I would like to look at five adaptations of the Charlotte Bronte novel which were intended for cinema release. (For a look at some television versions, go to my page Jane Eyre on television.)
The first is Hollywood’s first, and rather ridiculous, attempt, to dramatise the book, in 1934. In choosing to amend or ditch much of the story it might present a short piece of melodrama (70 minutes at most) but it is most definitely not the Jane Eyre we know (to start with, Jane comes into her money much more early on; while Rochester’s wife appears quite lucid and there is even talk of a divorce before he is free to mary Jane). Virginia Bruce is far too pretty in a classic peaches and cream way to convince as the ‘plain’ governess; while Colin Clive does his best in a role to which he is completely unsuited.
The first genuine adaptation appeared in 1943, and benefits from the casting as Mr Rochester of Orson Welles, then the toast of Tinseltown following his acting and directing debut in Citizen Kane. Here he does not take on directing duties, but this swirling gothic romance is much fairer to Bronte’s novel than the version of a decade earlier. There are still missteps – St John Rivers is now the doctor at Jane’s school, for example, while Joan Fontaine doesn’t quite have the necessary depth for Jane – but this is at least an entertaining and well-done piece of cinema. I like the scene in which Welles and Fontaine meet in the hallway during the Ingrams’ party, and his touching enquiry about how Jane is feeling.
In Britain, 1970’s adaptation appeared as part of British Lion’s trio of classic dramatisations for cinema (the others were David Copperfield and Wuthering Heights). It now exists in very poor condition, which is a shame as its principals are very good indeed. As Jane, Susannah York was cast to present a feisty and mature match for the American actor George C Scott, who would occasionally appear in literary adapations made in Britain over the next few years (he was Fagin in Oliver Twist, and Scrooge in A Christmas Carol). Here he has both the frustration and the vulnerability required for the complex role of Mr Rochester, and a particular strength of this version is the scene, post-wedding, where Jane decides to leave Thornfield.
The 1996 American version has some casting against type, with Charlotte Gainsbourg essaying a dark-haired and sullen Jane to William Hurt’s blond and reserved Mr Rochester. It is almost as if the roles are reversed. This version focuses closely on Jane’s artistic endeavours, and presents her as something of a free spirit. It doesn’t quite gel with the source material, but works as a film.
Finally, in 2011 a radical shake-up of the plot showed Jane’s flight from Thornfield before anything else, before returning to her childhood story. Australian actress Mia Wasikowska, previously known for the lead in Alice in Wonderland, is a very different Jane to those we have seen before. She is so quiet and delicate the wind could blow her away. German-Irish actor Michael Fassbinder is a traditional looking Mr Rochester, but his first interview with Jane is disappointingly truncated.