December 26, 2011

I have no tale of woe, sir: How ‘Jane Eyre’ compares from book to film

Mia Wasikowska had her sights set on Jane Eyre. When discussing her role in Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel, she said:

“I had just read the book in 2009, and I was halfway through it when I called my agent and said, “This is amazing. Is there a script around or is anyone developing the project?” There wasn’t at the time, but two months later, she emailed me a script, and then I met Cary. It was a case of really good timing.”

The film opens with Jane fleeing from Thornfield. She is lost, heartbroken, forlorn, alone – there is no dialogue for several minutes as she stumbles over the moors, her feet squelching in the mud and her sobs drowned out by the sounds of falling rain and thunder.

This scene occurs half way through the novel, and starting with it has a significant impact on the flow of the story and the way that viewers emotionally respond to it.

In the novel, Jane comes upon Thornfield after years of hardship. Its dark and eerie stone halls are her salvation from a life of cruelty at the hands of her family and her Head Master at Lowood School. Edward Fairfax Rochester presents to her a life of intellectual stimulation and equality that she had never imagined before.

When the novel reaches its climax and Jane flees, the reader laments her decision. As Rochester begs her to stay, you beg along with him – give up your foolish pursuit of self-respect and dignity Jane, and choose instead to live for your own happiness, for love!

With Fukunaga’s non-linear form of storytelling, the viewer is deprived of these feelings. Instead of wishing Jane to return to Thornfield, those who are unfamiliar with the story will spend their time wondering why she left.

In the director’s commentary on the DVD, Fukunaga explains this deliberate decision. He says the aim was to blend the classically romantic story with the element of suspense. He succeeds.

Fukunaga’s film is a dark, gothic thriller. And it is an enthralling, intoxicating story. Wasikowska brings to life a Jane Eyre that is as true as Bronte’s own mind could have intended – she is young, innocent and sharp and although she is plain she is captivating. Michael Fassbender plays Rochester with an equal firmness and precision – he is enigmatic, harsh, calculating and also touchingly tender.

For any fan, there are of course the obvious omissions – of Jane’s closeness with Miss Temple and Bessie, and the intricacies of her familial ties with St. John Rivers and his sisters. There is no visit from the fortune-telling Gypsy woman, and Jane is not turned away from door after door during her travails through the moors.

When the conclusion of the film is signified by a sharp cut to a completely black screen, fans of the book will undoubtedly sit until the end credits have run their course, waiting for the visual interpretation of the book’s final chapter, which begins with: “Reader, I married him.” But it does not come.

Fukunaga explains his decision-making, his process of adaptation and omission:

“One of the difficult things, when you have a novel that is 500-plus pages, is how to be faithful but also be aware that you are making a film and not just visually depicting a novel… Are you making this movie for people who know the story, or are you making it because it’s a great story you are going to take liberties with how you interpret it? I think you have to balance both worlds, in a way – because the harshest critics will be the ones who know the novel and it’s dear to tens of thousands of readers – but in two hours you are given a certain amount of restriction to tell a story and therefore picking and choosing what parts of a narrative you are going to tell to allow for the emotional impact of the story to be the strongest. And I think that’s the most important in the end, the emotionality.”

On this level, the film is overwhelmingly successful. Bronte stories appeal to those who enjoy the period romance, beauty and language of a Jane Austen novel, but who also desire some grit, some raw human feeling. Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre has it in spades. It is full of feeling and the emotion is forever at a fantastic height.

The verdict: 

Book or Big Screen? Book

The film is:   4. A fine adaptation that maintains the original’s exceptional qualities

I would be very happy to receive your comments and feedback on ‘Book or Big Screen’ – please click on the below link to tell me what film adaptation you are excited about, or to suggest the book/film that I should review next.


  1. I loved Michael Fassbender as Rochester. I thought he really showed the gamut of emotions, but I loved how he was tender and playful. However, I haven't watched any of the other Jane Eyre movies, so I have nothing to compare it to. And it's been years since I read the book. Time for a re-read, I think!

  2. I still think the miniseries is the best adaptation out there, but this version continues to grow on me with time.

  3. Love this version. It is a beautiful picture of Jane Eyre. Perhaps it is not accurate, but I think it is just lovely - and it was a pleasant surprise for me; I expected to detest it. ;D