The most famous line in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is “Reader, I married him.” Depending on the reader, it may also be the most puzzling, given that I is a wealthy young woman and him is a one-eyed, one-handed, pushing-40 grump who proposes to a nanny half his age only to admit at the altar that he’s already got a wife and she’s locked in his attic. Dreamy! Yet in a 2009 poll by British romance publisher Mills and Boon, readers voted Edward Rochester the “most popular hero in literature,” ahead of the likes of Heathcliff, Rhett Butler, and Colin Firth. With such an established brand in the public domain, Jane Eyre is reanimated for film and TV with a frequency that belies its resistance to faithful adaptation. Presented as the autobiography of a “plain, Quakerish governess,” the novel devotes many chapters to the privation and abuse Jane suffers in childhood and, after her aborted wedding, her sojourn with Calvinist drip St. John Rivers; these sections are hardly the stuff of bonnet-ripping romance. A fan’s rainy-day re-readings likely center on the passages set at Rochester’s estate, Thornfield, where the master’s crypto-courtship techniques include disguising himself as a fortune-telling crone and lots of monologuing in Jane’s general direction. In the hands of the wrong actor or director, Jane’s integrity and candor might scan as prim saintliness, while her lack of materialism is conduct unbecoming in any Hollywood bride-to-be: “The more [clothing and jewelry] he bought me, the more my cheek burned with a sense of annoyance and degradation.” What kind of killjoy wins the marital sweepstakes and refuses a retail victory lap? Or says of her beloved, “I am sure most people would have thought him an ugly man”?
I am sure most people would not think this of Michael Fassbender, star of the latest Jane Eyre, out this week. Nor is “plain” a word that describes Mia Wasikowska, who plays Jane in Cary Fukunaga’s handsome reboot—wherein even the madwoman Bertha Mason (Valentina Cervi) is so artfully disheveled that she brings to mind not syphilitic lunacy so much as the Comme des Garçons’ fall 2008 ready-to-wear collection. No matter: The actors are fantastic, and the central challenge of adapting Jane Eyre is more than skin deep. Because Brontë’s novel has the internal emotional logic of a brilliant diary, coaxing Rochester out of Jane’s forgiving imagination and onto the screen exposes him to harsher judgment—for, say, not looking before he leaps across the gulf of years, social status, and legal impediments to propose to Jane. And for forcing Jane to take a front-row seat at his protracted flirtation with snooty socialite Blanche Ingram. And for, oh yes, imprisoning an actual living human being in the attic the whole time. However much we might adore him—and in the end, don’t we love Rochester because we love Jane?—our hero is, objectively speaking, a bit of a creep. Thus the success or failure of any Jane Eyre (the below list is a mere sampling) hinges on how well the film minimizes its inevitable Creep Factor.
Players: Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles (1943)
Creep Factor: High
Co-scripted by Aldous Huxley, this early adaptation of Jane Eyre unspools like a horror movie, all looming Gothic towers, slanting shadows, and bursts of orchestral bang-crash. The big proposal scene smacks of hypnosis and brute force, and after a while you wonder if Rochester’s dark secret is that he’s the Wolfman. (For superior Eyre-inspired frighteners of the same era, check out Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie.) Fontaine purées Jane’s dignity and stoicism into patrician blandness, and while Welles is an interesting choice for Rochester—arrogance and self-pity were often his team colors—here he’s a cardboard golem in a riding cloak, leaving trails of dry ice and bronzer in his wake. When J&R reunite for their happy-ever-after, one feels the same stirrings of heebie-jeebies aroused by the finale of As Good As It Gets.
Players: Susannah York and George C. Scott (1970)
Creep Factor: N/A
Jane Eyre is tricky to cast because its central match is—at least to the naked eye—a mismatch of age, station, and temperament. Which can create a paradox: If J&R click too readily, the whole contraption falls apart. York was 30 when she portrayed the virginal Jane opposite 44-year-old Scott, and though his gifts for manic intensity and prosecutorial zeal suggest Rochester DNA, the pairing is cozy and domestic enough to evoke not socially proscribed kismet but rather a couple of battle-scarred divorcés saying, What the heck, let’s make a go of it!
Players: Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton (1983)
Creep Factor: Minimal
Clarke is a shade delicate and wheedling for Jane, but the pre-007 Dalton is a pitch-perfect Rochester: gruff, vulnerable, congenitally infuriated. He also bears such a ridiculously uncanny resemblance to Jon Hamm—I mean, just look at this—that rediscovering this BBC serial suddenly casts a gloomy mist of Yorkshire romance over Mad Men: Don Draper is Rochester, the impulsive himbo with a sordid past; Peggy Olson is Jane, the resilient go-getter and rock-solid feminist; Betty Draper is the scary wife locked in the attic, etc.
Players: Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt (1996)
Creep factor: Off the charts
More than any other Jane to date, Gainsbourg’s seems palpably wounded: scarred but intact, cagey, conserving her every word and movement, bearing a heavy burden of experience and ghastly memories on her thin shoulders. (When she smiles, it’s as if she must consciously arrange her facial muscles in the appropriate pattern—her smile has an accent like a language learned too late.) Gainsbourg is, at least to this viewer, Jane incarnate, which makes it doubly disappointing that Hurt clomps through the movie in a floppy Klonopin haze and delivers all his lines with the same eye-rolling, double-chinning sarcasm. For J&R’s first embrace, he doesn’t kiss her so much as lay his face on hers. One longs to spirit Gainsbourg-Jane off to Paris, where she will pioneer the trendsetting governess chic and become an early patron of Jeanne Lanvin.
Players: Samantha Morton and Ciarán Hinds (1997)
Creep factor: High
The ‘90s were not a good time for Jane Eyre. Morton somehow manages to make Jane smug in this threadbare A&E production, spinning the character’s profound self-possession as a twinkly-eyed superiority; she always seems on the verge of giggles. She treats her man with moony condescension, which is apt—Hinds’ Rochester is a honking lech, blustering and bloviating beneath the carpet swatches on his face as if he’s auditioning for the Alfred Molina role in Boogie Nights.
Players: Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens (2006)
Creep factor: None
Should the BBC receive indefinite custody of Jane Eyre? This four-hour adaptation is luscious, patient, and features a jaw-dropping proposal scene that all but shudders with swoony catharsis. Stephens has the airs and pedigree (he’s the son of Dame Maggie Smith) for the upper-crust Rochester, whom he plays as shifty yet sweet, brusque yet painfully self-aware. With her rubbery features, stern slanting eyebrows, kind eyes, and resolute overbite, Wilson is gorgeous without being conventionally “pretty,” and she lends her character the swagger of a tomboy: This Jane is bolder, less remote, more robust, more butch than we’re used to—more explicitly a protofeminist hero, and on equal footing with her moody bastard of a mate. She is, in short, a Jane we’ve never met before but one we feel we know intimately, proving that no matter how many times Brontë’s novel might be revived, it’s still possible to make it new.
Also in Slate, Dana Stevens reviews the new Jane Eyre movie.