As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Welcome to RA Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection reader’s advisory service goes where it may. In this column, all things Jane Eyre lead me down a winding path.
Jane Eyre. Focus Features. 2011.
Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation of Jane Eyre is a lush emotional assault, filmed in tones of gray that bloom into dripping colors just briefly, when Jane and Rochester connect. As the two would-be lovers only rarely reach the same emotional location, the movie exists in nearly constant gloom, which is absolutely perfect for creating much of the tonal pleasure Fukunaga evokes: brutal, brooding, and heavy. While there are brief snatches of the witty dialog that creates the bond between the plain poor governess and the craggy grim master of Thornfield in Brontë’s book, most of the film’s power is built visually-Jane collapsed on a rain-laden moor, shrouded in mist as Rochester almost runs her down on his horse, and an icy-blue sky and storm as Jane hides in the school/home St. John Rivers provides. When the scenic power of the film is combined with the leisurely pace and episodic storytelling, the result is an updated version of pure gothic sensibility. Fans of the gothic, of implied suppressed romance, and of lush visual storytelling should be pleased (while fans who want to focus on Rochester and Jane will be left a bit bereft).
Note: Fukunaga’s particular vision is part of the pleasure of adaptations; the chance to experience various takes on favorite stories. I think when working with adaptations that the reader/viewer/listener wants more and next: more to keep experiencing the story anew and next to move from the story to other, similar, experiences.
Jane Eyre. PBS. 2007. $29.95.
While not quite the equivalent of a Jane Austen property, this Brontë work holds its own. Jane Eyre has been adapted nearly two dozen times in film. In this version, Toby Stephens plays Rochester and Ruth Wilson plays Jane—with winning results. The Masterpiece Theater production is well paced, adhering firmly to the book as much as it can and giving viewers the Jane/Rochester connection they likely want: it is a romantic and simmering take. The gothic brooding is present as well, with sweeping scenery and portentous storms, so that the result is a grand interpretation, heavy on the romance and tension.
Jane Eyre. BBC Warner. 2005. $14.98.
Also a TV production, this version starring a pre-Bond Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clarke is equally attentive to the Jane/Rochester relationship while a bit less grim and brooding in its visual aesthetic. It also holds tight to the book; readers will be pleased to hear some of the classic lines of the novel woven into the dialog.
Jane Eyre. Blackstone. 1998. ISBN 9781433253935. $123.
Narrator Nadia May delivers the book with a sharp, crisp voice that strikes the listener as exactly how Jane herself would retell her story: no-nonsense, a bit brisk, and with a lovely touch of self-conscious awareness. May renders the voices, Jane as a young girl, the wretched Mrs. Reed, Rochester, and Rivers with great skill, giving each his or her essential character and, in so doing, pulling the listener deep into the story and allowing them to envision the frightening red room, the grim and spite-filled Lowood school, Thornfield, and the bleak landscape that surrounds it.
Jane Eyre. Audio Go. 2010. ISBN 9780792770831. $49.95.
Juliet Stevenson—who is simply brilliant at narrating classics (her Middlemarch is a delight)—delivers a reading that wrings every ounce of emotion from Brontë’s lines. While her voices are wonderful, rendering Jane as reserved yet spirited and Rochester in all his conflicted gloom, it is her exquisite timing that makes the reading. Just the right amount of space around the lines allows listeners to feel their import. As a result, Stevenson seems, for all her glorious skill, to step into the background to allow Jane, Rochester, and Charlotte Brontë to shine.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. Norton. 1992. 190p. ISBN 9780393308808. pap. $13.95.
As romantic as Jane Eyre is, it is hard to forget that the “hero” has locked his wife in the attic. Readers who want to stay steeped in the romance might not enjoy Rhys’s social and political critique, but those willing to see Rochester as less than the brooding Byronic hero will find rich pleasures in the exploration of his character as a young man living in the Caribbean. Issues of racism, women’s rights, and class are explored through the tragic story of Antoinette Cosway, who lives a damaged life even before her disastrous marriage to Rochester. Once they are married, their relationship is besieged by distrust and interference, and Antoinette (renamed Bertha by Rochester) begins to spiral into madness. Rhys intertwines Jane Eyre into her novel, creating a literally true “read-it-again” experience.
Shinn, Sharon. Jenna Starborn. Penguin. 2002. 400p. ISBN 9780441009008. pap. $25.
A vastly different rereading experience can be found in this genre blend of sf and gothic romance. Remaining faithful to the plot of Jane Eyre, Shinn keeps the focus on the emotional impact, mood, and characterization. Jenna, born in a gen-tank and then abandoned by her mother, eventually forges a career as a technician specializing in nuclear generators. She journeys to the planet Fieldstar to work on Everett Ravenbeck’s estate, Thorrastone Park, where she finds companionship with her fellow workmates and star-crossed love with Ravenbeck. Fans of Brontë willing to experiment with genres should find this an intriguing take.
The Piano. Icon Home Entertainment [Blu-ray]. 2009. $45.99.
Jane Campion’s brutal and dark romance set in New Zealand circles around mute woman Ada, wealthy landowner Stewart, and brooding colonist Baines. The film carries similar emotional weight as Fukunaga’s. It, too, is shot in saturated tones that heighten the moody feel and traces a relationship that is as questionably redemptive as Jane and Rochester’s. As Ada rejects her stranger-husband Stewart and is drawn into the dangerous and subversive seductions of Baines, viewers are sunk into much the same paradigm as Jane Eyre offers. Fans of Fukunaga’s film should appreciate Campion’s similar attentions to deliberate pacing, detailed costumes, sweeping landscapes, and emotional catharsis.
Pride and Prejudice. A&E Home Video. 2010. $39.95.
While Fukunaga’s take is filmed in shades of darkness and it is hard to ignore the dysfunctional core of Jane and Rochester’s relationship, Jane Eyre remains one of the most enduring romantic novels of all time. Thus, it should work well with Austen’s classic tale of love—especially for viewers who want more romance than dark and stormy nights. While there are plenty of versions from which to choose, Colin Firth’s appearance as Mr. Darcy sets the standard. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet trade barbs as they slowly circle around each other and begin to see their own, and forgive the other, their faults. With equal attention to dress and setting and with glorious shots of the British landscape, there is much here for Brontë and Fukunaga fans to enjoy.
Rebecca. Recorded Bks. 1988. ISBN 9781402515576. $75.75.
Layers of mystery, a brooding estate, a first and second wife, and a servant with secrets underpin Daphne du Maurier’s brilliantly plotted and richly characterized gothic novel. Like Brontë’s, du Maurier’s leisurely paced story, filled with atmospheric detail, explores the collision between a young woman and a brooding landed gentleman, Maxim de Winter. De Winter’s first wife, Rebecca, has died, leaving many behind with opinions and agendas-not the least the servant Mrs. Danvers. When de Winter brings his new wife home to Manderley, the never-named bride faces great obstacles, the never-forgotten presence of Rebecca chief among them. Alexandra O’Karma does not so much read the story as channel it, as she brings Danvers and de Winter’s new wife to life with astounding skill.
The Thirteenth Tale. Recorded Bks. 2006. ISBN 9781428115675. $123.75.
Diane Satterfield pays homage to both Brontë and du Maurier in this modern gothic tale, which mixes all the typical ingredients of dark nights and near-breathing houses into a wonderfully wrought feast of storytelling. A story-within-a-story, the novel, read by Bianca Amato and Jill Tanner, tells of Vida Winter, a famous elderly writer, and Margaret Lea, hired to write her biography. Both Vida and Margaret have tales to tell, and Satterfield masterfully reflects each in the other. Amato voices Margaret brilliantly, with great care for the lines and tone. Tanner’s Winter is breathtaking, pitch perfect, and paced in such a way as to ring every ounce of emotion from the line.
Stewart, Mary. Nine Coaches Waiting. Chicago Review Pr. 2006. 352p. ISBN 9781556526183. pap. $14.95.
Stewart was the master of classic romantic suspense in the 1950s and 1960s, and her work holds up well for readers who exult in wildly romantic tales of dangerous, mysterious men and stalwart women. The links here to Jane Eyre are many, as both novels share a palpable feel of menace, evocative descriptions of place, and rapier-sharp dialog. Linda Martin serves as governess to Count Phillppe de Valmy, who has lost both parents and resides with his aunt and uncle at Château Valmy, which his uncle runs on his behalf. While she cannot pinpoint it, Linda begins to feel that all is not well. When she meets Raoul, Phillppe’s older cousin, the tension mounts as she tries to protect her charge and navigate the unsteady path between falling for Raoul and trusting no one.
Holt, Victoria. Mistress of Mellyn. Griffin: St. Martin’s. 2008. 336p. ISBN 9780312384159. pap. $13.95.
Looking to continue in the spirit of reading Jane Eyre as a lush gothic romance starring a governess? Tempt fans with Holt’s version. Martha Leigh agrees to become the governess (the fourth in a rather short line) to Connan TreMellyn’s daughter Alvean and moves to his home, Mount Mellyn, in Cornwall. Family secrets, an amazingly atmospheric setting, and a growing attraction between Martha and Connan combine to create a fast-paced, emotional read. Readers who want less stress of the romantic and more on classic novels featuring women who become, as much as they can for the times, who they wish, should be pointed toward Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh. Like Jane Eyre, each focuses on characterization and language and is leisurely paced but compelling.