With the novel Jane Eyre being so beloved, it is not hard to see why so many screen adaptations for this one exist. There have been many big and small screen adaptations made over the years. I like many of them, and despise a good many more of them.
My biggest complaint by far about this story on screen, is that most of the adaptations cut far too much of the novel out. The development of Jane and Rochester’s romance is often rushed, and there is too much cut out from the rest of the story. Much of the beautiful original language of the novel is also missing, making the dialogue more akin to modern language.
I think that the worst adaptations are the 1934 and 2011 film versions. I think the best of the big screen versions is the 1943 film starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine.
I also have a real soft spot for the much underrated 1970 TV film, starring George C. Scott and Susannah York; this version still cuts much out, but Scott is the actor who is pretty much like the Rochester of the novel in terms of looks and mood.
My favourite screen adaptation however will always be the 1983 miniseries, starring Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clarke. This one has held a special place in my heart since I borrowed the video boxset from my local Library. This was made by the BBC and directed by Julian Amyes. It was adapted for the screen by Alexander Baron. Why do I love this adaptation so much? How much time do you have?
I think the performances by Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clarke are superb. They both make you care for their characters of Rochester and Jane. Zelah captures Jane’s quiet and gentle nature, and also her inner self yearning to break free. In the later part of the series when she flees Thornfield, Zelah makes Jane so vulnerable and devastated you just want to wrap her up in your arms. Timothy captures the enigmatic nature, despair, tenderness and frustration of Rochester perfectly. I also think the height difference between Timothy and Zelah works for the series because they just look so adorable together.
The series is also pretty much word for word like the book. It even contains the vast majority of the original language that other adaptations change. It also features the gypsy fortune teller sequence. It also focuses heavily on Jane’s childhood, and upon her time later with Rivers and his sisters, something which other adaptations barely focus upon. The series lets the actors act, and lets them bring these characters to life. The series isn’t rushed in any way.
This is also the only adaptation where I as a viewer feel what Jane and Rochester are going through. The proposal sequence is a good example of this, Zelah makes your heart break when she delivers the famous speech about Jane having heart. The way she and Timothy look at each other in this is incredible. I can’t find the words to describe what those looks convey, they just have such strong chemistry and make you believe the emotional bond between the characters. You believe that they really are falling in love before you.
This adaptation also focuses on the fact that Jane and Rochester each serve as a rescuer for the other. Jane saves Rochester from depression and horror, and he saves her from cruelty and a life of blending into the background, instead of standing out in the crowd. Zelah and Timothy convey all that perfectly, particularly in the scene where Rochester tells Jane he has found the pure and innocent being he wishes to be with in life.
This series features strong performances from the entire cast, and it really is the adaptation which is the closest to the book. There are many adaptations out there, but it is to this one that I return again, and again and again.
The series itself is also a good example of the sort of series that we in Britain used to excel at producing. Series that took their time and were not rushed. Series that allow the actors to convey all we need (no need for fancy editing, or for intrusive music in every scene).
My favourite scenes are the following. The “so, you’ve come out at last” scene where Jane becomes ill and faints. The proposal scene. The scene on the stairs where Rochester says he thinks Jane looks depressed. Young Jane standing up to Mrs. Reed. All the scenes with Grace Poole. Jane saving Rochester from the fire, and their conversation afterwards. Jane asking for permission to go and visit her aunt. Rochester looking at Jane’s paintings. The aftermath of Mason getting attacked by Bertha. The gypsy fortune scene. All the scenes where Jane is staying with the Rivers siblings. The “is this my mustard seed?” scene. Rochester greeting Jane in the grounds when she returns from her aunts house. Rochester begging Jane to stay with him. The final scenes.
If there is a downside to the series I would say it lies in the casting of Zelah. Whilst she is superb as Jane, she looks much older than Jane’s eighteen years. This seems to always be a problem in all of the adaptations. Timothy is also more handsome than the Rochester of the novel (who to my mind resembles how George C. Scott looked in the 1970 film)but he really is the best actor to capture the personality and torment of the man.
Beautiful costumes and music all add something to the series. My favourites from amongst the supporting cast are Mary Tamm, as the beautiful and self centred Blanche. Robert James, as the cold and cruel Mr. Brocklehurst. Jean Harvey as the loveable and loyal Mrs. Fairfax.
I’d love to hear from you what you think of this series? What are your favourite screen adaptations of this story? Leave your comments below.