What can the latest film of Jane Eyre add to the story's long history on screen? Gerard Gilbert reports.
It is surely the most famous riding accident in literature - and on screen, given the number of times Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre has been translated into film or television drama. It is dusk, dear reader, and Jane, a governess, is on an errand to post a letter from Mr Rochester's residence, Thornfield Hall, when Rochester's passing horse skids on the ice and unseats Jane's future inamorato. This is the first time she has clapped eyes on her employer - not that she as yet knows his true identity.
"His figure was enveloped in a riding cloak, fur-collared and steel-clasped," Bronte has her heroine observe.
"I traced the general points of middle height and considerable breadth of chest. He had a dark face, with stern features and a heavy brow ... he was past youth, but had not reached middle age; perhaps he might be 35."
Not exactly love's young dream, then. In fact, his age apart, Bronte might be describing Gordon Brown. Jane is 18, and the age difference with Rochester has rarely been adhered to in the screen adaptations of Bronte's smouldering Gothic melodrama.
Perhaps such an age gap has been considered indecent, although it was deemed unremarkable in Hollywood movies for leading men, from Cary Grant to Harrison Ford, to squire screen actresses at least half their age.
The 1970 TV-movie version, with a 31-year-old Susannah York and a 43-year-old George C. Scott, is one of the few of the 25-plus film and television versions of Jane Eyre to have a plainly - almost shockingly - visible age gap. And although there is an identical age difference between the leads in the new Jane Eyre movie, Mia Wasikowska (23) and Michael Fassbender (35), it is somehow less noticeable. Thirty-five is obviously the new 25.
Orson Welles, cinema's most famous Mr Rochester, was only two years older than his co-star Joan Fontaine in the 1943 Hollywood adaptation. If he seems considerably older, it's because he gives a performance of cocksure experience, while Fontaine had honed her maidenly timidity four years earlier as the heroine-victim in Alfred Hitchcock's film of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. The similarity between Rebecca and Jane Eyre has oft been noted, so the casting of Fontaine in both roles has a pleasing logic to it.
Welles's barn-storming Rochester apart, this Jane Eyre was dismissed as "operatic" and "empty" by some critics. It might not even have been the best version of Jane Eyre to be made during the World War II. That accolade might go to I Walked with a Zombie, which transplanted Bronte's romance to a voodoo-ridden West Indies, 70 years before the undead will infiltrate Jane Austen in the upcoming film of Seth Grahame-Smith's novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
But back to the un-zombified screen renditions of Jane Eyre. There were seven silent films made of Bronte's 1849 novel, including Orphan of Lowood. The first sound version was filmed in 1934, starring Colin Clive, in supremely dodgy sideburns, and Virginia Bruce, whose expressive, kohl-rimmed eyes were made for the silent era. This Jane Eyre might have been better off remaining silent: the tinny dialogue comes across more like a drawing-room comedy than a Gothic romance.
The real rush of Jane Eyre adaptations had to wait for the television age, Bronte's story being well-suited to the expansiveness of a TV series. There were five American versions in the early Fifties (including one with Charlton Heston as Rochester) before the first British serialisation, in 1956, with Stanley Baker - then typecast as the boorish heavy - as Rochester. British TV next serialised Jane Eyre in 1963, with the character actor Richard Leech - an intimidating presence, he played Mr Murdstone in the BBC's 1966 version of David Copperfield - in the role.
Since then, TV has revisited Jane Eyre every 10 years with the latest in 2006, while the most recent cinema version was Franco Zeffirelli's 1996 film starring Charlotte Gainsbourg as the adult Jane and Anna Paquin as the younger version and William Hurt as Rochester.
If Rochester should be dark and brooding, verging on cruel, what of Jane? Is she a plain Jane, or is she more unconventionally beautiful as depicted by actresses like Gainsbourg? Mia Wasikowska, ethereal in her own skin (as she proved in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland), has been scrubbed back as the latest Jane on the block, making her fit Rochester's description of his governess: "you are not pretty any more than I am handsome".
But it is Jane's moral dignity and spirited intelligence, not her appearance, that attracts Rochester, and what is perhaps surprising is the absence of an overtly feminist adaptation. After all, this is the literary heroine who observes that, "Women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their effort, as much as their brothers do... it is too narrow-minded to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to the playing of the piano and embroidered bags."
What: Jane Eyre, the latest screen adaptation of the Charlotte Bronte novel
When: Advance screenings this weekend and opens Thursday
- TimeOut / Independent