Jane Eyre: The movie versions

Jaz on Jane Eyre, movie versions:

While there are quite a few film adaptations of Jane Eyre (including a 70’s disaster), I have limited my review to three: the 2011 version starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender, the 2006 BBC miniseries with Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens, and the classic 1944 film starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. I will refer to them only by their year.


1944: First thought: “WHO THE HECK IS DR. RIVERS?” St. John, Rochester’s foil, has been demoted to a kindly doctor at Lowood. The only thing they got right here are his good looks (which is more than we can say for all the other versions).

Joan Fontaine is too timid. Jane’s passion and independence don’t register, and she comes across more as a doormat than anything else. For example, instead of meeting St. John and his sisters, she goes back to live with her aunt. Jane would never do such a thing. Not ever. She would also sooner drop dead than write a letter to Mr. Brocklehurst asking for help, as she’s shown doing in one scene.

Also, while the film appears to narrate from the book’s text, in reality the lines were added in.

Orson Welles is so over the top — I love it! In one scene he walks stormily onto Thornfield’s grounds with a furrowed brow, his cloak billowing in the wind. Thematic music swelled around him. I laughed in pure delight.

The cinematography is spectacular. The movie’s use of light and shadow lends a gloomy atmosphere throughout—note the scene where young Jane stands alone on the stool. And Bertha would make Bronte proud: she has the long wild hair, creepy laughter (although it sounds more like the Wicked Witch of the West), scratches walls and attacks in fits of crazed rage.

All in all, I enjoyed this version.

A brief intrusion from Liz: I have only seen a few clips of this film. Yet, Jaz’s review matches my impression based on those clips: Orson Welles makes a great Mr. Rochester, but Joan Fontaine’s Jane lacks the strength and independent spirit of Jane in the novel. I felt like she was still playing Mrs. de Winter from Rebecca.


2006: I have only three objections to this British miniseries.

1. St. John is, yet again, rather plain and agreeable. Furthermore, Jane consents to his proposal, which although she got pretty close, she never actually did in the novel.

2. The scene shifts abruptly after the cancelled wedding. First Jane is telling Rochester “We’ll talk in the morning,” then all of a sudden she’s sleeping on a rock in the middle of nowhere. For those of us who’ve read the book, it takes a moment to adjust, but it’s bewildering for anyone else.

3. While staying with St. John and his sisters, Jane keeps getting flashbacks of a makeout session with Rochester after his lunatic wife confession. Supposedly Rochester was trying to convince her to stay. But it’s completely inaccurate and uncharacteristic of Jane.

Oh, and Blanche Ingram is a blonde instead of a dark beauty.

This version is by far the most faithful to the original text; naturally you can fit a great deal more into 228 minutes than the standard film length. On the whole, it successfully conveys the chilling symbolism, and commingling passion and restraint described in the book.


2011: If I had to describe this film in two words, I’d choose understated and poetic. Sunlight and lovely scenery dominate. Passions here never seem to emerge from characters’ calm exteriors.

The director chose to begin the film with Jane’s departure from Thornfield, something I hadn’t seen in other versions. It then flashes back to her childhood and recent history. It was effective and dramatic.

After that nothing is quite as good. Jane and Rochester’s relationship doesn’t really develop; they chat a few times and then suddenly land in the burning bedroom scene. Strangely, Grace Poole is never mentioned here, or anywhere before this. The proposal lacks spirit and emotion; it’s about as bland as a wonderbread ketchup sandwich. Only one scene shows passion, and that’s after Jane discovers the truth and Rochester explains. Of all the versions I’ve seen, this particular scene is the closest I’ve ever seen it get to the novel.

Also, St. John is too friendly and likeable here, not to mention plain.

This film is easy on the eyes, clean and light, so if you’re looking for a happier Jane Eyre, this is your best bet.

The following is how I rank the three versions:

1. 2006

2. 1944

3. 2011

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