Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is a masterful novel that transcends its Victorian audience. Child abuse, religious trauma, poverty, illness are all important themes that Bronte uses to weave together Jane’s narrative in a decidedly Gothic theme. As such, its wide acclaim has warranted several film remakes to varying degrees of acclaim. While it can be difficult to live up to a masterpiece of a bygone era, Robert Stevenson’s 1943 rendition of Jane Eyre is unique only in its ability to disappoint the reader.
The most vital element of Jane Eyre is, of course, Jane. She is neither particularly handsome nor charming, she is delicate in feature and small of stature. Her manners are sullen, withdrawn, and often understood by others as rude. But Jane is bold, staunch in her beliefs and unwilling to fold to authority. She has a voice and she uses it; she has principles and she sticks by them. And, of course, she is the main character and the story is told from her perspective. While Jane (Joan Fontaine) is present in Stevenson’s film, she is of secondary importance to the true star: Mr. Rochester (Orson Welles). We see him in his deep, brooding glory taking up most of the screen time. There is so little of Jane on the screen, and when she is present on the screen, its only to stare lovingly at the man that encompasses everything she dislikes about the outside world. He is cold and unfeeling, even towards her, and never truly shows his affection for the child in his care. He is lauded for his stoicism and displeasure and Jane is often depicted as only a vehicle to ease his burden.
But it is not only Mr. Rochester that’s the problem: this decidedly feminine novel is lacking almost entirely of female characters. In Bronte’s Jane Eyre we are presented with women in the full breadth of humanity. We see the jealous, scornful Mrs. Reed (Agnes Moorehead) for only a brief moment. The patient and gentle-tempered Helen (Elizabeth Taylor) has had most of her personality discarded for the sake of screen time, and the doting but complex Miss Temple has been erased entirely. Instead, we are forced to focus our gaze on the leading men in Jane’s life: Mr. Rochester, Mr. Brocklehurst (Henry Daniell), and Dr. Rivers (John Sutton). We see very few circumstances Jane going against the call of any of these men. This removes the spirit of independence and gentle rebellion from the novel. This adaptation removes the importance of the female experience. As stated in The English Novel and Its Movies: “This dilution of Jane’s rebellious vision has partly to do with the limitations of film form. But mainly it is a reversion on the part of the two directors, Robert Stevenson and Delbert Mann, to accepted patriarchal structures so that Jane is seen, for the most part, from a male point of View” (Ellis & Kaplan).
One of the largest changes to the film was the removal of so much of the original story. Jane never leaves Mr. Rochester and never has the time to develop outside of his dependency as she does in the novel. The auteur’s choice to remove her struggles with poverty and illness and instead focus on her relationship with Mr. Rochester removed so much spirit of this film. This choice, as well as only the briefest examinations of Jane’s tragic and abusive childhood, served only to turn the focus away from her lived experiences. It must be said, however, that these decisions were almost definitely influenced by the Hays Code, as to show the violence she suffered at the hands of her cousin or the neglect of Mr. Brocklehurst would have been an affront to the film industry.
In many ways, the film’s flaws and strengths came from the same place: it was merely a product of its time. The looking, unironic patriarchal lens in which we view Jane’s life was done to appeal to a larger audience and its removal of the darkest parts of her life were done out of public interest. Its saving graces, however, were equally due to the time period. Film noir has an irreplaceable charm that adds a layer of delight to the otherwise underwhelming film. The darkened screen, pouring rain, and dilapidated sets fit the tone of the novel and its Gothic themes perfectly. Though it could have been done as a traditional voiceover, the narration of direct book passages on screen was also an interesting artistic choice. Overall, the film didn’t stand the test of time and a Bronte fan would be better off carving out time to listen to the audiobook of the film instead.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.