Thursday, April 7, 2011

Highly-Anticipated Movie Reviews: "Jane Eyre"

The latest in an occasional series comparing my pre-viewing excitement with post-viewing reality...

Title of movie: Jane Eyre
Reasons for anticipation
: Charlotte Brontë's novel is one of my most cherished books. I have a celebrity crush on Michael Fassbender. I love most of what Focus Features puts out. Win-win-win!

Possible reason
for trepidation: Film adaptations of classic novels have their own pitfalls.

Verdict: It's undoubtedly a well-made film, but (as I feared) I seem incapable of really enjoying adaptations of my favorite books.

Elaboration: Well, maybe I shouldn't have reread Jane Eyre and had it fresh in my mind before seeing the movie. When you're familiar with the original novel, any change that the movie makes -- even if it was a good change -- will take you out of the film.

For instance, the hardest element of the story for a 21st-century audience to accept is the astounding coincidence that the Rivers siblings are Jane's long-lost cousins. So it is probably wise that the film eliminates this; Jane shares her inheritance with the Riverses because she is grateful for their kindness, not because they are related. All the same, this took me out of the film, as I started analyzing the implications of the filmmakers' choice ("Oh, so they're not cousins? Good, that's probably for the best"), rather than staying absorbed in the work of art.

Or, at the end of the film, Rochester loses his eyesight, but not his arm. Objectively speaking, there's no real reason to get outraged about this change -- but when Rochester appeared onscreen in the final scene, all I could think was "What? He's got both hands?!"

Some of the problems I had with the narrative of the Jane Eyre movie can be attributed to the challenges of adapting a long Victorian novel to a feature-length film. For instance, it eliminates the "Grace Poole" subplot (where Jane is misled into thinking that the mysterious goings-on at Thornfield Hall have something to do with the middle-aged servant Grace). A viewer who is unfamiliar with the original novel might be somewhat confused by this elision.

But what surprised me the most about this movie version is how understated it felt. I read an interview where the screenwriter, Moira Buffini, talks about how she sees the story as a "gothic thriller" -- well, then, why get rid of the scene where Bertha Rochester breaks into Jane's room, on the eve of her wedding, and rips her bridal veil in two? Think how cinematic that would be!

Sometimes the understatement was good -- the dark, candlelit cinematography gives you some idea of how it would really feel to live in 1830s England. But very often, the movie is so restrained that it undercuts the drama. Toward the end of the story, St. John pressures Jane to marry him and go to India, and she is on the point of accepting when she (supernaturally) hears Rochester's voice calling her. In the novel, this is a powerful scene, taking place in a dim room, just before sunrise; you feel Jane's anguish, followed by a sense of relief when the disembodied voice rescues her in the nick of time. In the movie, this scene takes place outdoors on a sunny afternoon, and Jane never seems to be in any real danger of succumbing to St. John. And the final scene is surprisingly low-key; Jane and Rochester reunite, but it's muted, tentative. The film doesn't find an analogue for the book's triumphant "Reader, I married him."

Indeed, one further difficulty with Jane Eyre is that the novel is narrated in the first person by a strong, assertive voice. Everyone knows that a movie adaptation of Huckleberry Finn or The Catcher in the Rye would be terrible because it could never capture Huck's or Holden's voice, and I honestly think that Jane Eyre should be put in that category of novels. The movie doesn't use any voice-over narration, which, again, is probably a good choice -- but it means that the Jane of the movie can never be the Jane of the book.

Despite the fact that this adaptation does not allow us to live inside of Jane's head, I liked Mia Wasikowska's performance in the title role. Perhaps there are moments, by firelight, where she looks too beautiful for the part -- but then, firelight is universally flattering, and very few truly plain women are famous actresses by the time they are 20 years old. And I developed an admiration for Wasikowska when I learned that she read Jane Eyre without knowing that a film was in development, realized that Jane would be a great role for her, and lobbied to play it. I feel like many other young actresses cultivate a sexy, glamorous image and would be reluctant to play a plain heroine like Jane. Wasikowska is serious about her craft, which maybe explains her affinity with her serious, observant character.

I think the parts of the novel that people tend to recall most fondly are the scenes between Jane and Mr. Rochester at Thornfield Hall. This relationship is the heart of the new movie adaptation, too, and come off well in it. Michael Fassbender is an attractive (everyone in the movie theater laughed at the "Jane, do you think me handsome?" "No, sir" exchange), intelligent, and mercurial Rochester. So there are interesting and well-acted scenes here, but I wish the movie had been advertised as what it is -- a character-based romantic drama -- and not as a gothic thriller. Overall, it's a respectable, respectful, low-key attempt to make a movie out of an overstuffed, uncategorizable, fiery book.

Nerdy people who love the book and make similar arguments to me:
"Jane Eyre: Does It Totally Suck? An Argument," Dan Kois and Claire Jarvis, The Awl
"Jane Eyre's Failure to Adapt to the Screen," Chloe Schama and Hillary Kelly, the New Republic
"Tame Jane," Robert Gottlieb, the New York Review of Books blog
"On taking too many liberties with Jane Eyre (and too few with Michael Fassbender)," Sheila O'Malley, Capital New York

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