Of the making of many adaptations of Jane Eyre, there is no end. Since I'll be teaching JE yet again, beginning on Wednesday, I watched the newest import from across the pond with "great interest" (as correspondents are so fond of beginning letters to the editor). Before I proceed to discuss this miniseries in a calm, dignified, and suitably academic tone, however, I must express my opinion of one revisionist choice in a more...vulgar...fashion. Here we go:
Helen Burns, explaining to Jane how they can get out of Lowood: "We advertise."
*multiple expletives deleted here because innocent, easily-impressionable undergraduates might be reading this blog entry*
Yes, Helen's universalist theology rarely survives translation to the small or large screen, but she's usually granted some sort of (admittedly trite) role in Jane's spiritual education. Here, her most important contribution is job-seeking advice. Who on earth thought this could possibly be a good idea? (Well, presumably the same person who showed us a heartfelt reunion between Jane and Bessie, despite Bessie's near-total absence from the very truncated childhood scenes.)
We now resume our usual dulcet tones...
I'm not sure if there's any way to adapt JE without making the plot seem cheap and rickety; without Bronte's sinewy sentences--what the Victorians would have called "racy"--the events all too easily devolve into the stuff of pure pop fiction. It's Jane's voice that makes the novel work, and first-person novels do not translate well to film--let alone first-person novels that are not really in the realist mode. Still, director Susanna White shrewdly relies on off-kilter camera angles, tight and distorted closeups, and stylized visuals to remind the viewer that this is not, after all, an "objective" perspective on the narrative; it is, rather, very much Jane's. Moreover, White and writer Sandy Welch preserve Jane's drawing and painting, which ties in neatly to her awkward position as both interested and disinterested observer.
The casting is a bit of a mixed bag. Ruth Wilson is a good, stalwart Jane, and it's nice (for once!) to see an actress in the role who isn't inappropriately pretty. Toby Stephens, however, is inappropriately pretty for Rochester, not to mention insufficiently rough and gruff; he doesn't convey much in the way of inner conflict, let alone suppressed anger. The child performers are uneven (and Cosima Littlewood seems too old for Adele), while most of the adults, like Francesca Annis, simply don't have all that much to do.
So far, the miniseries has done a decent job of preserving at least some of the novel's main themes, including the importance of love, the danger of relying on appearances, and the need to accept personal responsibility for one's moral choices. (Rochester has a bad habit of saying "it wasn't my fault.") And the gothic atmosphere is handled quite nicely. Like a lot of viewers, I suspect, I'm troubled by the amputation of Jane's childhood, although it looks like we actually get St. John Rivers in the second half. Still, at the risk of damning with faint praise, right now this miniseries strikes me as one of the better JE adaptations I've seen (bearing in mind that I don't think JE adapts well at all). On to the second half.