Jane Eyre (1983): The True Spirit is Captured
Once I had begun
reviewing movie versions of Jane Eyre, I knew the 1983 BBC film
series needed to be on my list. Some other fans of the book had described this as the definitive film treatment.
Given that its male star, Timothy Dalton, was unimpressive in his later James Bond roles, I kept my hopes
Good news: it turns
out those other folks were right. This version captures Charlotte Bronte's language and spirit with
far greater fidelity than any other apart from the 1973 BBC serialization. What a pleasure it is to hear so much true-to-the-book
dialogue, recited in a believable way!
Of course, few
blessings are unmixed; the viewer of this series must make tradeoffs, as I'll describe below.
First and foremost, this treatment comprises eleven half-hour episodes. Even
if you fast-forward over the introduction and credits for each one, you must devote more than five hours to this
project. That extra time enables a thorough portrayal of the story, but it requires
Second, this treatment doesn't boast the glossy cinematography of some of its
competitors. Indoor scenes look like a filmed stage play, and outdoor moments are a bit washed
Those two factors are the only large hurdles to enjoying the BBC series. If
you are a devoted Jane Eyre fan, you will glory in the
completeness of the treatment, the rich usage of Bronte's original words, and the overall competence of the
cast. Alexander Baron is credited for having "dramatised" this work, and he deserves great praise. Just a
handful of invented scenes and occasional pieces of sour-note dialogue mar a largely first-rate
Dalton carries off the role of Rochester fairly well overall. He is clearly a
skilled actor who delivers his lines effectively. Yet I did not find him fully convincing. He seems to be
forcing himself to be gruff; he lacks the naturally dark and powerful aspect, the gravitas, that Rochester
presents in the book (and that Orson Welles had to excess in the 1943 Jane Eyre movie). He is not
fully believable in scenes where he displays strong emotions; he also comes across strangely when pretending to
be a gypsy woman (a performance I found reminiscent of Michael Scott, boss on the U.S. TV series "The Office,"
who would occasionally use ridiculously bad accents when imitating a stereotypical character). Nor is he
physically the "broad-shouldered blacksmith" the reader anticipates. He merits a grade of B for this
On the other hand, Zelah Clarke is a pleasing Jane. She made little impression
on me at first, but she grew on me during those five-and-a-half hours; at some point, I realized that making
little initial impression was a genuine aspect of Jane's character. When the script called for Jane to display
her more emotional and/or forceful side, Clarke delivered. She gets an A-, running a close second (behind the
2006 Jane Eyre's Ruth
Wilson) in my ranking of Jane Eyre portrayers.
Other cast members were almost uniformly capable, with only a couple of
standouts. St. John Rivers's measured speech and tightly restrained emotions impressed me, as did the mean
Lowood teacher Miss Scatcherd, whose abusive actions and cruel demeanor (along with her crow-black hair) put me
in mind of Severus Snape.
As I mentioned earlier, some invented scenes were added to this production,
usually to its detriment. Mr. Briggs, the London solicitor who announces an impediment to the Jane / Rochester
wedding, appears in two new scenes. One shows Rochester engaging him to track down the missing Jane. That's a
real false step for this production, as the book is told entirely from Jane's perspective; it includes nothing
that she doesn't experience or imagine. Further needless additions were Blanche arriving at Thornfield on
horseback and snubbing Mrs. Fairfax's greeting, and Jane confronting Rochester to ask why Grace Poole (upon whom
he blamed his bedroom fire) is not in custody.
Some less-essential scenes are missing, doubtless for reasons of time. For
instance, we don't see Helen Burns die; we just see her gravestone. In addition, details or locations of some
scenes are altered. When Jane asks Rochester for leave, he and Blanche Ingram are involved in an apparent card
trick, rather than playing billiards; when Jane says she wants to share her inheritance, all three of her Rivers
cousins are present, rather than just St. John; when an innkeeper tells Jane how Thornfield Hall burned, they
are in the hall's shell, rather than at the inn. Such changes don't affect the thrust of the
Other changes do make one wince, though. When St. John is ready to tell Jane
that he has learned her true identity, Bronte has him recite a long series of events without revealing that he
knows she is at the center of them; thus she increases the dramatic tension. In the movie, they've barely sat
down when Jane blurts out, "You know my name." Also, given the overall fidelity to the book, it's surprising
that a few pieces of dialogue were radically changed. A sample: near the end, when Rochester says he wants a
wife and asks Jane, "Is it news to you?", she says "No", whereas her book reply was "Of
found the ending a letdown. After lingering lovingly over this tale for hours, the movie jumps directly from
Jane assenting to marry Rochester ("Most truly, sir") to a concluding voice-over beginning "We have now been
married ten years." No telling of this surprising news to John and Mary (who is converted to Maria for the
film); no appropriately revamped version of the final chapter's famous opening line, "Reader, I married
As accurate and relevant as those quibbles are, they don't detract much from
this stunningly true rendition of Jane Eyre. If you fancy the
book, find the time to savor this full-bodied treat.
Bronte's original language shines through
in nearly every minute
Consistently convincing cast forms a strong
framework for the main characters
Almost all scenes are
Film lacks a glossy "cinema"
Treatment is chopped into episodes, each
with an introduction and credits
The few invented scenes are unwelcome