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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.

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