Film adaptations are always a tricky business. A novel’s purist followers can never be fully appeased. Viewers who are unassociated with a book’s themes and literary intimacy can lose interest in the subtle nuances, editing, and license that filmmakers must use to realize the vision of the work. It is a problematic endeavor and one that invariably leaves a portion of the audience cold and unreceptive.
Jane Eyre may be one of those novels you plodded through in a high school or college lit class during your academic travails. Volumes of critique too numerous to indulge in here have been written in its name. Every conceivable angle of social, artistic, religious, literary, gender and psychological theory has been bandied about by intellects and crackpots alike.
Nevertheless, there are a few truisms regarding Charlotte Bronte’s novel that cannot be denied. It is a work of timeless beauty. In 1847, a female author addressed the stringent grip that religion, class, sexual repression, marriage and (lack of) education held over society. It was so condemning of these institutions and practices, in fact, that she submitted it under the androgynous pseudonym of Currer Bell in order for the book to have a chance at publication.
Its prose is elegant, its environs often grotesque, yet it blends love and forsakenness, helplessness and courage, delight and horror into a story of profound strength. It is a seminal work of female authorship whose progressive ideals, unfortunately, have not been fully realized to this day.
There have been at least nineteen screen adaptations of the novel (both film and television) dating back to 1910. Its story has been used in other works as varied as Wide Sargasso Sea and I Walked with a Zombie. This 1944 production originally was the property of David O. Selznick who, after stints as a producer with MGM and RKO, had setup Selznick International pictures and began producing independently. He had recently made the successful Rebecca in 1941 and feeling that the theme and story were a bit too similar to Jane Eyre, he sold the package (many of his original people were retained including director Robert Stevenson and Orson Welles) to 20th Century Fox. In typical Selznick fashion however, he continued submitting his trademark, winded memos to Fox VP William Goetz, which had suggestions on everything from set design to how to utilize the wunderkind Welles.
Director Robert Stevenson was under contract with Selznick for over ten years (he was originally brought over from England to do a sequel of Gone with the Wind) and strangely never did a film for the mogul. Selznick had continually loaned the director out to other studios. Now, Stevenson found himself in a struggle to maintain creative control over Jane Eyre as the ego of Welles and Selznick’s intimations that the actor should have a greater part in the production undermined his directorial authority.
There has been much discussion regarding who should be credited with the overall vision of the picture. Many shots (lighting, depth of focus, camera placement and movement) are, at times, truly Wellesian, but remembrances from both cast and crew have insisted that Stevenson was fully in control of the picture. By most accounts, the mannered Englishman subtly wrestled the reins from the dynamic, bombastic American. Welles’ humble refusal of a co-producer credit certainly suggests this.
Welles’ influence cannot be denied however. He was purportedly involved in all facets of the production, even hammering down nails in the set pieces. Cinematographer George Barnes (Academy Award winner for 1940’s Rebecca) was an associate of Gregg Toland (who shot Citizen Kane). Following Welles from the Mercury Theater was Bernard Herrmann, who had done the music for Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons as well as many of Welles’ radio productions (including Jane Eyre). John Houseman (co-founder of Mercury with Welles) co-scripted the adaptation and Agnes Moorehead would play Jane’s aunt Mrs. Reed.
The tragedy and injustices that befell Welles’ Hollywood career are too detailed and painful to address here. Suffice to say that his portrayal of Rochester in this film was the first in a long line of acting roles that he took in order to fund his own ambitious projects.
His acting style is often an acquired taste, difficult to appreciate by those who do not hold him in high esteem. From stage roots, his performances can seem brash, impressionistic, unduly heavy and at times, downright hammy. For the character of Rochester, this style cannot be more apt. The booming voice, the overconfidence, the sudden shifts in emotion all play directly into the very fiber of the brooding man of station with the dark, haunted past.
Joan Fontaine would play Jane and her naturalistic approach to acting was a fitting contrast to Welles’ pomposity. It is a true reflection of the characters’ relationship. She was coming off a Best Actress Oscar for 1941’s Suspicion and had received another nomination for Rebecca (1940). These two roles as the meek, innocent, victimized wife of men with shadowy intentions made her a natural for the lead in Jane Eyre. She was a favorite of Selznick. He sensed in her the untainted youthfulness that could perceive menace but seemed helpless to combat it. This quality was used perfectly (and similarly) in all three of these films. Her Jane is not quite the outspoken, determined heroine of the novel but it plays well with the film’s intent of Gothic horror and Victorian oppression.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Jane Eyre is a young orphaned girl who has been taken in by her Uncle. His untimely death leaves her in the hands of her cruel, uncaring Aunt who, for convenience (and against the Uncle’s death bed wish), ships her off to a school for orphaned girls. Here, the Dickensian horrors of poverty’s children are in full force. The stern Evangelical Minister who runs the school takes an immediate dislike to Jane (the other girls fare little better) and her childhood is spent in abject misery. Hunger, lack of care, disease (Bronte had lost her mother and many siblings to sickness), poor living conditions and, of course, rigid religious dogma and punishment become her everyday life. She does receive an education however, and upon turning eighteen accepts a governess position at Mr. Rochester’s Thornfield Manor.
She begins to tutor Rochester’s ward, Adele. Slowly, she builds a spiritually kindred relationship with the gruff, secretive owner of the manor. They fall in love. At their wedding, Rochester’s haunted past catches up with him and Jane flees his ignominy in disillusionment.
Withholding a spoiler – it can be stated that her sufferings, inner growth, and self-determination thereafter allow her to return to Thornfield on her own terms and fulfill the destiny of her life and character.
The cast and crew are replete with current and future talents. Director Robert Stevenson (a member of the “Bronte Society”) had early success with his 1937 version of King Solomon’s Mines, but it was not until his autumn years at Disney Studios in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s that his talents flourished. It is arguable that his films have been seen by more people worldwide than any other director in film history (Spielberg might take exception). His huge run began with Johnny Tremain and Old Yeller in 1957 and continued with Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), Kidnapped (1960), The Absent Minded Professor (1961), In Search of the Castaways (1962), Son of Flubber (1963), Mary Poppins (1964), That Darn Cat! (1965), The Gnome Mobile (1967), The Love Bug (1968), Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968), Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), Herbie Rides Again (1974), The Island at the Top of the World (1974), One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (1975), and The Shaggy D.A. (1976).
Admittedly, no title in that lineup is going to win you a Palme d’Or, but it will surely get you in the door for an interview with any movie studio in the free world.
Stevenson co-wrote the script for Jane Eyre with John Houseman (The Paper Chase) and another young upstart by the name of Aldous Huxley who had previously adapted Pride and Prejudice for the screen in 1940 and penned a little ditty titled Brave New World in 1932. Bernard Herrmann scored the film (he composed an opera of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights) and would later add to his success writing music for many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. An eleven-year-old Elizabeth Taylor is glimpsed in the role of Helen, Jane’s friend at the orphan school for girls and long time television actresses Peggy Ann Garner (excellent as young Jane Eyre, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) and Margaret O’Brien (Adele) are here, just beginning their careers.
The film’s strengths lie in its use of gothic horror (“the mad woman in the attic”, haunted manors, fog cloaked exteriors) and psychological moodiness. Like The Overlook Hotel in The Shining, Thornfield Manor itself is a character with which to be reckoned. It has no charm and holds many secrets. It suffers from neglect. Its drafty interiors and old relics are as cold and distant as the soul of its owner. Jane is the one who breathes life, love, music and art into it. The rest of its inhabitants are ghosts, waiting for unattainable rest. Bronte’s hints at the mystical are served well.
Ultimately, Jane Eyre is about a woman of independent thought, trapped by economic and familial hardship, religious oppression, classism and lack of love. Bronte’s words speak for her heroine thusly:
“I am not talking to you now through the medium
of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal
flesh: - it is my spirit that addresses your spirit;
just as if both had passed through the grave, and
we stood at God’s feet, equal, - as we are!”
We should all be so eloquent and forthright.