As reasonable a question as that may appear on the surface, it’s actually the wrong one. Studios love dusting off literary classics for many of the same reasons that theater companies dutifully deliver Shakespeare adaptations on a regular basis. First, and perhaps obviously, it’s good material. But, artists also can’t resist an opportunity to find a new way to approach timeless tales. And there’s also the simple reality that name brands put butts in seats. If you believe some of the same economic thinking that gives us Yogi Bear, Speed Racer and The Smurfs doesn’t also apply to Jane Eyre, you’re kidding yourself. The film industry doesn’t give us what we need; it gives us what it thinks it can sell us.
So when director Cary Joji Fukunaga (Sin Nombre) and screenwriter Moira Buffini (Tamara Drewe) come to a project like Jane Eyre, they have the chance to carve out their own interpretation—but only within a framework that won’t alienate those who know what they expect from that name brand. Structurally, they shake things up by opening with Jane (Mia Wasikowska) fleeing from Thornfield and being taken in by St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his sisters. Most of the familiar story then unfolds in flashback: the orphan Jane’s childhood in the care of her cold-hearted aunt (Sally Hawkins), her experiences in a harshly disciplinarian boarding school, moving on once she reaches young adulthood to become governess for the young ward of Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender) at Thornfield, and the evolving relationship between Jane and Edward, even as the mysteries of Rochester’s past threaten to keep them apart.
Any feature-length adaptation of Jane Eyre faces the same what-to-keep/what-to-ditch problem facing any adaptation of a sprawling literary work. Buffini opts to condense Jane’s childhood into around 15 minutes of screen time, which allows little opportunity to see the experiences that build Jane’s independent-minded worldview. It’s a gamble on the centrality of the Jane/Rochester relationship—and if it doesn’t work, there’s nothing left.
Fortunately, it basically works. Fassbender’s take on Rochester is considerably less overtly brooding than many other interpretations; he may have dark secrets, but there’s also a playfulness and passion to his interactions with Jane that make him more than a grim, tortured figure. Wasikowska, meanwhile, actually looks like the simple teenager of the novel, and underplays Jane’s plain-spoken interactions with Rochester. This isn’t a romantic connection that emerges apparently out of nowhere. It’s easy to recognize a man who’s unused to someone who sparks his curiosity, and a young woman who’s unused to her unconventional manner being respected rather than chastised.
So if the romance works, what’s the problem? It’s that so much energy is devoted to that element of the story, almost nothing else works. The opening sequence of Jane fleeing Thornfield briefly suggests a pace that will allow scenes to breathe, but the rest of the film often feels like a mad dash to hit key plot points. Jane’s other pivotal relationships—Rivers, her doomed schoolgirl friend, the Thornfield housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench)—are glossed over almost entirely. And Fukunaga can’t quite seem to settle on a tone that will remain consistent—at times going for a hushed ghost story, at other times a minimalist realism.
Devotees of a great literary work are rarely going to be satisfied with a truncated feature-film version, picking at every alteration and omission. But this Jane Eyre reminds us that the specifics of the condensation are less relevant than what that process does to a story that feels vital and expansive on the page: It results in something that generally feels thin and shallow. Unless you’re going to go the miniseries route, there’s almost no way around that dilemma. It really doesn’t matter how many adaptations of Jane Eyre we get, as long as the ones we do get actually feel like Jane Eyre.
Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Judi Dench