Novel Ideas

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.