Of course there are many adaptations I haven't listed here. Interestingly, none of the adaptations I've seen or heard of seem very off the wall. While Pride and Prejudice seems to adapt well to different times and places, poor Jane is firmly regulated to the Victorian Age, except in adaptations that use her story as only the loosest of inspirations.
Got your popcorn? My apologies to Friends for blatantly ripping off their episode naming strategy, but I needed a way to keep all these straight.
SPOILERS ABOUND as I'm assuming you've read the book already, and if you haven't you will definitely want to do that first and then read on.
READ THE BOOK BEFORE YOU READ THIS.
Let's start with:
The One With Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska, 2011: This movie is terrible! Even when I tried to view it as just a movie, with no relationship to the novel, it was dreadful – difficult to follow, stilted, and monotonous. Fassbender and Wasikowska are clearly charismatic actors, but everything that makes Jane and Rochester dynamic has been stripped away by the director, leaving them with nothing to do but speak in low, repressed voices and gaze at each other longingly. I'm suspecting that reviewers that liked the movie thought of Jane Eyre as “Wuthering Heights Part II”. Otherwise I can't see why you'd like a movie in which Jane is given nothing to say but has to spend an extremely long time wandering the moors and whimpering.
Most damning of all: This was the first version of Jane that Dear Husband saw (he hasn't read the book, horrors!), and after watching this movie, DH could not tell me why Jane is an important literary character, or why she is important to me, personally. He also could not tell me why on earth Jane and Rochester would get involved with each other than the fact that there appear to only be two eligible men in all of England and she meets Rochester first. It's fine to make changes to a book in order to make it work cinematically, but to drain all the life and meaning from this story is inexcusable. D-
The one that is a black and white horror movie, 1943: Here's a classic that isn't called Jane Eyre; it is, fantastically, called I Walked with a Zombie. The deal is that back in the forties Producer Val Lewton (best known for Cat People) was told by RKO Studio executives that he could have total creative control if he would make movies for a stipulated amount of money (not very much) and use a title dreamed up by Studio Execs. So they called him up and said, “OK, Val, your next movie will be called I Walked With a Zombie”, and he made an intensely brooding, artistic, subtle psychological thriller.
I'm reviewing it here because he famously asked his scriptwriters to use Jane Eyre for inspiration, but it doesn't really have that much in common with Jane. A nurse goes to the Caribbean to take care of a woman who has lapsed into a kind of ambulatory coma. She (the nurse) falls in love with her patient's rich and brooding husband. The strongest element this story shares with Jane Eyre is the sense of being literally and figuratively haunted by past mistakes. Although this isn't much of a Jane Eyre adaptation it is a fascinating movie, on many different levels, and I recommend it purely on that basis. B
The one with Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson, Masterpiece Theater, 2006: Wow. This series was moving and romantic and beautiful, and fairly faithful to the book. This is a good example of an adaptation in which most of the changes augment the story and enhance its meaning instead of detracting from it. I liked that every character got to have some layers – even Blanche, who demonstrates mean girl nastiness but also genuinely hurt feelings. Stephens is much too pretty for the part of Rochester but his acting is flawless. Even though he is clearly handsome, you believe that he thinks he is not, and he does an amazing job of combining arrogance, cruelty, tenderness, humor, and above all intense loneliness and vulnerability.
Meanwhile Ruth Wilson is certainly not plain, but she has an unusual and fantastically expressive face. When she smiles, it is a transformative event. When she cries, I dare you not to cry along with her. It doesn't hurt that Wilson and Stephens have so much chemistry that I kept expecting them to just start ripping off each other's clothes at random. Incidentally, Wilson isn't actually a small person, but since everyone else in the film is enormously tall she seems teeny. So that works.
DH only saw the last third of this adaptation but said even a partial viewing made it much easier to tell why Jane was so important to me and why Jane and Rochester might want to be together (although to his credit he still maintains that there must be some nicer men somewhere in England). There are definitely some things here that didn't work, but I'm giving this one an enthusiastic: A-
The One with Ciaran Hinds and Samantha Morton, A&E, 1997: What in the name of all that is holy is this? Did a producer sleep with Cuthulu and pop this out like some sort of Elder God baby? I was all set to rate this movie an “F” but at the last minute I realize that I cannot do so honorably, because I turned the gibbering monstrosity off and fled, screaming, “My eyes! My eyes!” about halfway through. Poor Samantha Morton struggles gamely along in her part but Ciaran Hinds, who by all accounts is normally a terrific actor, seems to have contacted some particularly horrid form of rabies as Mr. Rochester. He yells, he screeches, his eyes bulge, he drools over Jane's hand “So little…. so [drool] delicate“. It's at this point that I fled the scene. Mr. Rochester is supposed to be way too old for Jane and he's a manipulative, secretive jerk, but he isn't supposed to be a rageaholic shrieking pedophile.
Here's what I do think is good about this particular adaptation: it really forces you to look at just how dark Jane Eyre can be. In the book, Rochester is forty years old to Jane's eighteen (and their romance isn't a case of outdated values – even Mrs. Fairfax thinks Rochester is too old for Jane). Jane is completely dependent on him for her livelihood, a fact which he exploits every time he orders her to talk to him. She is good and honest and he loves this about her, and he rewards her for these virtues by playing vicious mind games with her and forcing her to be publicly humiliated by his houseguests.
After many attempts to explain to DH why I want Jane to be with Mr. Rochester, I realized that what it boils down to is this: I love and admire Jane and I want her to be happy. If the book were titled “Edward Rochester” instead of “Jane Eyre” I never would have finished it, much like I could not sit through this mess of a movie. DNF
The One with Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clarke, BBC, 1983: I had grave doubts about being able to believe in Timothy Dalton as Mr. Rochester because he's permanently marked in my brain as several hammy and delightful science fiction/fantasy characters (James Bond, of course, but also Neville Sinclair, Prince Barin, Alexei Volkov, and the gloriously named Mr. Pricklepants). Well, never underestimate Timothy Dalton, because as Mr. Rochester, he strikes just the right balance between subtlety and grandiosity and tenderness and crankiness. He's a more faithful-to-the-book Rochester than Toby Stephens (Toby is my personal favorite, but he's really Rochester-lite). I had a harder time warming up to Zelah Clarke, who is almost alarmingly quiet and timid as Jane, but I liked the contrast when she let herself be angry (“Do you doubt me?” “ENTIRELY!”) and when she blossoms upon becoming part of a family. Her teasing of Rochester regarding St. John was all the more deliciously wicked given just how completely subdued she was earlier.
So, while Ruth Wilson is my favorite Jane, I can see why so many people admire Clarke's performance. In addition to the strong performances, this adaptation benefits enormously from being very faithful to the book. There were scenes where I actually signed in relief at being presented with a character or a speech that is usually cut (not that everything from the book is included – it's only fours hours long, after all). Alas, the production values are absolutely horrible. The look is painfully dated and the music is grating in the extreme. You will never forget for a moment that this is made for TV, but it's made very well in terms of acting and very faithfully in terms of script. B+
Last summer I did a Pride and Prejudice Round Up for Smart Bitches. This round-up was a very different experience, because while I did not have a strong attachment to P&P prior to viewing the adaptations, Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books. I feel very passionate about Jane so I was a tough customer with regard to adaptations. To see people butcher it was almost unendurable but to see it properly brought to life was a lovely experience. Here's some parting bonus points and awards:
Scariest Bertha Mason: It's a stretch to call her Bertha Mason since her character is actually named Jessica, but the wife in I Walked With a Zombie is scary as shit even though all she ever does is walk around.
Bonus points for Attire go to: Michael Fassbender, for wearing a nightshirt to bed in the burning bed scene. Nice legs!
Bonus Points for Attitude go to: Timothy Dalton, who, weirdly, seems to sleep in all his clothes including pants and vest, but who manages to make one undone button seem as sexy and revealing as complete nudity.
Best Hair: Zelah Clarke's severe hairdo was always getting messed up. Rochester could barely enter the room without messing up her hair. I thought it was adorable.
Best Overall: Although the Dalton/Clarke is the most faithful, the romantic in me is absolutely helpless before the powers of Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens and all those multi-dimensional characters. Seriously, Toby, call me. Also, the director, Susanna White, deserves every award in existence.
And today's health tip: Helen, your death scene is always very sad, but for the love of Jesus could you cover your mouth when you cough, especially when your face is one inch away from that of your BFF? Seriously, Helen, you are grossing me out.