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Jane Eyre Miniseries Captures the Heart of Bronte

Written by: Sherryn Daniel, Special to CC2K

ImageFor this week’s Book Nook, CC2K contributor Sherryn Daniel compares the 2007 Masterpiece Theater adaptation of Jane Eyre to the classic Charlotte Bronte novel.

Masterpiece Theater’s four-episode miniseries version of Jane Eyre condenses Charlotte Bronte's novel artfully through its character portrayals, riveting storyline, and beautiful cinematography.  The 2007 feature—which received several BAFTA, Emmy and Golden Globe nominations—did not add any extra bells or whistles to Bronte’s story, but it did manage to shade in some gray areas from the novel.

Physically, Jane—as played by Golden Globe nominee Ruth Wilson—is depicted very similarly to the way she is described in the book: small, plain, and simple.  This is an accomplishment in and of itself, since previous cinematic adaptations have tended to downplay Jane’s homeliness.  (In the 1996 version, Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Jane was tall and slender with a sultry face.)  Wilson­­­—who fit Bronte’s vision of Jane to perfection—was able to focus less on capturing Jane’s appearance and more on her independent, quizzical, and strong-willed nature.

Toby Stevens’ Edward Rochester had a stern manner, constricted physique, and a sharp tongue, much like his counterpart in the novel.  Stevens does have one quality that the book character specifically lacks: he’s very good-looking.  The novel states explicitly that Rochester is unattractive, noting that it was his confidence and intelligence that distinguishes him.  Stevens certainly exuded these qualities, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that he’s much more physically pleasing than the short, stocky man that Bronte envisioned.

The miniseries starts in much the same way the novel does: young Jane is ostracized by her family and then shipped abruptly to Lowood, a cold, harsh charity school.   After Jane’s only friend dies, she is forced to become completely independent and rely on her own senses.  When she turns 18, she leaves school and is hired to be the governess of Adele Varens, the young ward of the wealthy, distinguished Edward Fairfax Rochester.  Jane falls deeply in love with Rochester, but their social and economic differences—as well as a terrible secret that Rochester has been harboring—threaten to keep them apart.

Overall, the storyline of the miniseries adheres closely to the novel.  The timing of some scenes, however, was changed because the director wanted to showcase the beauty of England’s scenery throughout its seasons.  Furthermore, the beginning of the story—which features Jane’s painful relationship with her family and her time at Lowood school—is condensed due to time constraints.  Yet the miniseries manages to accomplish in a few scenes what it took Bronte a third of the book to convey: one scene—where Jane is unceremoniously kicked out of an oil painting of the family—quickly and poignantly captures the pain, ridicule, and isolation of Jane’s childhood. 

The miniseries follows the book’s plot much more closely than the 1996 version, but some of the condensed scenes should have been fleshed out, especially the sections showcasing Jane’s relationship with her newfound cousin, St. John Rivers.  Purists may complain that some scenes deviate from the novel.  For example, a scene in which Rochester poses as a crotchety gypsy is altered so that the gypsy is a completely separate character.

One area where the miniseries really succeeds—perhaps even better than the novel—is capturing the internal workings of the characters.  Jane’s turbulent emotions and Rochester’s enigmatic thoughts were colored much better here than in the book.

The English countryside is beautifully showcased through intimate scenes, precise camera shots, and various lighting effects, each reflecting different portions of Jane’s life.  The cinematography and the excellent acting complement each other well: minute emotions are captured through the character’s slightest facial expressions.

I recommend this miniseries to any Jane Eyre fan, as well as for people who like the genre but never read the book.  This is one of the few book adaptations that manages to precisely capture the spirit of the source material.