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The Critic as Artist: Book and Film Reviews for the Savvy Scholar, Virtually Victorian

A New Way to Brontë

Yes, apparently your name can become a verb if you ascend to a supreme level of literary and cultural prominence. Cary Fukunaga accepted the challenge of adding to the ever-expanding Brontë lexicon by directing a film re-adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s most celebrated work, Jane Eyre – and he succeeded admirably. Fukunaga’s production of this beloved novel, starring Mia Wasikowska as the eponymous heroine, proves that succumbing to the supernatural period romance craze isn’t necessary to execute a fresh, accessible interpretation of a classic with modern flair.1

The infamous Brontë sisters – Anne, Emily, and Charlotte – scheming literary schemes

After watching the official trailer, I must admit that I had reservations about the upcoming film. Albeit seeing BBC listed as a co-producer and the promise of a Dame Judi Dench cameo – hallmarks of quality period drama – somewhat allayed my apprehension, I still worried about the possible melodramatic implementation of the novel’s gothic-horror aspects, which would cause the movie to join the ranks of countless other poorly fashioned Victorian-literature-inspired screenplays.2 Not to mention that it’s just plain difficult to put together a noteworthy film based on a book like Jane Eyre, which, akin to its sister novel, Wuthering Heights, has fallen prey to (great and/or terrible) re-adaptations time and again. But now, having seen the movie three times in theaters, I momentarily assume the role of narrator Jane to express my sentiments: Reader, I loved it! I’m happy to report that Fukunaga’s production not only manages to avoid major pitfalls, but ultimately delivers a satisfying and original take on this literary work that will appeal to everyone from long-devoted Brontë aficionados to nineteenth-century newbies. (Well, everyone except the man seated behind me in the theater, who toward the end of the movie whispered loudly to his exasperated wife, “So. Jane. Uh. . . she likes that Rochester guy, right?” *facepalm*)

While many critics chose to dedicate their reviews to praising Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender (who, though admittedly too handsome to play a 100% text-perfect Edward Rochester, portrays the character quite convincingly) for their performances in the lead roles, I – in the spirit of the Novel Ideas project – assert that the contemporary artistic elements woven into this version of Jane Eyre account for its distinctive charm. For instance, in designing the official poster and related advertisements, the marketing department owned a minimalist-esque style, displaying the film’s title in a thin, crisp font in all caps, instead of appropriating a more intricate (and classically Victorian) neo-gothic or calligraphy format typical

It's a little-known fact that Victorian women often wore the faces of loved ones on their clothing

of other period adaptations. Parts of the movie itself, in a sense, function as blended “exhibitions” of modernism and post-modernism, in which the visual simplicity of some scenes calls to mind various art forms explored over the last 50 years. And composer Dario Marianelli’s score provides a beautifully befitting auditory complement through subtle, subdued piano solos, string instrument features, and the occasional haunting female vocal. Together, all of these accents contribute to a twenty-first-century ambiance that might seem “plain and simple” (as Brontë describes her heroine) but has a decidedly profound impact on the film’s aesthetic.

Arguably the most intriguing characteristic of the new Jane Eyre is that the film’s contemporary stylings still yield a commendably accurate period drama. A large part of the production’s success stems from its acknowledgement of the inevitability of “historical reciprocity”: the notion that modern perspectives will manifest in some form in any assessment, interpretation, or reinvention of the past (or its literature, for that matter). Thus, the movie’s innovativeness lies in its cognizance of this fact; it revels in rather than recoils from the prospect of twenty-first-century influence by pointedly embracing “modernity” in numerous aspects of the production, which ultimately enhances the overall believability and accessibility of the piece.

True to Charlotte Brontë’s original tone, mood, and vision but with a unique contemporary verve, Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre deserves a place of honor in the growing pantheon of nineteenth-century-literature film adaptations. The DVD goes on sale August 16 – and I know it will come as a great shock to hear that I plan to add this gem to my movie collection.

—Emily K. Cody

(See the corresponding “Reason & Romanticism” entry for the Novel Ideas long nineteenth century in film series here.)

Jane and Emo Edward, the classic nineteenth-century brooding love interest

1. Feast your eyes upon the recent Brontë vampire spin-off, Jane Slayre, whose cover features a bloody-knife-wielding Charlotte Brontë; most likely, the portrait depicts Brontë shortly after her “confrontation” with the author concerning her massacre of poor Jane. An eye for an eye, indeed. In the face of potential literary snobbery accusations, this blogger still maintains that there are more innovative ways to re-envision the nineteenth century.

2. Charlotte Perkins Gilman says “two thumbs way down” regarding the upcoming “The Yellow Wallpaper” mini-series, a would-be-horror film based on her popular 1892 short story of the same name. “The only thing truly ‘scary’ about this production is its embarrassingly feeble and decidedly unsuccessful attempt to create a movie that even vaguely echoes the objective of my original work. Wait for the DVD release – and then rent something else instead,” advises Gilman.



8 thoughts on “A New Way to Brontë

  1. I saw this film with a select group of students, with whom I’d read Jane Eyre. We all liked it… but were troubled by the fact that Mrs Fairfax (and Rochester) still seemed to be living at Thornfield… and that Rochester still had two hands at the end! I wish they hadn’t made these unnecessary (and odd) adjustments. Overall, though, I thought the film was true to the spirit of the novel – and I loved its use of flashback – really effective, I thought.

    Posted by Anna | July 8, 2011, 11:28 PM
  2. Yes, yes – the treatment of Rochester at the end had me confused as well. And I, too, thought the flashback perspective enhanced the film. Very dynamic.

    One of my only other criticisms is that Richard Mason seemed decidedly too young – since Rochester is supposedly around the same age? But this is one of my few isolated complaints about an ultimately well-done adaptation, so I’m willing to set this minor grievance aside. . .


    Posted by novelideas19c | July 9, 2011, 12:25 AM
  3. Haven’t seen the movie yet, so I resisted reading your (sure to be excellent) review. I did, however, investigate the movie adaptation of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Atrocious, to be sure. When it airs, you’ll need to review. Love the blog!


    Posted by Jack M. Downs | July 10, 2011, 11:13 PM
  4. I certainly could review “The Yellow Wallpaper,” but wouldn’t that require me to actually watch the mini series? The possibility of me adopting ailments akin to the story’s protagonist as a result of viewing this mind-mangling adaptation might be too great of a risk. But I’m more than willing to take one for the team – you know, to hold true to the romanticized notion that “artists must suffer” – sacrificing (what’s left of) my sanity in service of the literary community. And besides, history indicates through the examples of countless successful writers and artists that questionable mental stability often fosters a more “innovative” imagination, so this all could ultimately serve me quite well indeed. Excellent suggestion, my friend!


    Posted by novelideas19c | July 16, 2011, 11:44 AM
  5. I must say that I truly enjoyed this movie. I agree that Fassbender was entirely too handsome, and a little too romantic. However, Bertha Rochester presented a terrifying and pitiable image. I think the movie did an admirable job of presenting the unsettling aspects of Jane Eyre which other adaptions have missed, including Rochester’s love of Jane.

    Also, did anyone else appreciate the fact that Jane seems to be wearing Stays under all of her costumes? Finally, a movie which uses appropriate undergarments!

    Posted by Margaret McMillan | July 20, 2011, 3:12 PM
  6. Thanks for the insightful comments, Margaret! I, too, greatly appreciated the film’s close attention to historical details (undergarments and all!) – but I must say I loved the portrayal of Bertha Mason even more. I thought the execution of her character was SPOT ON. Brontë undoubtedly would have approved!


    Posted by novelideas19c | August 22, 2011, 10:28 PM


  1. Pingback: Marie Antoinette Wore Converse « Novel Ideas - August 4, 2011

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© Novel Ideas: Modern Musings on the Long Nineteenth Century, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the Novel Ideas contributors and/or administrators is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Novel Ideas with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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