In this post, I will be considering seven adaptations of Charlotte Bronte’s famous book. I will also touch briefly on a version I have not yet seen in its entirety, but only in a small number of clips. (For a look at versions made for the big screen, see my post Jane Eyre in the cinema).
The earliest version made for the US television series, Westinghouse Studio One, was transmitted live in 1949, and features the young Charlton Heston as Mr Rochester, with Mary Sinclair as Jane. This pair would also appear together in the same year as Heathcliff and Cathy in Wuthering Heights, the book by Charlotte’s sister Emily. Studio One dramatisations were extremely short and succinct, running at approximately fifty minutes including advertisements. The time limitation obviously means a much truncated story, although there is still time for basic plot points including Rochester’s fall from his horse, the Mason visit, and the fire at Thornfield.
Another anthology series, Matinee Theatre, provided an adaptation in 1957 with Patrick McNee and Joan Elan in the leads, in a colour production. Again, this version runs at just under an hour and so must be selective in its storyline. The advantage of having such a tight timeframe in which to turn around a complex book is that an adaptor must decide which characters/plots to leave out. McNee appeared in quite a few literary adaptations in the 1950s but he doesn’t have the right personality for this role.
1957 also saw the first full-length television adaptation, made in Italy with a recognised star, Raf Vallone, as Mr Rochester, and Ilaria Occhini as Jane. The version currently available does not have English subtitles, but those familiar with the story will be able to follow it despite the language barrier. The settings and atmosphere feel very gothic, and the running time, across several hours, gives ample time for the whole of Bronte’s book to be at least attempted.
The previous year, the first British adaptation of the book was filmed, and although it survives in its entirety, it is not currently possible to view the whole series. However, on viewing a couple of clips (Rochester and Jane’s first meeting, and the aftermath of the wedding) it seems that in Stanley Baker and Daphne Slater this production provides a leading man and lady who do justice to their characters, although Baker is a bit on the gruff side.
It was not until 1973 that another four-hour version appeared, in colour, this time with the Irish actress Sorcha Cusack as Jane and Michael Jayston as Mr Rochester. This is one of my favourite adaptations, with Jayston being particularly sardonic and charming in his role, while Cusack is much his match as a rational girl whose personality develops as she falls into love. This version of the book feels quite wide in scope and landscape, and the St John Rivers story is well-covered with Geoffrey Whitehead a sanctimonious polar opposite to Jayston’s man of hidden passions.
Ten years later, in 1983, the quiet and unassuming Zelah Clarke was cast as Jane opposite Timothy Dalton, who had previously played Heathcliff in a cinema adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Again running at over four hours, this version is perhaps the closest to the book, and both principal actors are excellent, especially Clarke (who should have had a great career on the back of this, but instead fell into obscurity and is now retired from acting). A particular highlight is Rochester’s gypsy trick with the Ingrams, which is great fun.
An adaptation at feature film length in 1997 suffers from a degree of miscasting as Mr Rochester, with Ciaran Hinds far too one-note as an angry and bitter man who resents his dark secret. Samantha Morton, however, is mesmerising as Jane, delicate, naive, and trusting. We see her shopping for her wedding trousseau in childish delight, and follow her emotional awakening as a woman with some empathy.
Finally, in 2006 we saw another four-hour version which presented another quiet Jane (Ruth Wilson), but this time one with hidden depths. Toby Stephens was perhaps not an obvious choice for Mr Rochester, but with his Byronic brooding looks he fits the part of a damaged romantic hero, which is how the character is presented during this dramatisation. Wilson is absolutely stunning as a girl who goes from plain to beautiful before our eyes. She rightly went on to more high-profile roles in television (including Luther) and cinema (most recently in The Lone Ranger).