Novels told in the first person pose difficulties for any film adaptation; novels told in the first person with heavy doses of romance, Gothic, and fairy tale make matters even worse. Which is another way of saying that Jane Eyre's cinematic history, stretching back at least to 1914, has been sadly checkered. The newest Jane Eyre, with Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, and Jamie Bell, only adds to the checkering.
Like many adaptations, this Jane Eyre negotiates the problem of "faithfulness" by sticking staunchly to the original's plot, albeit by structuring the film as one long flashback after arriving at the Rivers household. Thus, in mind-bogglingly rapid-fire order, we hit the old reliables: conflict with John Reed, Red Room, encounter with Mr. Brocklehurst, dispatch to Lowood, Helen Burns, Helen Burns dying, off to Thornfield, and so on. In fact, Jane's early life moves so quickly that it's not at all clear to me that somebody unfamiliar with the novel would understand what's going on. The speed-demon approach becomes most problematic, however, when we get to Rochester's relationship with Jane. Not only do Fassbender and Wasikowska have little chemistry, but the source of their characters' purportedly passionate attraction remains unexplained; the characters have spent so little time together that it's difficult to feel sympathy for Jane (or irritation with Rochester) when Blanche Ingram flits by in her few minutes of screen time. Wasikowska's rather whiny delivery of Jane's famous "'I tell you I must go!'" speech doesn't help matters--despite frequent reminders of Jane's "passion," this one lacks much in the way of burning emotion. (One of the most striking and effective moments between the two, in fact, is silent: Rochester roughly drags her along to the church on their wedding day.)
However, there are more serious problems than zipping through the plot. To begin with, the film destabilizes Jane's moral center, beginning with the five seconds of Helen Burns (whose universalist theology in the novel profoundly shapes the adult Jane's). Calvinist caricatures like Mr. Brocklehurst or St. John Rivers are countered not by Jane's Bible-based Godliness, but by all-consuming romantic love; this Rochester may be "deceitful," as Jane mournfully informs him, but there is no sign of the novel's insistence that Jane's passion for him was itself a sin. Similarly, the reduction of Jane's debate with Rochester over "custom" and "convention" to what is "right" obscures the force of her willingness to accompany St. John overseas without marrying him: as Jane tries and fails to make clear to Rochester in the novel, her conscience, grounded in divine law, cannot regard marriage in the light of a mere convention, as opposed to something that is simply propriety. The occasional "God help me" aside, the film's Jane appears to understand righteousness in secular terms, something emphasized by the near-total disappearance of the novel's interest in providence (the tree shatters offscreen; St. John Rivers is not Jane's cousin; etc.). And, as is so frequently the case in the adaptations, Jane gets to tell off Aunt Reed without experiencing any psychic retribution--satisyfing for the audience, but rather missing Bronte's point. Now, it's understandable that the filmmakers elected to de-Christianize the plot in this way, but it's both a) a conventional choice and b) a reductive one. Without either Jane's striking voice or her retrospective belief that her desire for Rochester (and vice-versa) participates in a greater conflict betweem Good and Evil, the whole affair looks simultaneously tawdry and implausible. As Mrs. Fairfax reminds Jane, men like Rochester do not, as a general rule, marry their governesses...although they may well do other things with them.
But besides secularizing the plot, the film de-symbolizes and, indeed, de-Gothics it (with the notable exception of Jane's initial encounter with Rochester in an appropriately misty wood). The Red Room sequence is remarkably well-lit (and, really, surprisingly lacking in red); there's no sense of why it's terrifying, and it doesn't foreshadow Thornfield's destruction. Similarly, despite the vampiric legend about Bertha Mason, she's a quite attractive woman in need of a good haircut. Thornfield, which owes its appearance to the Robert Stevenson version* instead of the novel, burns down--but Rochester and Mrs. Fairfax are apparently still living in it (also a feature of the Stevension version), thereby leaving the past not entirely erased (and wouldn't living in a burnt-down home be conducive to catching one's death of cold?). St. John Rivers, besides being completely unrelated to Jane, is very not a Greek god, one of the things in the novel that marks his otherness to both Jane and Rochester. (On the other hand, Aunt Reed and Blanche Ingram actually resemble each other, which is an interesting echo.) And Rochester, amazingly, is totally unscarred by his experience in Thornfield, besides his blindness--face unmarked, both hands attached. So much for the Biblical overtones of his punishment in the novel. Even the miraculous moment of telepathy has been rendered more "realistic"--is Jane just hallucinating Rochester's voice as St. John berates her, as she earlier hallucinated Rochester in St. John's place?
Obviously, for those who have read a lot of the reviews, I'm going against the tide of generally positive reactions. As an adaptation, it doesn't depart in any particularly striking or interesting ways from previous incarnations (although at least the Rivers family shows up, even if they aren't related...). It's certainly an attractive film, as others have said, with plenty of moors to admire, and Fassbender does make an appropriately surly-to-intense Rochester. But, with apologies to Richard Bentley: a very pretty film, but one must not call it Bronte.
*--Which, despite its problems, is in some ways the novel's best adaptation: it isn't afraid of either Gothic or excess.