The transposition of a novel to screen always has an odd effect, like seeing a painted portrait move. There’s the vexed question of whether to judge the film on its own merits or in the fidelity to which it accurately translates the essence of the tale, especially one as well loved and well known as a Bronte novel. Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation cleverly works around this problem of familiarity by beginning in medias res and telling the story through flashbacks – giving a disorienting newness to a familiar tale.
What filmic translations of period novels do particularly well is evoke a sense of an era – more potently perhaps than we could ever achieve alone – with sumptuous costumes and period setting. Fukunaga’s film does this beautifully, all wuthering moors and chiaroscuro interiors.
To condense a novel down to film means we necessarily lose parts of the work – but this adaptation feels at times like a SparkNotes guide. Many of the most important scenes are hurried. Though the film lingers on shadowy rooms and lots of running across moors in billowing capes, all the most important moments in the plot – especially those between Jane and Rochester – are too fleeting.
Rochester is that particular breed of smouldering alpha-male – strong, brooding, looks fantastic on a horse – who would be awful if he were your actual boyfriend, but great in prose form. What makes him attractive is a passionate, fiery intensity. Yet there is a distinct lack of passion between the two leads (something of a cinematic feat considering Rochester is played by Michael Fassbender). The famous proposal scene – a culmination of hundreds of pages of yearning in the novel – when it occurs here, evokes more a reaction of surprise than romantic catharsis.
It is the nature of the medium that a film cannot portray interiority as effectively as a novel – but this is a story entirely about interiority. Though Jane and Rochester barely speak, their romance smoulders away in the novel for hundreds of pages.
Yet to reduce the book to just two hours, and focus only on exteriority, means that certain truths in the plot become more apparent, placed as they are upon the barest of cinematic bones. Perhaps unintentionally, this film reveals a truth about the story better than the novel itself.
One of the fascinating things about Jane Eyre – both novel and film – is the way in which Jane is irresistibly attractive to the men she comes into contact with as an adult. She receives proposals from both Rochester and St John Rivers, but she does and says very little (and she sure as hell isn’t winning them over with her hairstyle).
Jane and Rochester actually have very little contact in the novel. Rochester knows almost nothing about Jane – but in the end, he loves her precisely because he doesn’t really know anything about her at all.
What Jane does that is so alluring, it seems to me, is to simply be a mirror for every man she comes into contact with. She has an uncanny ability to reflect back to men the best version of themselves. Jane isn’t a ‘machine without feelings’ but she is as cool and glassy as a mirrored surface. Rochester is indeed ‘transfixed’ by Jane, but it is his own image he is transfixed by.
This makes Rochester’s blindness all the more brilliantly and sadistically ironic, as he now must rely wholly on Jane’s sight. He is quite literally transfixed by her – existing forever within her perception.
Jane Eyre is, in many ways, a flawed film. But this small aspect – however unintentional – made it a rather illuminating translation of the work.
– Bethanie Blanchard is a Melbourne writer and literature PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne.