Another Jane Eyre--Hooray!

I'm a big Jane Eyre fan. I like 19th century novels, and I like happy endings (which many 19th century novels don't have), so Jane Eyre gives me all I want.

The latest Jane Eyre series is another British production, starring Toby Stephens (as Rochester) and Ruth Wilson (as Jane). The casting is odd but effective. As with Timothy Dalton, the classical description of Mr. Rochester is sacrificed for the sake of very, very good acting.

This means that we ignore the fact that Toby Stephens is a very handsome guy as well as an extremely youthful one. The ages aren't too far off (Stephens is currently 37; Ruth Wilson is 25), but it is hard to remember this, just as I can never believe that Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton (from the 1983 Jane Eyre series) are twenty years apart (they aren't; they're ten years apart). Like many casting choices, Jane and Rochester are a problematic pair--neither are roles you want to sacrifice to novices, no matter how appropriate in appearance.

However, as a relative novice, Ruth Wilson does a splendid job, and I place her up there with Zelah Clarke. In fact, in some ways, I think she captures Jane's youthful fascination with Rochester better than Clarke.

The 2006 series does a number of other things right, including the selection of material and the use of flashbacks. First, it is carefully, and faithfully, cut to a specific theme. This is the only way to handle those huge 19th century novels where a billion different ideas are presented at once (the plot of Jane Eyre is deceptively straightforward; there's a lot of meat on them bones). The series writers chose a rather modern theme--the search for affection by a young woman starved of any true affection for most of her life--and yet one in keeping with the book. Too often, historical scriptwriters choose modern themes that do not in any way resonant with their non-modern material. Jane Eyre being what it is, and Bronte being what she was, this particular modern theme in no way jars with the material or the setting.

My personal feeling is that the main theme of Jane Eyre is more closely achieved by the 1983 version; it is a theme echoed in Richardson and Austen (however much Bronte would have disliked the comparison): integrity means relying on and being faithful to one's own judgment. Jane doesn't run from Rochester because she's a prude; she runs from Rochester because she will not sacrifice her judgment even to her own desires. This is a pretty powerful concept and always modern.

Having said that, I don't mind other approaches so long as those approaches play fair, which the 2006 series does. The modernness of the theme does not detract from the basic non-modernness of Jane Eyre. She is not a 21st century girl, no matter how much her struggles touch her 21st century audience. For example, one of the movie (not television) Jane Eyres has Jane and Helen acting like a couple of wise-cracking junior high students. It makes me wince every time I watch it. (And yes, I do watch it even though it makes me wince.)

To be fair, the Jane and Helen section (Lowood School) is difficult to cast and to script. I was impressed by the use of flashbacks in the 2006 series, and I thought the writers should have used more of them--that is, skip the childhood/Lowood scenes and start with Jane's arrival at Thornfield. However, the childhood/Lowood scenes are necessary; we learn about Jane's passionate nature (later tightly controlled), her treatment by the Reeds (foretelling later contact with the family), her friendship with Helen, her training at Lowood School--all important scenes which help explain Jane's character and motivations. It's just they are so very tedious. I've honestly never seen a presentation of Jane's childhood that didn't either bore me or make me laugh it was so unlikely. The 2006 series has the merit, at least, of being quick.

More on the childhood/Lowood section: one huge problem is that we 21st century Americans have a hard time understanding why a respectable and independent headmistress, Miss Temple, would kowtow to someone like Brocklehurst, so most versions eliminate the headmistress completely, giving the whole school section a rather lopsided, episodic feel. Unfortunately, if she is left in, the section runs the risk of being turned into a dissertation on feminism, which really isn't its point. The Lowood section, like the final section, is more about religion than anything else.

In regards to the final section, with St. John Rivers & company, the 2006 series (thankfully) leaves it in. A great many of the themes in Jane Eyre come to a head in the final section. The casting of St. John (pronounced "Sijin," which for some reason strikes me as so elegant; I never tire of hearing it) is fascinating, partly because the choice once again reflects theme. The 1983 series cast the exceedingly tall, exceedingly blond and exceedingly stern Andrew Bicknell while the 2006 series cast the dark, short, tightly wound Andrew Buchan. Both versions work. The 1983 series emphasizes St. John's domination of Jane; the 2006 series emphasizes St. John's repressed nature (and yes, that is "repressed" in the Freudian sense). Since both domination and repression are factors in St. John's personality, both interpretations work.

All in all, the 2006 series is worth viewing--more than once, if you're me. I like the ending best of all the versions, including the 1983 version. It doesn't leave you quite as bereft (happy ending, okay, now everybody go home), and you get to see the kind of woman Jane Eyre becomes, surrounded by family, friends, and a great deal of affection.

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