Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!
Reviews — Jane Eyre (1996 Version vs. 1944 Version)
The 1996 version of Jane Eyre is good and bad in many ways. Probably the best aspect of the film is that it doesn’t overplay the material. There isn’t a lot of sweeping, dramatic music or phony tears running down Jane’s cheeks; the material is played at a subtle level, and I admired that.
The other crucial but well-done deed is the casting of Jane Eyre, who is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. She is superb in the Jane Eyre role, and I very much liked how the director didn’t cast some A-list actress in the role. But the perfect casting in the movie, if I do say so, goes to the role of Mrs. Fairfax, played by the always wonderful Joan Plowright, who simply sparkles in the film.
What’s not so good? William Hurt! This man is a great actor, but I’m sorry, he just didn’t pull off the role of Mr. Rochester. He never seems to show any passion for Jane, and he’s not very appealing. And don’t miss the shot when he falls off the horse in his first scene! It’s the most laughable shot of the movie.
Another aspect of the film I didn’t like is that it feels very rushed in its last thirty minutes. The movie slowly unravels in its first ninety minutes, then suddenly everything gets slapped together at the end. Here are some notable differences from the book I picked up. The subplot of Lowood getting typhus fever is completely abandoned. Jane is merely going for a walk when she meets Mr. Rochester; she’s not bringing a letter to Hay for Mrs. Fairfax.
And many differences appear in the last half hour. When Jane leaves Rochester after she discovers Rochester is already married, she goes to Gateshead, and meets St. John and Mary there (Diana is nowhere to be found). The subplot of the relationship between St. John and Jane is very, very low-key. He still offers her hand in marriage, but she says ‘no,’ and then she leaves. That’s all! She then goes back to Thornfield, where both Mrs. Fairfax and Rochester still live.
The 1996 version is a little slower, drearier, and there just isn’t much passion in that version, whereas in the 1944 version there is love clearly seen on the screen. Ah, classic cinema. Now before I start rambling on about differences between the book and the movie, I’d just like to say this is one stunning movie, beautifully photographed and incredibly acted. Jane Eyre is played by the Oscar-winning Joan Fontaine, who does everything for the character except look bad. That’s right. The character of Jane Eyre in this movie isn’t plain; she’s absolutely gorgeous. In fact, I felt she is better looking than Blanche Ingram in this film!
But this noticeable difference from the book didn’t exactly hurt the movie. After complaining about William Hurt doing a mediocre job of Mr. Rochester, I got a reward with the amazing Orson Welles, who plays Rochester in this version. The man is perfect in the role and he is exactly who I imagined Rochester to be: charming, sarcastic, and haunting. One final casting note: The one and only Elizabeth Taylor plays Helen Burns! It’s amazing to see how young she looks.
Now for some differences. The first scene of the movie features the first paragraph of chapter one being read from the novel Jane Eyre, yet the first paragraph is completely different in the movie! But then the movie goes on for a good hour or so, and there really aren’t any notable differences I could find. Sure, Jane is merely going on a walk when she bumps into Rochester for the first time (like in the 1996 version), but an interesting aspect of this scene is that Rochester falling off his horse looks more real in this 1944 version than in the 1996 version! Who says things get better with age? I jotted down in my notes that toward the end of the movie, I could feel some real chemistry between Jane and Rochester, which is found in the book obviously, but also presented here (yep, a similarity!). Another similarity is that this movie features the chestnut tree getting struck by lighting (!), which I was happy about.
And now the differences really begin at the end of the movie. The entire — yes, entire — subplot of Jane’s relationship with St. John is completely left out. The characters of St. John, Mary, and Diana don’t even appear in the film. Instead, after Jane leaves Rochester, she goes to Gateshead (similar to the 1996 version) to forgive Mrs. Reed and then come back to Thornfield. Rochester is blind, but one eye is not missing, and his legs are fine; he merely has a crutch to support himself.
But I really, really enjoyed this film, despite its few differences from the novel. There is true chemistry between Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester in the film, which is just slightly over ninety minutes long! Yes, this is a short film, especially considering it was adapted from a 450+ page book. If there were one Jane Eyre film to rent, it would be this one.
Watching Like a Writer
Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books from high school, and it’s been adapted into many films, including these two I discussed in the review, as well as a more recent 2011 version starring Mia Wasikowska. What these films and novel make me think about is attempting, as a writer, the gothic romance novel. I just read Rebecca for the first time this summer and I was taken away for a few sleepless nights. I love everything gothic. The decaying buildings, the cold mist, the darkness, the fated romance. I’d love to write a book like this.
How would you define a gothic novel? What elements does it need to include, and what elements for your own work would you like to include?