Book-to-Film Comparison: Robert Young’s 1997 Jane Eyre

Back in early 2011, As part of my quest to prepare for the release of Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre adaptation, I decided to watch as many of the previous films as possible to give me some context. I’ll be re-posting these reviews from my old blog over the next few days.

“Well,” said Nick* as the credits for the 1997 version of Jane Eyre, starring Samantha Morton and Ciaran Hinds, began to roll, “that was devoid of emotional impact.”

JaneeyreIIAnd yeah, it was. It was the kind of adaptation so stilted, so weakly scripted, that I cringed with embarrassment several times.

In a previous post in this series, I discussed one of my issues with book to film translation. This movie tried to cram a lot in, but with next to no respect for the material. There were some scenes that were so chopped up, so stripped of meaning, I wondered why the filmmakers had bothered to keep it at all. Wouldn’t it be so much better to simply choose the scenes you believed to be the most important, and make them mean something?

The script was gawdawful, which there’s no excuse for, since the dialogue in the novel is excellent and really needs very little altering.

Samantha Morton was okay, but she didn’t have much to work with. Ciaran Hinds, normally a competent actor, was hamming it UP. There was no chemistry between the two; their scenes together felt creepy and again, embarrassing.

I could barely pay attention to this movie, and I’m as manic a fan of the book as it is possible to be. One lightning bolt, for Samantha Morton’s effort at making something out of this travesty.

 

*Loyal spouse who binge-watches adaptation of Victorian novels with me.

Book-to-Film Comparison: Jane Eyre, 1983 BBC Production

Back in early 2011, As part of my quest to prepare for the release of Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre adaptation, I decided to watch as many of the previous films as possible to give me some context. I’ll be re-posting these reviews from my old blog over the next few days.

jane eyreMasterpiece Theater and the BBC seemed to realize something in the years following the 1995 Pride and Prejudice: following the book accurately doesn’t mean you can phone it in. That version of P&P remains the definitive film adaptation for most readers not merely because of its faithfulness to the plot, but because it was so thoughtfully cast, and I don’t just mean to say that Colin Firth is hot. (He is, but only when he’s playing Mr. Darcy.)

The production values are also several notches up from earlier MPT/BBC films: the movie doesn’t look like someone did a really good job with a hand held camcorder. The movie follows the book carefully, but not slavishly. It understands that things that work on the page don’t always work on film.  In short (too late, I know), being faithful to the novel is key, but just as translating from a foreign language requires interpretation, not just a dictionary,  conveying the sense of a novel is more important than a literal translation of every scene. To make a great film adaptation, you can’t just know the book; you have to find a way to love the book.

The 1983 Jane Eyre, while it suffers from pre-late-90s-BBC poor production, succeeds in being incredibly true to the novel– but that seems to be the extent of director Julian Amyes’ vision. The film has no style and little tension; there are two scenes in which Amyes quickly cuts to an extreme close up of Bertha Mason’s face, and I jumped both times, but other than that, the film has very few emotional peaks and valleys. Maybe the creators of this adaptation read the book, but they didn’t envision it. It’s too bad, because the two lead actors are really quite good, and Clarke, especially, could have benefited from a few directorial pushes in one direction or another.

Zelah Clarke, as Jane Eyre, certainly surpasses Charlotte Gainsbourg in conveying varied aspects of Jane’s personality. She shows that Jane is moral, but not prudish, loving, but (mainly) self-restrained, and capable of being cheerful. However, something about Clarke’s manner and physical appearance (very soft, round face) suggest too submissive a Jane. The Jane of the novel is a fiery, sometimes angry person. This is why we root for her: because she is always, in one way or another, fighting.  Clarke reaches a brief moment of ire in the garden scene, when she tells Rochester she needs to leave because he is marrying Miss Ingram, but she is never quite indignant, and never shows how deeply insulted she ought to be. She has none of Jane’s pride.  She doesn’t tease well, either. Part of the spark between Rochester and Jane exists because of how irreverently she can behave toward him, and Clarke doesn’t do “wicked” well. Clarke plays Jane as morally perfect, and it makes the character less lovable than the flawed personality in the novel.

Timothy Dalton does a good job of being angry, brooding, cynical Mr. Rochester, which is really about 90% of the role, but there are a few times when Rochester is supposed to show happiness, and Dalton plays these as merely manic. Also, though I am by no means having any dreams about T.Dalt anytime soon, he’s far too good looking for it to be credible when characters refer to him as an ugly man.

Still, for people like me, who if Charlotte Bronte rose again and wrote a sequel,  would stand in line at midnight wearing a Jane Eyre t-shirt to get a pre-ordered copy at Borders a bookstore (dear me, there are no Borders anymore here in 2014), it’s easy to mentally supply the force and tension the film lacks. It’s as if you’re getting a minute-by-minute description of your best friend’s date: from anyone else it would sound boring, but it’s your best friend, so the details are more interesting than they might otherwise be. I can’t give the film five lightning bolts, but it was a damn sight better than the Zeffirelli, so I give it three and a half.

Book-to-Film Comparison: Franco Zeffirelli’s Jane Eyre, 1998

Back in early 2011, As part of my quest to prepare for the release of Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre adaptation, I decided to watch as many of the previous films as possible to give me some context. I’ll be re-posting these reviews from my old blog over the next few days.

jane eyreToday I watched the 1998 Franco Zeffirelli version, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt. Zeffirelli’s ability to realize gorgeous sets has been rocking my operas for years, and he doesn’t drop the ball here. The sets look just about perfect, and he seems to understand that just about every reader envisions the skies in Jane Eyre as being always overcast. The score by Claudio Capponi and Alessio Vlad is also quite beautiful, without being obtrusive. Kudos to casting for mainly sticking to the book’s physical descriptions of its characters. Charlotte Gainsbourg is not conventionally beautiful and is kept quite simple-looking here, unlike Joan Fontaine in the 1943 adaptation, which, by the way, I won’t even be watching, because I’ve seen it before and Did Not Approve. And that’s really too bad because Orson Welles could have been The Bomb Mr. Rochester. Gainsbourg exudes the inner strength needed to portray Jane well. William Hurt gets Rochester’s gruffness, if not his sardonic sense of humor.

Unfortunately, that’s where my positive comments end. This movie was so DEVOID of passion. Well, William Hurt was doing his damnedest, but he was working all alone. Charlotte Gainsbourg either never tried, or was never instructed, to enact any part of Jane’s personality aside from the quietly independent part. The character of Jane Eyre is not supposed to be “naturally austere,” but have moments of real joy and fire. Jane Eyre is a sexy book! But this was not a sexy movie and CG was not a sexy Jane Eyre.

The separation between Jane and Rochester was set up as merely a result of his marriage, and we’re never shown how Jane struggles with her decision to leave, and finally decides to do so as an act of respect for herself, not convention. Their separation isn’t even as painful as it should be, because the filmmakers didn’t take much time to show how well-matched these characters are supposed to be: we never see how Jane comes to consider herself Rochester’s intellectual equal, how they match each other at conversation. Yes, there are some scenes between them taken more or less directly from the book, but these are cut too short to have any real juice. There is one really sweet scene when Jane returns to Thornfield after having visited Mrs. Reed, and Adele and Mr. Rochester are so happy to see her that we catch a glimpse of how Jane perceives these people as her family, and Thornfield as her home, regardless of any class boundaries.

I suppose my real problem with this film is the lack of tension or pacing. Instead of thinking how they could address important elements of the book without making a three-day-long movie, the filmmakers seemed to be trying to cut out as much as they could without offending they viewers they knew would notice. A lot happens in the book. I understand that it is not possible to address it all in a film. But to create tension, sometimes movies need to slow things down and give them time to develop in a viewer’s mind, even if it means making hard decisions about content.

I give this movie two and half out of a possible five lightning bolts for nice visuals and an attempt to cater to readers, but failure to grasp the sense and emotion of the novel.

Book-to-Film Comparison: The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton, and Terence Davies’ 2000 Film Adaptation

This post contains details about the plot and ending of The House of Mirth. Do not keep reading if you don’t want spoilers.

I recently re-read Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth for the first time since high school (so… for the first time in a long time, is all I’m sayin’), and though I remember liking it very much, I don’t remember closing the book and being about as angry as I’ve been in a long time, as I was the other day when I finished my re-read.

mirthIt is a bitter, bitter book. If you’re familiar with Wharton, you know that she was raised amongst the privileged classes of turn-of-the-century New York, and was also a vocal critic of what she clearly saw as petty and pointless discrimination and cruelty practiced by her socioeconomic peers. Her more famous work, The Age of Innocence, was written fifteen years after The House of Mirth, and its more mature and nuanced approach won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1920. But it is not nearly as punishing as her earlier book, in which heroine Lily Bart follows a downward spiral to poverty and despair because she is too conflicted to navigate the intricacies of the social sphere to which she was born.

Keeping the Plot, Missing the Point (Sort of)

Terence Davies’ 2000 adaptation of the book is very faithful to the plot, mostly taking only minor liberties for economy’s sake. For example, he combines the characters of Gerty Farish, Lily’s kind-hearted but unfashionable friend, and Grace Stepney, Lily’s cousin who inherits their aunt’s fortune. Where he missteps, I think, is in making at least two changes that conflict with the intent of Wharton’s novel. First, Selden never suspects Lily of sleeping with Gus Trenor, as he does in the book.  Second, in the book, Selden never finds out that Lily was formerly in possession of love letters written to him by Bertha Dorset. These omissions in the film unburden Selden of his complicity in Lily’s eventual demise, and shift the focus of the story ever so slightly, making it more about star-crossed lovers in a cruel world and less about how absolutely arbitrary and man-made the rules of that world were. It makes Lily’s choice more about her hesitance to expose Selden’s transgressions than about how blackmail utterly violates her sense of moral uprightness.

For Lily to go to the grave as she does in the book, without Selden ever having fully understood her, before he understands her liaison with Gus, and never knowing that she had the power all along to save herself by blackmailing Bertha, is of a piece with her whole sad unfair life. Because the book is largely about Lily’s refusal to be someone she isn’t in order to avoid starvation. She can marry someone she doesn’t love and pretend to be happy about it. She can blackmail Bertha despite the fact that the very idea of stooping so low disgusts her. She can marry Selden even though he can’t afford the only lifestyle she has been brought up to appreciate. She can, in her own eyes as well as those of society, degrade herself by taking money from married men in exchange for sexual favors. Or she can die. So Selden is really only one of her options. And Wharton takes care to show us that despite Lily’s love for him, he is one of the main contributors to her downfall, because the truth is that he sees complete self-denial as the only honorable option for Lily. Wharton’s Selden is a man completely of his time, who loves nothing more than to fancy himself ahead of his time.

Meanwhile, the one-line synopsis on the DVD cover reads, “How far would you go to protect the one you love when faced with total ruin and disgrace?” It’s a gross oversimplification.

Acting

Eric Stoltz, who plays Selden, I think has a better idea of who Selden is than the plot of the movie would make it seem. He plays him well as a detached, self-involved intellectual who takes great pride in throwing barbs at society while shamelessly enjoying whatever perks he can glean from it.

Laura Linney is wickedly wonderful as Bertha Dorset. She reminded me of Orson Welles in The Third Man, who despite his moral repugnance is a breath of fresh air simply because he seems to be the only person who’s having any fun.

Gillian Anderson gives an excellent performance, though her Lily is not quite the Lily of the book. She plays her with a gravity not innate to Wharton’s Lily Bart. Anxiety and dread are imposed on Lily, who otherwise has a natural light and hedonistic bent. It’s not that Lily is stupid– in fact, she’d be a great deal happier and less conflicted if she were– it’s that she is näive.  She can’t see when she’s being entrapped, she thinks her beauty and charm are enough to protect her and purchase her security, and she often expects life to be fair when it is not. Lily’s fatal flaw is that she is has a rock-solid, albeit idiosyncratic, set of morals, but is not mature enough to see that moral flexibility is sometimes justified. Anderson gives Lily an almost intellectual flavor that makes her eventual death seem more like self-inflicted punishment than moral conflict.

But All in All…

It’s a very good adaptation. It looks beautiful, it keeps the main plot points of Wharton’s novel but paces them well for film, and it gleans the best dialogue almost word-for-word from Wharton’s skillful hand. The movie has a force to it. It respects the patient unfurling of Wharton’s novel. Though it either did not understand or did not choose to fully articulate all the subtleties of Wharton’s novel, it understands the power of subtlety itself, and that that is where the powers of social expectations lie.

Strange Bodies, by Marcel Theroux

strange bodiesMarcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies, by necessity, opens with a frame narrative: Nicholas Slopen, narrator of the main story, is dead. But before he dies, he pays a visit to his college girlfriend, Susanna. Mere hours later, Nicholas drops dead in Susanna’s house, and two months after that, she finds a flash drive he hid under one of her seat cushions. The rest of the book, we are told, is the exact manuscript from that drive. And so we are sent gliding along the edge of a Möbius strip that will bring us round to the beginning again, only this time with a greater understanding of what it means for Susanna to be in possession of that tiny flash drive. She may be certain that the man who died in her home was Nicholas Slopen, but the reader will have a more difficult time deciding what to believe.

Through the manuscript from the drive, Nicholas tells us that he has already died, and also that he does not have much time to write to us. He is being held in a mental hospital for storming into his ex-wife’s house and insisting on his identity despite the very public and violent nature of his death some time before. Now he is trapped in a body that originally belonged to someone else. How he came to be so encumbered is a mystery for now, one he cryptically refers to as “the Procedure”.

We learn that Nicholas, as a renowned literary scholar, was called upon to give his opinion on whether some letters belonging to an acquaintance were written by the author Samuel Johnson. He finds that they have actually been written by a man called Jack Telauga, who is introduced to him as a savant of sorts. Nicholas’s curiosity about Jack leads him to become involved not only in Jack’s care, but in a conspiracy of so broad a scope it threatens human existence as it is currently understood: what if experiences and consciousness could be contained only in the words we’ve written? Enough so to re-construct our personalities independently of the bodies they were born into?

Strange Bodies could technically be categorized as science fiction, but it doesn’t read that way, in part because the book favors character over plot and pacing to a degree not common in the genre. It is not only important for us to know what happens, it is vital that we get to know and empathize with Nicholas, since by now the volume in our hands represents the sum total of his personality in more ways than one. On this point, literature geeks will have an advantage in their ability to recognize the lines of poetry and prose that populate Nicholas’s mind, and which frequently serve to articulate his own feelings more accurately than his own words ever could. When Nicholas is quoting Johnson, or Auden, or Yeats, he and the reader wonder: if we are made up of words, how many of those words belong to other people?

Theroux’s book, then, becomes more of a philosophical interrogation with elements of the thriller, and though, like good sci-fi, it poses some moral dilemmas, Strange Bodies refuses to take a firm stance on all but the most clear-cut of its issues. It also establishes itself outside the genre by re-purposing the old as opposed to imagining the new. For one, it takes place in the recent past. And in addition to featuring a plotline on 18th century author Samuel Johnson, the book bears an affinity to the work of Johnson’s contemporary, Laurence Sterne. As in Tristram Shandy, the narrator’s consciousness transcends the boundaries of his physicality, and his seeming digressions prove to be as important as any forward motion of the plot.

It is a minor drawback of this academic approach that the questions raised by the premise of the book may have more resonance than the book itself. The “Procedure” and other hypothetical events of the story are not quite close enough to reality to arouse any sense of recognition or urgency. What keeps us in touch with the novel is Nicholas himself, or at least, whatever version of him we’re getting, who tells us, “In the end, only two facts stand out to me with absolute clarity: I love my children and I’m going to die. And then again, of whom has that not been true?” He tells us, rightly, that it is not our differences, but our similarities that make up the strongest components of our identities. So it is with books that are pleasurable to read, as Strange Bodies most certainly is: amidst different combinations of plot, character, language, and so forth, we find the same core element of connection, however fleeting.

On Truth in Fiction

I once met a woman who smugly declared that she never read fiction. “I figure, if I’m reading, I may as well be reading something real, something true, and learning something. I mean, I realized that reading fiction was basically wasting my time.”

Edith Wharton would BEG TO DISAGREE.

Edith Wharton would BEG TO DISAGREE. (From her library at The Mount.)

I think she expected me to be impressed. I was in a particularly… accommodating mood, so I didn’t just stare blankly at her. Instead, I tried explaining how the point of so much fiction was to tell the truth.

Non-fiction can be just as powerful, but it doesn’t give us the psychological safeguard of “It’s only a story.” We sometimes go into non-fiction with our defenses up. We judge real people as we do not judge characters. Fiction, we tend to make ourselves more vulnerable to, and in doing so allow it to slip past our prejudices and re-arrange our principles. Ask Jane Austen about the once-rare companionate marriage (or about the importance of the novel itself, for that matter). Ask George Gissing or Henrik Ibsen about the merits of divorce. Or Harriet Beecher Stowe about slavery. Or William Gibson about cyberspace.

In the coming years, LGBT YA literature will play an increasingly essential role in teaching young people that the LGBT community deserves every bit and more of the equal rights and respect they are only beginning to receive from the population at large. I hope to soon see Women’s Fiction abandon the qualifier and just become “fiction,” so that works written by and for women aren’t considered niche. When women are allowed to imagine new narratives for themselves and have those narratives taken seriously, they will live out those narratives more frequently. A recent op-ed in the NY Times lamented the paucity of children’s books featuring children of color. When children start seeing people who look like them in the media they are exposed to, they will learn that they have the potential to play out the fictions of that media in their lives. You can’t work towards something you have not somehow been taught to visualize.

Non-fiction can describe the truth, and decry injustices, and it can compellingly advocate for and give examples of change. But fiction can describe our ideals as if they were already realized, and in doing so, help us be firm in our beliefs that those ideals can and should be realized.

I gave a shorter version of this speech to my acquaintance, expecting that she might perhaps be moved by my passion to consider things in a different light.

She was not. I abandoned the more complex tools of history and psychology. Driven to extremity, I leveled the cudgel of hard logic at her: “Do you also only watch movies and television shows that are based on true stories?”

She replied that that had never occurred to her. “But you’re right!” She said, wonderingly, “It’s the same thing!”

Who knows if she ever thought about our conversation after that. But I obviously have. And now I’m going to read another novel.

March Round-Up: Yea or Nay?

Here are the books I read in March and my one-shot recommendations on whether they’re worth reading.

The Office of Mercy Ariel Djanikian YEA. Not rip-roaringly exciting, but thoughtful and well-written.
The Headmaster’s Wife Thomas Christopher Greene MAYBE. It was flawed, but intelligent, and I’d be interested to see what else the author has done.
Strange Bodies Marcel Theroux YEA. It was good-weird and interesting, especially in light of the fact that I read Neuromancer for the first time ever just a few weeks later.
Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles Ron Currie Jr. NAY. This book goes for something it just never reaches.
Darkness Take My Hand
Gone Baby Gone
Dennis Lehane YEA. If you like Tana French, you will probably also like Dennis Lehane, who is a similarly adept writer who pays attention to character and atmosphere/setting, though he is grittier than French.
Neuromancer William Gibson YEA. I’m embarrassed that, as a sci-fi fan, I’ve only now read this for the first time. Absolutely seminal.
The Fault in Our Stars John Green YEA. Hilarious and honest. But be prepared for a big snotty cry.