, does not seem especially compelling or loveable. Jane is meant to be shy and unassuming, but Jane of the book does have a sharp intellect and an ironic sense of humor. This is one of the main draws for Rochester, at first—they have great conversations where she seems to innately understand the way he communicates. This Jane and Rochester do not seem to talk much, and, if the movie’s music can be trusted, they are basically in love with each other immediately.

Rochester is played by William Hurt, not one of my favorite actors anyway and super miscast here. Even all scruffed up he’s still a bit too much of a pretty boy to play a character who is meant to look like a bulldog, and he’s not fierce enough; not as bad as 1934 Rochester but still not good.

The worst thing this version does is mess with the chronology of events. Specifically, scrunching up all the important events to happen within about 10 minutes of each other. After the abandoned wedding, when Jane leaves, the fire at Thornfield begins immediately. Like, as she’s running away from the house. I find it unlikely that at such an emotional moment Rochester would still risk his life to save Bertha from the fire. The co-mingling of those two events leaves them both a bit cold.

One pro: This version cares about Jane’s childhood, which most versions basically gloss over (even the 2006 miniseries, which at a run time of 4 hours has a few minutes to spare). The book devotes its first ten chapters to Jane’s tribulations at the Reeds’ and at Lowood School, and this movie takes that bit seriously. Ten to twenty minutes of screen time and—more importantly—a name actress playing young Jane, in this case, Anna Paquin, who at thirteen was already an Oscar winner.

Verdict: Jane = Adequate, Rochester = Bad, Romance = Bad, Gothicism = Nonexistent, Overall = SKIP

Jane Eyre 1997

Jane: Samantha Morton

Rochester: Ciaran Hinds

Directed by: Robert Young

I said about 1996 that Charlotte Gainsbourg was my exact visual image of Jane. The 1997 TV movie gave me my exact visual image of Rochester, with Ciaran Hinds. One of the few movie Rochesters who actually seem old enough (Rochester is supposed to be around forty) and ugly enough (Rochester is explicitly not handsome). No offense to Hinds, who is a fine actor. (I especially liked him in Munich.)

He is exceedingly yelly here; one of the gruffest, angriest Rochesters you’re going to see. Sometimes almost to a fault; when Jane goes to leave him, for example, he tries to browbeat her into staying. Like he’s going to send her to her room without supper if she doesn’t obey. (It’s so interesting how—with the sameness of so many scenes in this story, told across multiple films—the parting scene is always played completely differently. See what I say about 2006 and 2011’s versions, below.) Hinds’ performance here is not a thing of subtlety, really, but then none of the movie is. Bertha, the madwoman in the attic, is basically a cavewoman, with this mop of wild hair, and when the wedding party enters her chamber she is like, pacing and banging herself into walls. The confession of love scene is passionate and affecting until they go to kiss and suddenly turn into aliens trying to swallow each others’ tonsils. Ew. Stop it.

Samantha Morton is a lovely Jane, the first chronologically (of the ones I’ve seen) to not be afraid to give Jane a little bit of backbone. At their first meeting, she responds to Rochester’s rudeness (which is pronounced) with sort of icy detachment, as if to say, You may be my boss, sir, and it may be your inclination to call me names, but I’m not going to pretend I deserve it. And she manages quite well to marry that strength with—let’s call it a susceptibility to Rochester. He’s not exactly charming, and he’s not her knight in shining armor, either—he’s got skeletons in the closet. The scene where he tells her about Adele’s mother is great; they are sitting together on a bench in the yard and as he makes it clear to her that he fathered the child without being married to her mother, Jane gets sort of queasy-looking and then, barely perceptibly, inches herself away from Rochester on the bench. A good little Christian girl, she thinks promiscuity is catching. BUT. They are also two lonely, lonely people, something Morton brings kind of endearingly to the character. When Rochester goes to help Richard Mason and wraps Jane in his coat to keep her warm while she waits, she nestles against it and inhales its scent. She’s barely ever been touched by another person before. She’s bound to fall in love with him.

I know that, back in ’97, after the Zeffirelli version, I found this one to be adequate. Unfortunately, with several better choices out there now, it’s really not got a lot going for it. At a running time of about 100 minutes, it has to cut out enormous bits of the story—basically Jane’s entire sojourn with the Rivers family, for example. The result of this is that Jane is apart from Rochester for about four minutes of movie time before she returns to him, giving us in the audience very little time to really feel their longing for each other. Gothicism is also at a low ebb. For Brontë completists (or Samantha Morton fanatics, if they exist), I would say give it a try. It is only 100 minutes long. Otherwise, aim for better.

Verdict: Jane = Good, Rochester = Adequate, Romance = Adequate, Gothicism = Nonexistent, Overall = SKIP

Jane Eyre 2006

Jane: Ruth Wilson

Rochester: Toby Stephens

Directed by: Susanna White

One of my personal favorites, this is another BBC adaptation that aired in America on PBS in 2006. It’s made up of two 2-hour episodes, so the length allows for more setting of scene and building of character. Ruth Wilson, as Jane, gets to slow play the character, starting her work at Thornfield with timid wistfulness and slowly blooming as she gets to know Rochester. She doesn’t really live until she knows him, she doesn’t know herself until she knows him. That’s all text, that’s straight from Brontë’s pen, and Wilson’s careful performance makes it subtly visible. (I like Wilson a lot—she now plays a decidedly un-Jane like character, a modern-day physicist slash sociopath, on the BBC series, Luther.)

Toby Stephens, meanwhile, is Rochester from the word go. Or, more accurately, from the words, “Get away from me—witch!” which is his first line of dialogue when Jane, walking down the lane, spooks hs horse, causing it to throw him. He’s angry and harsh, but he likes Jane almost immediately after speaking with her because she’s different, and he manages to convey both those things at the same time. I continue to think that Stephens was too young and too handsome to really be Rochester—also, he has emo hair—but his performance makes up for that.

Things go off the rails slightly when Jane leaves Thornfield; she collapses on the moors, hallucinates dead childhood friend Helen Burns, yells “Helen, wait for me!” and passes out. St. John Rivers appears over the ridge like Superman to carry her home. Jane struggled on her own, but she wasn’t suicidal. It seems out of character, although it does set up the gratitude she feels for the Riverses and especially St. John. But her gratitude would be pretty well understood anyway, wouldn’t it? They just let her live there for ages, recovering, and when she’s well St. John gives her a job.

The parting from Rochester happens later, in flashback once she’s been settled with the Riverses (or is it a fantasy?). This film treats the scene unlike any other I’ve ever seen. Instead of being angry or commanding, Stephens as Rochester tries to seduce her into staying, laying her out on her bed and kissing her and being all, “You don’t really want to leave, do you?” It’s titillating and all (and you know they wanted that shot for the promos!) but again: out of character for Jane, who would never let herself be put in that position, figuratively or literally.

But then Jane declares to St. John that knows she loves Rochester and not him because, “I’ve always known myself, but he was the first to recognize me and love what he saw.” (Jane’s relationship with Rochester is so much about her journey to self-identity and no one every acknowledges that! So I love this.) And in the final moments, the story flashes forward a few years to Rochester, Jane, and their two children, posing in front of the house for a portrait being painted. This is a sweet little visual nod to the short final chapter of the book (“Reader, I married him”) which assures us that it all turned out fine.

Because nothing is perfect, here are some more cons: watching it again this time, I was struck by the cheap appearance of the film. Unlike Jane 1983, this one is recorded on film, but there was either some bad digital retouching or the cinematography was poor. The land around Thornfield looks flat, without depth. Maybe they went super old-fashioned with matte paintings, although I don’t think so. They did look like they were actually outside. The interior sets are not perfect either—Thornfield looks underdressed, as though they couldn’t afford luxurious-enough props. (Not a problem with the 1996’s Hollywood edition.) Lowood School looks like a modern-day public rec center disguised with old-fashioned desks and Christian art on the walls. The absolute worst indication of cheapness is the final shot. The movie ruins that ending I just described liking by taking the freeze frame of the portrait and overlaying a cheap digital frame around it. Remember how on old sitcoms they used to do that? They’d frame the whole cast in red and green and be like, “Merry Christmas from the cast and crew of Home Improvement!” But it’s a rare misstep in a very solid production.

Verdict: Jane = Great, Rochester = Great, Romance = Great, Gothicism = Adequate, Overall = SEE

Jane Eyre 2011

Jane: Mia Wasikowska

Rochester: Michael Fassbender

Directed by: Cary Fukunaga

Other notables: Jamie Bell as St. John Rivers, Sally Hawkins as Mrs. Reed, Judi Dench as Mrs. Fairfax

There was a lot I really enjoyed about this adaptation of Jane Eyre, and nothing that I disliked, short of my initial indifference to Mia W., whom I found to be a major weak link in The Kids Are All Right but who won me over here. 2011’s Newly Minted Superstar Michael Fassbender is perhaps my favorite Rochester ever. He’s odd-looking enough to be Rochester but striking enough to be hot. He manages to be both intensely instinctual but also calculating and clever and direct. The movie takes its time with Jane and Rochester’s courtship, allowing them to converse about class and philosophy and mythology and their pasts. Book Jane is always accusing Rochester of talking nonsense and I’ve never seen it illustrated so well as here. In their first interview, he teases her that is a gypsy or a fairy, both because he is impertinent and because he is testing her—he’s smirking, he’s seeing if she’s game, if she has any wit. She responds in kind, getting philosophically playful with him, not bothering to stick to respectable topics like weather and county news if he’s not going to. He admires her frankness and honesty, and finds he likes verbally sparring with her; she seems to like it too, though I think she mostly likes being talked to like she’s a human being. Rochester is, through some irony, the kindest man she’s ever known.

The capper on the scene is a cut at the end to Mrs. Fairfax, who sits in the room with them, with her knitting or whatever, and full-on bafflement on her face as to what they are talking about. That is SO Mrs. Fairfax! And I thought Dame Judi was too intelligent and dignified to play batty old Fairfax, but she’s perfect: a servant who respects herself but knows her place, who loves and respects her master, though she openly fears things she doesn’t understand, which includes him.

My favorite scene was the one where Jane leaves. Instead of having her just kind of wander away like some of the adaptations do (ahem, Zeffirelli), she takes her leave of Rochester. She does what an emotionally mature person does and tells him, face to face, that she’s leaving. He lays on the floor outside her bedroom door so as not to miss her (that’s straight from the book, by the way) and they retire to the library to talk. It’s very dark (it’s night) except for a fire burning. It looks warm and intimate and the break-up, such as it is, is intense. She thinks she has to leave because she’s not going to be anybody’s mistress. He doesn’t want to hear that. You can tell that he both a. truly loves her but b. has something to prove. He thinks he’s better than religion, than convention, than the institution of marriage. He’s been burned, and he’s going to show everybody that, through force of will, he can still be happy. It’s one of the more complex hang-ups plaguing the character of Rochester and Fassbender portrays it excellently.

Of course, Charlotte Brontë was a good girl, a clergyman’s daughter. She wasn’t going to write that book. Rochester is meant to learn that he’s wrong about all of that, and Jane leaving is meant to teach it to him. And Mia W. plays that excellently, too, because for all of Jane’s quiet dignity and integrity—and she’s got loads of both—she is, by this point, truly in love with Rochester, and she’s been pretty badly used by life, too. She too could fall, she could easily fall. She really, really wants to stay, but she can’t and she won’t and she doesn’t. She physically drags herself away. There are wrenching sobs. There is unconsummated lust. There is grief for the relationship that is being forced to die. It is agonizing in the most enjoyable way. It’s also the emotional climax of the movie, because her homecoming is reserved and quiet and over in an instant.

Besides the characterizations, which are basically top-notch, the storytelling is really good, too: well-structured, well-paced. The movie opens as Jane is walking away from Thornfield; she collapses on the moors, and recovers at the Rivers place, going over her whole life story in fever-induced flashbacks. The movie spends just enough time at Lowood and at the Reeds’. And there’s Gothicism to burn! Jane tells Adele a scary story about a mythical beast and Adele responds by telling Jane about Thornfield’s ghost (which is Bertha, of course). The entire Thornfield experience is full of first-rate creepy moments made of music and atmosphere. And one of the deleted scenes is my favorite Eyre scene, the ripping of the veil! My notes say “terrifying!”

In short, yay Mia, yay Fassbender! Yay Cary Fukunaga! Yay dark corners and candlelight! Yay quiet passion!

Verdict: Jane = Good, Rochester = Great, Romance = Great, Gothicism = Great, Overall = SEE

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  1. January 4, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    I enjoyed your analyses of the film versions. Did you know you missed the George C. Scott version? (I wasn’t great.) I have watched all these also and plan to watch them again soon. I also plan to do a “film festival” with friends and possibly as an adult ed class. Would you allow me to share your comments? I don’t agree with you on several points, but discussion is good. Thanks for a very interesting blog.

  2. January 4, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    I couldn’t get a copy of the George C. Scott version: neither Netflix nor my local library had it. The links in the top two paragraphs show the breadth of Jane Eyre adaptations out there; this barely scratches the surface, although I think I got all the most common ones.

    You’re welcome to share my comments as anecdotes or by linking to my blog, but nothing can be reprinted without my written permission. Thanks for reading!

  3. Brianne
    January 6, 2012 at 5:55 pm

    Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for this. I laughed SO hard in so many spots. And your analysis of my new love Michael Fassbender as Rochester was spot on. As a book snob who also loves movies, I am very rarely pleased with an adaptation to film. You seem to have my same taste (in respect to this book at least) so you are saving me some serious viewing time 🙂

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