Why ‘Jane Eyre’ Movies Suck
It’s that goddamn fourth wall.
Jane Eyre is a lofty name in the English literary canon, and it’s also one of my favourites. It tells the story of a poor young woman’s journey into adulthood as she faces poverty, disenfranchisement, manipulation, and betrayal. It was an incredibly controversial novel in its day for its feminist and egalitarian ideas, so it’s a shame all the movie adaptations kind of suck…
And they suck because of the fourth wall.
It’s more commonly seen in film and television, but a broken fourth wall has a similar effect in literature. It allows for commentary and exposition, and it can highlight the artificiality of the story.
When I re-read Jane Eyre from time to time, I can’t help but imagine her as something more like the main character of BBC’s Fleabag, only less raunchy. Her inner monologues and observations (that are addressed directly to us) reveal a very passionate and opinionated personality, which is in direct opposition to the quiet, reserved persona she presents to the world. This reserved Jane is the only one we see on the screen, and it’s a real shame.
So, dear reader, here are some snippets from the Jane Eyre movie that lives in my brain…
I’m going to do what most adaptations do very well, and skip over the parts about her childhood, and jump straight into adult Jane…
In Chapter X, Jane has decided that she wants to leave her home of Lowood school and become an independent governess. With no connections in the outside world, the only way she can do this is to advertise in the papers. Here she is reading her advert to us,
‘A young lady accustomed to tuition’ (had I not been a teacher two years?) ‘is desirous of meeting with a situation in a private family where the children are under fourteen (I thought that as I was barely eighteen, it would not do to undertake the guidance of pupils nearer my own age). She is qualified to teach the usual branches of a good English education, together with French, Drawing, and Music’
This scene takes place in the early morning before her working day begins. She is reading it over in her head in a very formal voice, and she speaks the parts in brackets to the audience, informally and directly.
We are let in on her plans, and her anxious thought processes. It might seem a bit cheesy, but I prefer this type of Jane to the sullen Jane who seems to float from place to place in the adaptations without much of a second thought.
If you haven’t read it, you may not be aware that the novel is written like a memoir, with an older Jane retelling the story of her life. This fictional narrator shows some awareness that she is fictional, as she does call her story a ‘novel’.
Here’s the opening of Chapter XI…
‘A new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play; and when I draw up the curtain this time, reader, you must fancy you see a room in the George Inn at Millcote, with such large figured papering on the walls as inn rooms have; such a carpet, such furniture, such ornaments on the mantelpiece, such prints, including a portrait of George the Third, and another of the Prince of Wales, and a representation of the death of Wolfe.’
This is one of those instances where the writer is highlighting the artificiality of the story. Here, Jane is in the middle of her journey from her home at Lowood School to her new role as governess at Thornfield Hall. The curtain is drawn up, and the stage is now a whole new set, and only one room is shown, much like a play.
In the version of the movie that lives in my head, this older ‘narrator’ Jane shows up a lot. I imagine her saying the line ‘A new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play’, then she opens the curtains of her study, to reveal the next scene at Millcotte, and the camera angle and lighting make it look somewhat like a stage at first. Another reminder that this is a work of fiction.
Okay, reader, I’m about to talk about my favourite scene in the book. The scene in Chapter XIII, where Rochester is looking at her paintings.
The thing is, these paintings are implied to further fuel Rochester’s fascination with Jane, and to reiterate Jane’s eccentric and artistic mind. They’re not beautifully painted, but they are ‘peculiar’.
This scene always falls flat for me in the adaptations, but it could be because it’s my favourite scene and I have high standards.
We usually end up getting a small glimpse of the paintings, and some dialogue between Rochester and Jane. But in the book…Surprise! It’s another fourth wall break.
‘He spread the pictures before him, and again surveyed them alternately.
While he is so occupied, I will tell you, reader, what they are: and first, I must premise that they are nothing wonderful. The subjects had, indeed, risen vividly on my mind. As I saw them with the spiritual eye, before I attempted to embody them, they were striking; but my hand would not second my fancy, and in each case it had wrought out but a pale portrait of the thing I had conceived.’
She then goes on to describe the three paintings in detail. The way I imagine this scene, Rochester is sitting at his chair, analysing the paintings, with Jane standing behind him.
But instead of showing us the paintings, I would have Jane looking at the audience, saying the line ‘While he is so occupied, I will tell you what they are…’
For the sake of keeping the audience’s attention, Jane wouldn’t go into as much detail as she does in the books. If the budget for the movie in my head allows (which it does), the scene will move into the imagery that Jane has imagined.
The scenes would look like lands from a dreamlike fantasy world, and Jane is enraptured in them. When she is finished describing them, it would return to the gloominess of Rochester’s dining room, and the dialogue continues. At least then we would see how passionately strange Jane is.
Her secret strangeness that she only shares with us is what makes book Jane so lovable. I never see this side of Jane on the screen. I only see the quiet, clever little puritan.
So, reader, I’ve hopefully convinced you that a Jane Eyre movie could actually be more modern and appealing than what other adaptations have led you to believe. Because we only see this exterior view of Jane in screen adaptations, her part in the story becomes incredibly passive.
We only get to see a naïve, inexperienced young woman. Admittedly, she is a naïve, inexperienced young woman, and I don’t hold that against her. It’s just that she is also courageous, self-assured, perceptive, and impassioned. Things that we only truly know if we’ve read the book.
So come on, Netflix! Give me the subversive adaptation I desperately crave!