Jane Eyre (1997): Shown on the A&E Network

A cursory glance through "Jane Eyre" listings at Amazon.com or IMDB.com (the Internet Movie Database) reveals that almost any film version of Jane Eyre has its fans. Pick a production and you will find it is some people's favorite.

 

That's certainly true for the version released in 1997 on television's A&E Network. Members of those sites have written paeans such as "The best film rendition of this classic novel"; "Best ever Jane Eyre"; "... superb adaptation of the novel"; "The most romantic film I've ever seen." (Not everyone adored it, though. The average member's review score at IMDB was 7.3 out of 10; at Amazon, about 3.2 out of 5.)

 

Here are two phrases that sum up my own view of this production. At first, I was thinking "long slow-motion train wreck," but later I started to prefer "bumper car ride" — an experience where you're jolting along haphazardly, and every so often something slams painfully into you. This is the eighth Jane Eyre film I've watched, but the first one where I was eager for the end to come.

 

 

As I've said elsewhere, I'm not a purist; some changes are OK, as long as the omissions and/or additions make sense and are well written. Neither is the case here. This film differs from Bronte's book in countless small ways (generally for no obvious reason, such as Miss Temple greeting Jane at her coach to Lowood, Adele being far too old, and Blanche acting friendly toward Mrs. Fairfax) and some crucial large ones.

 

Jane Eyre is, among many other qualities, a book of simmering tensions and simmering, restrained passions. Such subtleties are absent here; emotions, and the words accompanying them, are often cartoonishly powerful. For example, when young Jane meets the Reverend Brocklehurst (after many preliminaries have been skipped), he's a parody of a blustery old Brit, like an overplayed version of Scrooge in an ancient Dickens production. As she hesitates before mounting her Lowood stool for punishment, he roars, "Now, girl!"

 

It is Edward Rochester, though, who takes the "raging bull" prize. Having just fallen from his horse after he first saw Jane, he bellows like a deranged Monty Python character. Meeting such a maniac, a real girl with any sense would sprint off toward Millcote. Instead, Jane coolly fires acerbic answers at him. As he rides away, having heard that she works at Thornfield, he sneers, "Give my regards to Mr. Rochester."

 

Jane is soon in the drawing room, telling Mr. R. that "... certain facets of your character are somewhat unpleasant" — a different attitude than she shows in the book. The same goes for the scene in which he tells her to return to the society party, where the Ingrams have been making snide comments about governesses. She replies, "To be insulted?" Contrast that with the quiet guile of Bronte's "I am tired, sir."

 

When Rochester is leaving to get medical help for Mason (whose mad sister is kept in a room with padded walls!), he asks, "What would I do without you, Jane?" Her soft and cultured voice-over says, "I wanted to say you need never be without me." She is thinking romantically instead of being aghast at tending to a bloodied man with whom, in the book (but not the film), she is ordered not to converse.

 

Rochester does, in their first romantic encounter, say he feels as if he has a string near his heart connecting him to her. But then he spoils the mood by declaring, "No, that's ridiculous." He nonetheless proposes to her before long: "Will you marry me, Jane?" "Me? Why?" "Because I love you, I've always loved you since the first time we met, that's why. ... Will you be my wife? Will you make me the happiest man on this earth?" I felt as if I'd stumbled onto a tawdry Hallmark romance flick that someone had accidentally labeled as "Jane Eyre."

 

More drama awaits. During their shopping trip to Millcote, the happy couple encounter Blanche Ingram, who basically scoffs at their union. Before long, they're at the church, with the ceremony being shown alternately with scenes of Mason galloping toward the church on horseback; he arrives in the nick of time and announces an impediment. Rochester brays, "Noooooo ...."

 

Seeing that Jane is going to leave from Thornfield shortly after that, he bitterly yells at her, "You are so predictable!" He grabs her several times, hurls her bag, and yells wild accusations. Again, naive as Jane might have been, could she really have continued to love a man with such a wild, hair-trigger temper?

 

Hilariously overdramatic orchestra music sets the tone as Jane wanders the moors before collapsing. She is rescued by St. John Rivers, who turns out to be an affable, frequently grinning young cleric (rather than the straitlaced, dispassionate book character). When he asks her name after she awakens, she replies, "Jane Eyre, sir." So: no begging in the village, no mysterious hidden identity, not even a bequest from their joint uncle.

 

When Jane tracks down the blind Rochester, he again loudly abuses her. She apparently dotes on this. A final voice-over reveals that they have been married for ten years, and that he regained his sight in time to see their firstborn: a girl! The producers couldn't refrain from pointlessly changing one final detail.

 

The lead actors' talents are sadly wasted here. Samantha Morton, playing Jane, makes quite a good impression in the scenes where she isn't being asked to behave unrealistically. She has a pleasant face (possibly too pleasant), a well-measured manner of speaking, and an apparent ability to cry on demand. Ciaran Hinds actually looks far more authentic than most Rochesters; sadly, his over-the-top antics prevented me from seeing how well he might have portrayed this complex man.

 

One can't do full justice to Jane Eyre in an hour-and-48-minute film. But one could easily do far less damage to it than the makers of this travesty. If you plan to watch it, prepare for a bumpy ride.

 

 

Summary

 

STRENGTHS

  • Samantha Morton is often a pleasure to watch 

WEAKNESSES

  • The original storyline has been chopped to bits and faultily reassembled
  • Many scenes are overly dramatic, and added speeches are often corny
  • Rochester is portrayed as prone to tantrums and occasional violence, which fails to stop Jane from loving him