Jane Eyre (US 1943)

Peggy-Ann-Garner-in-Jane-Eyre-1943

This is one of the most powerful and popular of C19th English novels. The author, Charlotte Brontë, published two other novels but it is this work which has made her famous. I read it in my teens, twelve times as I remember. I was immediately taken with the manner in which Jane challenged authority, especially male authority. And besides this there was the potent Gothic aspect which suffused much of the novel. This is not a novel that can be transferred in all its complexity and power to the screen: but the melodramatic plot does work well on film.

This Hollywood version, directed by Robert Stevenson, was the third, though the 1910 film was only a reel in length. Kate Ellis and Ann Kaplan commented on both this film and the 1970 TV film version directed by Delbert Mann:

“[this] is a story of a woman who understands instinctively the inequities of patriarchal structures but who cannot, finally, move entirely beyond them. … Jane’s strength comes to the reader through the clear, strong voice of the first person narrative . . . Neither film version (1944, 1970) is ultimately able to retain the centrality of Jane’s point of view. (The English Novel and the Movies, 1981).

There have been more film and television versions since then. We now have had Charlotte Gainsborough working with Franco Zefferelli, Samantha Morton working with Robert Young and Mia Wasikowska with Cari Joji Fukunaga. Gainsborough and Morton make a better fist of the strong woman to my mind: whilst Fukunaga’s 2011 version gets stuck in odd variations from the plot.

One of the limitations of this 1943 version is the casting. Jane is played by Joan Fontaine, who was the wife in a film version of that lesser masterwork inspired by Jane Eyre, Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ (1940). Fontaine’s performance is closer to the somewhat submissive heroine of  Du Maurier than to Brontë’s Jane. This point is accentuated by the casting of Orson Welles as Rochester. Referring to the finale of the novel and film Ellis and Kaplan ask,

“(could Welles ever appear chastened?) . . . “

Moreover, when could he resist directing as well, and the film bears many of his hallmarks.

However, in the rather different presentation from the novel both stars are very good. And they are supported by some excellent actors, including Agnes Moorehead and Henry Daniel and the young Peggy Ann Garner, Elizabeth Taylor and Margaret O’Brien.

The script of the film was (surprisingly) by Aldous Huxley with contributions from the director and John Houseman. The screenplay was in part an adaptation of a broadcast version by The Mercury Theatre on the Air. The film does provide a voice-over to present Jane’s point of view, but not all key parts of the film enjoy this. Moreover, two key characters are missing from the film version, Miss Temple from the Lowood school and St. John Rivers from Jane’s odyssey away from Thornfield. Both, in different ways, are important in the characterisation of our heroine.

Stylistically the film broadly follows the conventions of Hollywood studios, thus reinforcing the position of the men in the film. However, it does capture the Gothic atmosphere, especially at Thornfield. There is some excellent use of high and low key lighting by the cinematographer George Barnes. And an equally Gothic feel is imparted by the score from Bernard Herrmann.

This is a classic Hollywood adaptation of a great novel. The characters and plot are recognisable but I rather think Charlotte Bronte would have wanted quite a few rewrites if she had been involved. It does though score with the acting and the production. There are pleasures in the narration, style and performances, notably that of Welles. Happily when the Picturehouse at the National Media Museum screen the film this Saturday they will be relying on a 35mm print, which is apparently in excellent condition . This will certainly do full justice to the visual pleasures of the film.

The screening is preceded by a panel discussion chaired by Samira Ahmed. The panel plan to comment on the book, the film adaptations and the works’ popularity. It will be interesting to hear what they may say about the Brontë and the Stevenson versions. Lovers of either will also get a chance to pose questions about this.

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