Jane Eyre, Superstar: From Brontë to Fukunaga

Jane: For the 21st Century

Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, 2011, Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender.

In making a new version of Jane Eyre, director Cary Fukunaga knew that Charlotte Brontë ’s novel had been re-interpreted by filmmakers, playwrights, illustrators, writes and artists for nearly a century and a half. As a kid, Robert Stevenson’s 1944 Jane Eyre was one of his favorite movies, but when it came to making his own version, he told MovieLine.com that he went back to the source: “I’m a stickler for raw authenticity, so I’ve spent a lot of time rereading the book and trying to feel out what Charlotte Brontë was feeling when she was writing it. That sort of spookiness that plagues the entire story…there’s been something like 24 adaptations, and it’s very rare that you see those sorts of darker sides. They treat it like it’s just a period romance, and I think it’s much more than that.”

Jane as Orphan

Charlotte Brontë in 1843; Superman first appearance in 1938

Jane Eyre. An Autobiography, the novel by an obscure writer Currer Bell (male nom de plume of Charlotte Brontë, 1816-855), caused a sensation when it was published in 1847. (“A book to make the pulses gallop and the heart beat, and to fill the eyes with tears,” is how one reviewer put it at the time.) In the century and a half since, Jane Eyre, the orphan heroine of the novel, has become more than a cultural icon. Like Clark Kent, the orphan hero of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman comic book (1938), Charlotte Brontë’s Jane, has become a brand. Both have also inspired a genre—Superman the now ubiquitous superhero (think Spiderman and Batman) and Jane Eyre the young-woman-of-spirit-but-no-means-who-captures-and-tames-the-heart-of-a-wealthy-man (think Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, which was based on Jane Eyre, or Pretty Woman, which was not.).

Jane: A Story for Every Generation

1943 Jane Eyre designed by Fritz Eichenberg, 1944 abridged version, 1966 Everyman edition

Since its publication, Jane Eyre has been adapted into 20 silent films, 27 talkies (for theater and television), 23 radio dramas, 48 plays and 8 musicals. In general, the works inspired by Jane Eyre can be categorized by the theme of the novel that they highlight: Jane Eyre as social commentary, Jane Eyre as romantic love story or Jane Eyre as Gothic thriller. Often, of course, the adaptations contain a mixture of all three. In addition to the retelling of the story, according to “The Enthusiast’s Guide to Jane Eyre Adaptations,” a website, 58 additional books and poems bear plot similarities, make allusions to or are otherwise inspired by Brontë’s novel.

Jane: The Passion of the Fans

It is the passions of Jane Eyre that are the passion of her legions of fans—or at least many of them. “The Enthusiast’s Guide to Jane Eyre Adaptations” is a website managed by Charlene Cruz, an 26-year-old lab tech in Los Angeles. Cruz chronicles and reviews the multitude of Jane Eyres that have entertained audiences on film, stage and radio.

“Mr. Rochester's passionate love for Jane (and her love for him) is the sort of love and devotion that everyone wants in their life,” says Cruz, in an interview with Film In Focus. “Their love is intensely romantic- much more passionate than something like Pride and Prejudice which is a little placid. There is also a strong current of sexual tension that makes their love story feel more relevant to modern day readers as opposed to more old-fashioned stories of courtly love.”
On her website, Enthusiast Cruz the writes, “I do believe that if you just stick to the novel you can’t go wrong since it is an enduring and timeless story. However, most adaptations seem to re-interpret Jane Eyre with the present generation in mind, and so I usually must keep my sense of humour when watching each adaptation.”

Jane: A Proto Marxist?

Photo of the great Chartist meeting on Kensington Commons in 1848 taken by William Kilburn

Jane Eyre was published in October 1847, and the following year, 1848, the year in which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto, was known as the “Year of Revolutions” in Europe. Consequently 19th century adaptations of Jane Eyre for the theater often stressed the social themes. Lessons that were not lost on conservative social critics, like Elizabeth Rigby, who wrote in a 1948 review of Jane Eyre, “Altogether the autobiography of Jane Eyre is preeminently an anti-Christian composition. There is throughout it a murmuring against the comforts of the rich and against the privations of the poor, which, as far as each individual is concerned, is a murmuring against God's appointment—there is a proud and perpetual assertion of the rights of man, for which we find no authority either in God's word or in God's providence—there is that pervading tone of ungodly discontent which is at once the most prominent and the most subtle evil which the law and the pulpit, which all civilized society in fact, has at the present day to contend with. We do not hesitate to say that the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism [an electoral and social reform movement] and rebellion at home is the same which has also written Jane Eyre.”

Jane: On the Stage

Three months after the novel’s publication, the first stage adaptation of Jane Eyre, debuted on January 31, 1848. John Courtney’s play, Jane Eyre, or the Secrets of Thornfield Manor, was preformed at the Royal Victoria Theater, a theater for the masses that specialized in plays about servants. The play, chock-full of melodramatic social commentary, was not exactly faithful to the novel. Patsy Stoneman, in her book Jane Eyre on Stage, 1848-1898, writes, “John Courtney’s play gives prominence to the servants at Lowood School, newly invented characters named Joe Joker, Betty Bunce and Sally Suds. They are tired of the low pay and bad conditions and cause so much trouble that Mr. Brocklehurst has to call in the forces of the law. The clever servants, however, make their escape …[Jane] leaves Lowood at the same time as Joe and Betty, so that her departure appears less the solitary flight of a Romantic individualist than part of a concerted rebellion of class victims. … it is tempting to see revolutionary meanings in the play’s innovations, but the play is not revolutionary in its outcome. Jane marries Rochester just as Cinderella gets her Prince, and the rebellious servants from Lowood sink happily into the less oppressive servitude of Thornfield Hall. … [I]n this play it is the virtue and resourcefulness of servants and victims – the class from which the audience is drawn – which is recognized by a benevolent superior (Rochester), while the devious and parasitic middle classes are exposed as the real class enemy.”

Jane: A Poor Person's Passion

From Illustrated London News of 1872, G Durand’s “The London Poor at their Christmas Marketing - a Sketch in the New Cut”

On hearing the news that Courtney had adapted her novel into a play, Charlotte contacted William Smith Williams, her publisher at Smith, Elder and Co. On Feb. 5, 1848, she wrote: “A representation of ‘Jane Eyre’ at a Minor Theatre would no doubt be a rather afflicting spectacle to the author of that work: I suppose all would be woefully exaggerated and painfully vulgarized by the actors and the actresses on such a stage. What—I cannot help asking myself—would they make of Mr Rochester? And the picture my fancy conjures up by way of reply is a somewhat humiliating one. What would they make of Jane Eyre? I see something very pert and very affected as an answer to that query.”

So, William Smith Williams, a former theater critic, went and checked out the play for Brontë. We don’t know what his observations were, she sent this response: “You … have shewn me a glimpse of what I might call loathsome, but which I prefer calling strange. Such then is a sample of what amuses the Metropolitan populace! Such a view of one of their haunts!”  Their haunts were the neighborhood of the Old Vic, known as The New Cut, that in 1859, George Sala described as home to “an unwashed, unkempt and wretched humanity.”

Jane: A Working-Class Hero

The Bowery Theater; John Brougham’s Jane Eyre

John Brougham’s Jane Eyre (1849), which played at New York’s equivalent to The Old Vic, the Bowery Theater in New York, put the spotlights the aristocratic friends of Rochester and shows them in the worst light. In a soliloquy, after rebuffing a pass made by Lord Ingram, Jane says: “Shame, shame upon their cruelty; … Better, a thousand times better, my solitary cell once more, that be gived and mocked by the vulgar-wealthy …[to] endure the unceasing lash of insolence, the certain punishment of that statuteless but unforgiven crime, poverty.” Later 19th century stage versions of the novel, emphasized gender relations and Jane’s independent spirit.

Jane: A Drawing Room Romance

Denis Hoey as Rochester and Katherine Hepburn as Jane on the New York stage in 1937

By the 1930s, romance was in the air in Helen Jerome’s 1936 London play Jane Eyre: A Drama of Passion in Three Acts. When it came to New York in 2937, a 30-year-old Katherine Hepburn played Jane. To simplify the story, Jerome set the entire story in drawing rooms. But young Hepburn didn’t excel in the play. In fact, when playwright Jerome reclaimed the rights to her play, she refused to give the Theater Guild the right to produce the play unless they removed Hepburn from the cast.

Jane: The Matinee Idol

Christy Cabanne’s Jane Eyre (1934), Virginia Bruce and Colin Clive

The 1934 version, the first talking version, was interesting done by Monogram Pictures, a poverty row studio that had its successes with Charlie Chan, Westerns, and serials. Their Jane Eyre was part of short-lived push to produce cheap film versions of classics (especially since there was no copyright on them). Cruz, the Enthusiast, speculating that this film version’s cheery atmosphere owes something to the dreary Great Depression, observes: “Gone are moral ambiguities and dilemmas. Adele is Rochester's niece, and Rochester is in the process of divorcing his mild-mannered and slightly mad first wife. Have you ever thought Jane Eyre was too sad? Or that it would be so much better if Rochester would just give Adele a puppy? Then this one is for you.”

Jane: A Horror Drama

Robert Stevenson’s Jane Eyre (1944), Joan Fontaine and Orson Wells (and Elizabeth Taylor making an unaccredited appearance as Helen Burns, young Jane’s consumptive friend.)

This film version was based on an adaptation written by Orson Wells for the radio program “Mercury Theatre on the Air.” The film was hyped with the tag line: “A Love Story Every Woman would Die a Thousand Deaths to Live!”––a line that doesn’t quite capture the films Gothic spirit. The film opens with the voice over: “My name is Jane Eyre... I was born in 1820, a harsh time of change in England. Money and position seemed all that mattered. Charity was a cold and disagreeable word. Religion too often wore a mask of bigotry and cruelty. There was no place for the poor or the unfortunate. I had no father or mother, brother or sister. As a child I lived with my aunt, Mrs. Reed of Gateshead Hall. I do not remember that she ever spoke one kind word to me.” From there this Jane Eyre gets darker. The New York World-Telegraph described the film as “a horror drama” in which “the terrors are genuine and spring directly from the story.” The New York Sun referred to it as “a dark and melodramatic tale,” in which the atmosphere and settings were both “eerie” and “terrifying.” The New York Daily News claimed audiences “may thrill to the melodramatic happenings” and “chill to the mysterious experiences to which Jane is subjected.” While, the New York Times, saying the film does not do Brontë’s novel justice was blunt: “No depths of consuming passion are plumbed very diligently in this film. No haunting pathos pervades it. The producers had little time for that. With Orson Welles playing Rochester, the anguished hero of the book, they mainly gave way to the aspects of morbid horror to be revealed. They tossed Mr. Welles most of the story and let him play it in his hot, fuliginous style.”

Jane: Strong, But Reserved

Joan Craft’s Jane Eyre (1973), Sorcha Cusack and Michael Jayston

Jane Eyre’s fervent fans appear to like the 1973 version for its fidelity to the original novel. Of course, as a BBC miniseries it could at 275 minutes go further than your average 90 minute film. (This would be the second of four BBC adaptations of the novel.) The New York Times’ Richard F. Shepard wrote, "As its heroine, Sorcha Cusack makes an uncommonly strong, yet reserved, Jane. She is not pretty but has a quiet beauty enhanced by a slight smile and an expression that is attractively quizzical.” Playwright Robin Chapman, who penned this version, wanted to focus on the inner Jane: “usually when people dramatize Jane Eyre they take away the narrative voice-over of Jane herself and this turns the book on its head.” Jane story is about her self-realization, since for Chapman, “I think Charlotte Bronte was an early feminist.”

Jane: A Thoroughly Modern Heroine

Jane Eyre (2006)

In 2006, the BBC again turned to Jane Eyre as for a new 4-part miniseries, this time starring Ruth Wilson as Jane and Toby Stephens as Rochester. Screenwriter Sandy Welch, who rose to fame adapting similar Victorian novels––Elizabeht Gaskell’s North & South and Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend––felt a personal stake in making this Jane feel contemporary. “Jane Eyre is a book that has compelled me since I was a teenager,” she explained. “It's an astonishingly heady rush and Jane's every thought mark her out as a very modern heroine….the romantic ideal of many a 21-st century woman.” But purist, like the Cruz the Enthusiast, felt this version was “sensationalizing the novel and turning it into more of a Gothic/Harlequin romance.”

Jane: Without Jane

Karina Lombard and Nathaniel Parker as Bertha Mason and Edward Rochester, in John Duigan’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1993)

In 1966, the Dominica-born writer Jean Rhys published the Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel to Jane Eyre that tells the story of Mr. Rochester’s wife, Bertha Mason’s descent into madness. Bertha, a Creole heiress in the West Indies, is trapped between patriarchal white European society and the black slave culture in which she grew up—belonging to both and to neither. In order to inherit her fortune she must marry, and so she does, to Edward Rochester, a man who fails to appreciate the multicultural society in which Bertha was raised. Thus begins (with the help of a little voodoo spell) an unhappy marriage that, as we see in Jane Eyre, goes down in flames. Wide Sargasso Sea has been has been put to film twice, first in 1993 for a film by John Duigan and in 2006 for television.

Jane: A Zombie Jane

Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, borrowed from the Jane Eyre story line

While nothing could seem further from Jane Eyre than a cheap horror film called I Walked with a Zombie, it was in fact Bronte’s novel that served as producer Val Lewton’s inspiration. Lewton had previously assisted David O’Selznick in producing Rebecca, Daphne Du Marnier’s modern day re-telling of Jane Eyre, as well as served as story editor for the film that eventually was handed over to Robert Stevenson. Wanting to make his own version, he took the title “I Walk with a Zombie,” a title taken from a series of articles written by Inez Wallace for American Weekly Magazine, and turned into a voodoo Jane Eyre. (Lewton got given creative control over the horror wing of RKO studios by agreeing to two points; his films cost nearly nothing to make and that they be based on titles given him by studio heads.) Kim Newman and Steven Jones, writing on the website DVD Verdict, write: “The screenplay—based on a series of nonfiction articles on voodoo practices but heavily rewritten by [Producer Val] Lewton—makes use of Jane Eyre's gothic template to involve us in the story, giving us an innocent viewpoint character who ventures into a sinister new environment to encounter danger, love, and the supernatural. And, as in Jane Eyre, the movie's monstrous female—catatonic Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon), replacing Brontë 's vampiric Bertha Mason [Rochester’s mad wife]—seems culpable for her own downfall because of her inherent immorality.”

Jane: A Graphic Approach

A 1966 comic book version; Sherri Browning Erwin 2010 monster fest Jane Slayre

It only took a small push for filmmakers (like Lewton) or writers (like Sherri Browning Erwin) to push Jane Eyre’s gothic element to outright horror. Just when you thought Jane’s Aunt Reed (Jane’s dead mother’s dead brother’s living wife) couldn’t get worse, along comes Sherri Browning Erwin, who makes Auntie one of the living dead. The reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly put it this way: “Another entry in the growing genre of horror mashups (ranging from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter), this volume takes Brontë's classic and turns the Reed family into vampires, Jane Eyre's classmates at Lowood into zombies, and Bertha Rochester into something far more dangerous than a madwoman. While Jane herself remains much the same, the supernatural additions prove highly amusing, turning the gothic elements of the original up to eleven while preserving the story's post-Victorian coming-of-age conventions. … With the possible exception of purists, fans of Jane Eyre will find much to love, with moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity.”

Jane: A Comical Turn

In The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde’s heroine detective Thursday Next saves Jane who has been kidnapped from the text

There are even Jane Eyre jokes, of sorts. One of which is included in Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, which features the exploits of sleuth Thursday Next.The reviewer for the Independent describes Fforde’s book as “a variation on the classic Monty Python gambit: the incongruous juxtaposition of low comedy and high erudition—this scam has not been pulled off with such off-hand finesse and manic verve since the Pythons shut up shop. The Eyre Affair is a silly book for smart people: postmodernism played as raw, howling farce.” In the novel, which tells the story of the kidnapping of Jane from inside the novel,  a man named Hobbes goes up to Grace Poole, the keeper of Rochester’s mad wife,  looking for Jane. Hobbes: “I want Jane Eyre.” Grace: “So does Mr. Rochester… but he doesn’t even kiss her until page one hundred and eighty-one.”

Jane: A Teen Dream

Details from frame no. 1 “Meet Air Jane” and frame no. 31, “Smoocheroony!”

 “The true story of Air Jane,” a 51- page online comic written and illustrated by Amy Hankins, begins: “It all started when I was little. Y’see, I was an orphan, and I had to live with my mean old Aunt Sneed and her daughter Bratianna and Big Fat Obnoxious son, Johnny. What a bunch of losers they were ! Aunt Sneed was nice as could be to Bratianna and Johnny. But Me? You think she gave a rip? No. She was mean and heartless, and CONSTANTLY reminded me I wasn’t her REAL kid. And you know what the WORST part of ALL was? ‘STOP PLAYING BASKETBALL IN THE HOUSE!!!’”

Hankins is a 37-year-old cartoonist who makes her living as a map librarian at Missouri State University in Springfield, Mo. “Jane Eyre is cool because it’s kind of ahead of it’s time, you know?” she says. “It’s dark, but it’s a romance. … I know when I first read it (and this is probably true for a lot of women) I didn’t like Mr. Rochester at all at first. He grows on you, and pretty soon, you’re hoping that he and Jane hook up. When they do, it’s like “YESS!” then Brontë throws you for a loop with the crazy wife-in-the-attic bit. Far-out stuff when you first read it.”

Jane: For Every Artist

“Jane Eyre” by ol-gnom; “Jane Eyre in a Nutshell” by glimmerfish.

Jane Eyre fans are encouraged to post to “Jane Eyre Fans” on DeviantArt.com. “There is a lot of Jane Eyre art on DeviantArt, and I thought there needed to be a place to showcase it all,” the site founder says. 1,434 “Deviations” of Jane Eyre had been compiled on DeviantArt.com as of February 14, 2011.

Jane: For Every Imagination

Ariana, Kirin and Kirin’s ex-mate as Jane, Mr. Rochester and the insane Mrs. Rochester

A Gargoyle fansite, issued this challenge: “Illustrate, using your favorite Gargoyle characters, a scene or character from a work of classic literature—you know, the kind of thing they make you read in school!” Spike, a Gargoyle fan, answered the call and created this artwork, inspired by “Tengu,” a Gargoyle fan-lit story in which a paperback copy of Jane Eyre plays a pivotal role.

Jane: Stamps of Approval

Clockwise, from upper left: The master of Thornfield, Mr. Rochester; Jane receiving a telepathic plea from Rochester; Jane arriving at the George Inn; Adele Rochester's recitation for Jane; Jane's cruel treatment at Lowton School; Rev. Brocklehurst, the sadistic head of school.

Those with more refined tastes might prefer the work of feminist artist Paula Rego. In 2005, on the 150th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë’s death, the United Kingdom, issued six Jane Eyre stamps.
Jane Austen is the only other female writer to be honored with her own set of stamps. Philatelist James M. Hutchisson writes on his website: “The designs are from lithographs produced between 2002 and 2004 by Paula Rego … She established her reputation with paintings and etchings that vividly express female anxiety and pain. Full of allegory and mystery, her powerful images are often pervaded by a tense underlying eroticism. … Many women see themselves and their predicaments in Rego's art. Her Jane Eyre work resonates with the nightmarish side of this in many ways Gothic novel, as well as its romantic feelings.”

Jane: Everlasting

“Stone Soup” strip from February 2, 2011

Cartoonist Jan Eliot wrote four “Stone Soup” strips on the subject of Jane Eyre. By modern standards, there is little that is salacious in Jane Eyre, however old conceptions die hard as the above “Stone Soup” strip demonstrates. “Jane Eyre,” a reviewer in The Rambler wrote in 1848, “is, indeed, one of the coarsest books which we ever perused. … there is a tendency to relapse into that class of ideas, expressions, and circumstances, which is most connected with the grosser and more animal portion of our nature.” Or as a disconcerted yet still very admiring reviewer wrote in 1848, upon the release of the second edition, “The love-scenes, glow with a fire as fierce as that of Sappho, and somewhat more fuliginous. There is an intimate acquaintance with the worst parts of human nature.”  And in 2011, that remains, perhaps, part of Jane Eyre’s everlasting appeal.


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