Jane Eyre is part of our common cultural consciousness; it has continued in popularity from its first publication to today because it speaks to our passions and fears. It is also remarkably adaptable, so we shouldn’t be surprised that it has been adapted for the screen many, many times. Which Jane Eyre is for you? Here is a screen guide to Jane Eyre.
Jane Eyre (Masterpiece Theatre mini-series), starring Ruth Wilson & Toby Stephens, 2006, 228 min.
This is hands down the best screen adaptation of Jane Eyre. Not only is it faithful to the original, it brings the passionate nature of the story to the fore. It has the advantage of the mini-series format which allows the story to be told without skipping or condensing parts. Ruth Wilson is a truly memorable Jane, intelligent, determined, honest, witty (she was nominated for Golden Globe) and Toby Stephens captures Rochester’s restlessness and moodiness; and, there is real chemistry between the two. It nicely builds the suspense and it is beautifully done. It is a Jane Eyre with colour, not cold or remote. It is adapted by Sandy Welch, an excellent screenwriter. She also did the mini-series of Emma, Our Mutual Friend, and North and South. Not to be missed! If you are a fan of another Jane Eyre but have not seen this, I strongly believe you will be converted. Interviews with the cast and writer here. PBS has a neat page that will give you some background on the production.
Jane Eyre (Film), Mia Wasikowska & Michael Fassbender, 2011, 121 min.
This is the most recent adaptation of Jane Eyre and is really quite well done. It is a very elegant and trim Jane Eyre. But… while it is tries to be faithful, important moments are condensed and lose some of their power, particularly the resolution. Also, it feels quite cold – the colour palate is awash with grey – and the characters are quite tightly bound up; Mia Wasikowksa hardly smiles as Jane. There is some nice tension between Jane and St. John which builds some suspense. On the whole it is fiery but dark, lacking some of the hope and redemption of the book.
Jane Eyre (TV movie), Samantha Morton & Ciaran Hinds, 1997, 108 min.
Samantha Morton and Ciaran Hinds are both excellent actors, but this Jane Eyre has quite a drawing room feel to it rather than a more wild or raw feel. It focuses really entirely on Jane and Rochester and omits several other parts of the plot. It lacks some of the suspense as well. It is quite sincere but still, I feel, slightly misses the mark.
Jane Eyre (Film), Charlotte Gainsborough & William Hurt, 1996, 111 min.
This version of Jane Eyre, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, is quite strong but suffers from the same disadvantages as the other movie versions. In order to compress the story into two hours some majors elements are left out, especially from the last quarter of the book. After Jane leaves Thornfield it sort of diminishes into bland. However, it does have its moments, including a fiery Anna Paquin as young Jane.
Other Versions – There truly is a Jane Eyre for every age…
The 1980s – Jane Eyre (BBC mini-series), Zelah Clarke & Timothy Dalton, 1983, 239 min. This was the version of Jane Eyre for over ten years, before the storm of Jane Eyres in the 1990s and 2000s. The poster really says it all; it’s all about Rochester here. Timothy Dalton is really quite a good Rochester; Jane comes across as quite stern and disapproving. A bit of a mismatch.
The 1970s – These versions from the ’70s definitely still have fans. If you can find them, check them out. Jane Eyre (BBC mini-series), Sorcha Cusack & Michael Jayston, 1973, 248 min.; and Jane Eyre (TV movie), Susannah York & George C. Scott, 1970, 110 min.
The 1960s – Jane Eyre (BBC mini-series), Ann Bell & Richard Leech, 1963, 150 min. The BBC still claims ownership for this one (as of 2006, unlike the next one) but I haven’t found any clips.
The 1950s – Jane Eyre (BBC mini-series), Daphne Slater & Stanley Baker, 1956, 180 min. This is all I can find…
Jane is quite the fashion plate but she’s like a block of ice! They also seem to have condensed the story somewhat…
The 1940s – Jane Eyre (TV special), Mary Sinclair & Charlton Heston, 1949, 60 min. (!) and Jane Eyre (Film), Joan Fontaine & Orson Wells, 1943, 96 min. This was the perfect type of role for Joan Fontaine – she also starred in the film version of Rebecca; Orson Welles, too, come to think of it. Overall it has a pretty stunning cast. This is quite a proposal scene:
Interesting facts: the screenplay is written by Aldous Huxley and John Houseman, and Margaret O’Brien and Elizabeth Taylor both make appearances. Unfortunately, it has one of the funniest taglines ever: “A love story every woman would die a thousand deaths to live!”
The 1930s – Jane Eyre (Film), Virginia Bruce & Colin Clive, 1934. Even the poster communicates that this is terribly inaccurate! (What is Jane wearing? Is she trying to impersonate Blanche Ingram? I am expecting Dracula to pop out at any moment. Maybe Mr. Rochester IS a vampire!) I really want to see it!