'Jane Eyre': Does It Totally Suck? An Argument

by Dan Kois

Dan: Claire Jarvis! I really liked Cary Fukunaga’s film of Jane Eyre, starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. But I know next to nothing about Brontë, having read maybe one-fifth of the novel in 11th grade. You’re an assistant professor in the English department at Stanford, a Brontë scholar and a superfan. Tell me why I’m wrong to like this movie so much!

Claire: Dan Kois! I really suggest you read this novel. But, right away, I don’t know if I’d say I was a Charlotte Superfan. I’m more of an Emily girl.

Dan: See, whereas I am like “Oh right, there are TWO Brontës.”

Claire: More, even.

Dan: Coughing fit!

Claire: Don’t forget Anne and Branwell.

Dan: Branwell? Oh. Branwell.

Claire: Well, let me start by saying I have relented a bit on my “This movie sucks” opinion.

Claire: I think it did a lot of things well. Mia Wasikowska is a very good Jane. And, some of the dialogue (SOME of it) is really just pulled from the book. And Brontë, if anything, knows how to write a swoony chat. Wasikowska’s delivery of the machine speech is pretty great.

Dan: Um, remind me what the machine speech is?

Claire: Oh! When Rochester asks Jane if, you know, she wants to be his wife, she takes him to task, asking him if he thinks because she lacks rank, she lacks feelings. So, in the novel, this speech is an important repetition of one of Brontë’s central points: that a poor, unloved governess is equal, as a person, to a rich landowner.

Dan: It’s interesting to me that it’s delivered in terms of “feelings” — something that Wasikowska’s very self-contained performance, up to that point, sort of elided. She wasn’t unfeeling exactly but she managed to keep a stone face through some pretty crazy shit.

Claire: Yes, true. Vampire Madwomen in the Attic, for example.

Claire: But, feeling is really important for Brontë’s novel. It’s the thing that pulls Rochester towards Jane in the first place.

Claire: In the push to make it a ROMANTIC MOVIE, we get a kind of diminution in the class struggle at the core of the novel.

Dan: You mean, Fukunaga was like, “Well, if I have a really dynamite reading of the machine speech, I can get away with skipping the rest of the class-struggle stuff.”

Dan: Which is funny in that his last movie, Sin Nombre — about a Honduran teenager trying to escape drug gangs — was awfully class-conscious.

Dan: Or at least class-not-unconscious.

Claire: And here’s the other problem I have. One of the great things, the truly wonderful things, about Jane Eyre is the narration. Jane’s at once close, really close, and always at a distance from the reader. (“Reader, I married him.”) The director nodded to this sometimes with the shaky first-person camera, but, really, it’s missing from the film.

Dan: But that is so, so difficult to achieve in ANY film, not just a period film, not just a literary adaptation. I’m trying to think of a great period literary adaptation that used voice-over to deliver chunks of novel uncut.

Claire: My favorite 1st person narration adaptation has to be Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy, but only because that novel is wacky about its 1st person, as is the film. It’s notoriously tricky to represent!

Dan: Yes — in that it required basically a practical-joke of a movie (a really, really effective one!) to pull it off.

Claire: And, the result, that Jane is the protagonist of the film, means that, through the whole thing, we’re conditioned into “rooting” for her as the heroine — something which I think is more complicated in the novel, where she’s both the source of our information AND the central figure of her story.

Claire: Also, the movie introduces the St. John stuff wayyy too early.

Dan: Hahaha so many gripes!

Dan: My primary problem with St. John was his muttonchops.

Claire: Part of the grossness/perversity of the St. John proposal is that it’s like a total reinvention of Jane’s life. Using it as a framing device really messed up the narrative patterning there.

Dan: Jamie Bell needs to make better choices in facial hair.

Claire: Like, a cigarette moustache?

Dan: By the end of the movie, during the proposal-ish deal, it seriously seemed like they were going to crawl off his face and do something horrifying in the moors.

Claire: Well, that would have been right: St. John is perhaps the best closeted homosexual in the Brontë canon. Sex with Jane would revolt him — it’s not clear if that’s because of the asceticism or something else.

Claire: Also Rochester: WAY TOO HANDSOME.

Let us pause to gaze upon Michael Fassbender.


Claire: But they couldn’t find an UGLY actor to play Rochester?

Dan: They couldn’t find an ugly actor to play Jane!

Claire: True. They did a good job of making her look like she was ugly, though she’s pretty frigging luminous.

Claire: I know Olivier was hot, as was Pierce Brosnan, but HE IS NOT HOT in the book.

Dan: Like, how not hot?

Claire: Like… UGLY.


Claire: He is described as UGLY. He’s like UGLY Heathcliff. He’s still nice and chatty in the book, but… hagsville.

Dan: But why? Just to make us feel sorrier for Jane? To make him scarier from the get-go?

Claire: Because the whole thing is love — the love that is the motive force of the novel — is based on character, but a strange version of character. The end of this movie felt super clipped to me. “Oh, right, that’s cool. You tried to bigamize me. No worries!”

Dan: So in the end the movie sort of argues for love IN SPITE of character, I get it.

Claire: Or, in character more broadly conceived than “moral character.”

Dan: Nevertheless: I would be hard pressed to make the argument that looking at Michael Fassbender ever made a movie worse. You don’t think there’s some room for leeway in a movie like this? I know it added bodice-rippery elements, but it’s hardly a bodice-ripper.


Dan: Hahaha


Claire: Brontë’s Jane says she “mechanically” undoes her wedding dress.

Claire: Did that look MECHANICAL to you?

Claire: RRRIP.

Dan: But she just got finished saying she wasn’t an automaton! DON’T CONFUSE AMERICA’S MOVIE AUDIENCES, CLAIRE.

Claire: That is a shirty way of getting to a bigger issue I had, which is about the kind of passion that counts as passion in a contemporary movie. It’s histrionic, while I think the Brontës very well do the tamped down crazy intense passion better than anyone in literature.

Dan: But would that ever read on a movie screen? Or would it just play as dull?

Claire: That’s another side-product of film’s failure to show interior I guess.

Dan: I get your larger point, though, or at least what I take to be your larger point — that just because a novel is old, and written by a lady, doesn’t mean its primary purpose is romance.

Dan: Just because Austen adaptations as fluttery romances work so well doesn’t mean that Brontë requires the same treatment.

Claire: Yes. And my larger issue is that by focusing on the romance, film adaptations get rid of some of the more provocative (and progressive) elements of old novels… Also, Austen isn’t so fluttery.

Claire: I mean, the same issue I have with the whitewashing of the colonial plot on Jane Eyre could be said to hold in any Austen adaptation, even though Austen is by far a more conservative novelist. Don’t even get me started on Emily Brontë. IMPOSSIBLE.

Dan: Sure, but that’s not specific to old novels. I feel quite certain that in focusing on the romance, Hollywood eliminated some of the more provocative and progressive elements of Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook.

Claire: It’s true. WHITEWASHED!

Dan: They completely removed its militant feminist subplot, and the section about class warfare.

Claire: I wouldn’t ever say this was a TERRIBLE adaptation (though, I know, I did say that, but it was to goad you), but this is more a problem with assuming that books and movies do the same things when they tell stories.

Dan: They don’t! Which goes to the things I liked about this movie, the movie-specific things. For instance. it’s so literally dark!

Claire: I liked that.

Dan: I think it might be the darkest period picture since Barry Lyndon. And I liked those over-the-shoulder handheld shots.

Claire: Why did you like the handheld shots? I’m curious. Those drove me apeshit (technical term).

Dan: They said to me that Fukunaga was working hard to make this movie look different from other period pieces.

Dan: And feel different. Like its willingness to make its characters unappealing at times.

Dan: Rochester may be hot as shit but he is still a deeply offputting character in a way that, say, Colin Firth could never pull off.

Claire: Hmmm. Did you really get that sense? I was trying to figure out how repulsive he was.

Dan: I think those long conversations he had with Jane, where he’s aggressive and demanding, and a dick to his kid, go a long way toward subverting the traditional movie-version of the period-piece starchy leading man.

Dan: Usually he’s sort of priggy, or a little bit stuffy, or the heroine accidentally says something mortifying. But Rochester in this movie is just a douche for a long portion of it. A hot douche, but a douche.

Claire: Right. Ok, that’s a good point. And a drunky douche at that.

Dan: Which I really liked!

Claire: Do you think most viewers read him as douchey, though? I wonder if the force of “HANDSOME ENGLISHMAN” is enough to produce a general swoon, no matter how crappy the behavior.

Dan: Well I think that’s part of the point! In movie-land, that’s a really potent combination. That’s what movies can do so well that books can’t — rub the surface against the interior and see what sparks can fly. It’s different than what Brontë was doing, but I would argue it has a similar emotional effect on me, the viewer.

Claire: I think books CAN do that, though. In fact, I’d say that’s exactly how the first person narration works. We get evidence about these crazy events, but it’s all from the POV of one woman, a woman who is also very, very explicit about the writtenness of her account.

Claire: The novel can do things like this, it’s just that we get used to the medial intervention in film (camera technique v. mise en scene) because they are so obviously different from one another (Victorians didn’t have hand-held cameras).

Dan: Here’s a question: Does Jane Eyre, the book, have any jokes?

Claire: Yeah.

Claire: I mean, not as many as Wuthering Heights, but that’s because Charlotte was kind of a moralizing sadist (oops).

Dan: Cuz Jane Eyre, the movie, DOES NOT.

Dan: Other the visual gag of Adele’s doll stuck up in the attic of her dollhouse, which made me LOL.

Claire: Well, again, that’s like when “Mad Men” winkwink nudgenudges you about smoking during pregancy or something: “READER, YOU KNOW WHAT THIS MEANS.”

Dan: Yes, well “Mad Men” has a narrator, even though he doesn’t say a word out loud: It’s Matthew Weiner, and he’s pissed.

Claire: I would just say: if you liked the movie, give the novel a chance.

Claire: Like I said, I didn’t hate the movie (though I tried), I just think that there are certain things that we can get when reading novels that we can’t get when watching movies.

Dan: You have definitely convinced me to read Jane Eyre and then email you 200 questions about it.

Claire: Have you really never read it?

Dan: I have read more of Wide Sargasso Sea than of Jane Eyre.

Dan: But! I would also caution people who love the book to give the movie a chance.

Dan: Because there are things that movies do well that books cannot! And I think this movie does a lot of movie-things well.


Dan: (“Does a lot of movie-things well!” -Dan Kois, The Awl)

Claire: And, how come Bertha Mason gets to be hot? Jane totally snarks the real Bertha Mason, I tell you what.

Dan: Bertha Mason IS super hot.

Claire: The novel Bertha is “coarse.”

Dan: Not coarse.

Claire: And there’s the whole Grace Poole plot that gets dropped out.

Dan: Even less coarse. Anyway! Claire, if you complain too much about all the dropped subplots, you start to sound like one of those hobbit people complaining about Tom Bombadil.

Claire: No, no. I think what I would say is: the movie IS better than I said (initially) as a movie. But, when you adapt a novel, you do have to make a lot of choices. I guess I would have made some different choices, but I think anyone would. That’s maybe the pleasure of being able to make a movie of a novel you love.

Dan: One things that movies do well is take complicated, rich, knotty novels, and turn them into swiftly-moving, emotionally potent stories. So when adaptations retain even a semblance of the original’s complexity, I view that as sort of like whipped cream.

Claire: I also like whipped cream.

Dan Kois says if you think Fassbender was hot in this, you haven’t seen Fish Tank yet.

Claire Jarvis is an assistant professor in the English department at Stanford University. She does not care about Tom Bombadil.