Ready, Set, Thornfield

PosterA long time ago (in internet years), when I was first discovering that there were other people online like me, who loved and wrote about period drama and the deeply satisfying 19th century literature much of it is based on, I stumbled across a site called The Egalitarian Bookworm, written by Sarah Seltzer, also known as @fellowette.

Sarah has since shuttered that blog and moved on to newer, sexier digs. But she was the first person I really connected with online about these matters that are so dear to my heart.

The fact that she had a post category called Men In Breeches — and that she wrote these posts from an unapologetically feminist point of view — gave me hope for myself and my own obsessions. It also helped that she had (has) a boyfriend (now husband) who watches these movies with her and who, if I recall correctly, once stated for the record that Henry Tilney’s clothes were categorically “fly.” As they are. As they are.

When I met Sarah, the 2006 Jane Eyre had just come out. So that is the first memory I have of knowing her — reading her live-blogs of the PBS broadcast that had sunk its hooks into me so deeply as well.

So it only felt right to close the loop, as it were, and have a bloggy conversation with her about the 2011 Jane Eyre.

We spent an hour yesterday with a very large chat window open and did just that. The transcript is below, only very slightly tidied up for readability.

I hope you enjoy. I certainly did.

Beth: So, spill. You already know what I thought of this Jane Eyre. I’ve seen it three times again since that first viewing, and it’s still like an absolute gut punch to me. What was it like for you?

Sarah: I loved it as well — it was beautiful, visually. Mia Wasikowska was the most fierce and feminist Jane I’ve seen on the screen. She was perfect, and I thought the director’s choice to keep the focus on her was original. I’m going to have to say that I’m not as hugely enamored of Fassbender’s Rochester (though he was great) as I think you were, but I wonder if part of that is because the choice to make it Jane’s movie left him with less to work with.

Beth: True. And I went into it feeling pretty skeptical about Fassbender as Rochester, just on basic principle, of course. But I thought he was cracking good. And it’s funny you say that this gave Rochester less to do — because I was just talking to a colleague at work who had NOT read the book recently, and he felt that Jane’s character was rather pale and bland and just didn’t change throughout the film. Then he read the book again (just last week — love that in a guy) and he was like AH!! So I think this version really requires deep familiarity with the story for it to really work for the viewer.

Sarah: That’s interesting — there were some flaky women sitting in front of me and my husband and sister-in-law, while we were viewing it so reverently with our breath held, and they were all like “why were they running around the fields for two hours?” and we almost KILLED THEM. But I sort of think of this film as the mirror image of the Welles/Fontaine version (which was I think a big influence on the director) which was similar in that it cut out much of the book but that film was so Rochester-oriented, and Rochester was so hammy and wonderful, and this one had a more genteel Rochester — especially the costumes! The hat and the corncob pipe. Was that a corncob pipe?

Beth: LOL. It was a corncob pipe. And I thought he was so charming in that scene! Adorable, actually. But yeah, it wasn’t a particularly BROODY outfit. Rochester Cracked Corn, and I don’t care.

And I found that at each viewing there were a LOT of people new to the story. One night, it seemed like EVERYONE gasped when we saw the burned out shell of Thornfield. The next night, people gasped when he proposed. Unbelievable.

So maybe it’s drawing in people to the cinema who wouldn’t sit and watch a four hour version on PBS, but who are up for the moovee version. But that just brings me back to my question about whether or not this version served nOObs well or not. I think not.

Sarah: I wonder if that’s because there wasn’t enough sexual-tension-time at Thornfield? It was sort of like governess meets master, governess loves master, governess gets jealous for 30 seconds but then master proposes? But it’s so hard for me to judge because like you, the Jane Eyre story is so deeply ingrained in my very soul that I can’t approach it with fresh eyes. It was certainly a gorgeous film but it was, in the words of one of my tweeps, nearly “unremittingly bleak” except for the five-minute “lovers enjoying Spring at Thornfield” montage. But I don’t know — why do you say it didn’t serve the newbies well?

Beth: OK well. First — I agree that the tension and courtship was alarmingly abridged. And that made it seem far too easy a path for our Jane to tread, really. But I think this was not done just for matters of time — Rochester’s bizarre, sadistic, manipulative behavior during this section is often really hard for modern audiences to swallow, and I think that makes it hard for modern audiences to identify him as a truly sympathetic character, never mind as a romantic hero.

So that’s what I’ve been thinking about:  How did it seem to people who were new to the story? It is so hard to say. I think that if I were watching this movie, not knowing the story, it would seem like you paint it above – a bleak childhood, an easy path to love once we arrive at Thornfield, and then it’s all ah, hell, the perfidy of men who lie about their mad wives in the attics let’s blow this joint.

I don’t know. In the end, as I wrote, I care less about those viewers than I probably should.

Sarah: Amen to that indifference. I do know that a lot of people I know (including my parents) who haven’t read the book in a while and aren’t immersed in period drama fangirldom on the intertubes really, really, liked the film. In the end I think it was a success, but I am glad, as a number of the reviews said, that there will never be a definitive Jane Eyre, because it’s too complex a novel to capture 100% on film.

Oh, and I will add re: the Jane and Rochester courtship, and the struggle therein that gets omitted onscreen, that this is ultimately the sexiest and most fascinating part of the story for me. They don’t want to love each other. They don’t really want to like each other. They’re both aware that it’s wrong on so many levels, but they are so. drawn. to. each. other. They cause each other to buck society in a lot of ways, and that’s great. 

Beth: Yes indeedy, and well said, too. And no, there will never be a definitive Jane Eyre adaptation. In fact, I think that we have to look at each film to see what it got right, and take them on their own merits. This one didn’t get all the complexities of plot and character, but I think it evoked the MOOD of the story leagues and miles better than any other version. Hell yes it was bleak — that’s what made it so great. I think I love this version more when I see it as a vast, wall-covering painting of some kind, rather than as any sort of exercise in linear storytelling.

Sarah: And that is a beautiful and good way to look at it. But on to the big question… how do you feel it compares to the gorgeous 2006 BBC version? We went back and watched that the next day and felt that it had the true luxury of time, time to really draw out the details. We also thought Toby Stephens got closer to nailing Rochester as we saw him, sad and eccentric as well as domineering. But while Ruth Wilson didn’t have Mia Wasikowska’s unsmiling, determined reading of Jane (which I think is a legit interpretation of Bronte’s Jane) I thought she held her own as well, and I like the sexed-up ness of this version too. Great physical chemistry. Although I also liked how in the new film we could really see how much Rochester physically looms over Jane, how he could “snap her in two.”

Beth: I’m torn. I really preferred Fassbender’s Rochester and Mia’s Jane to those in the 2006 version (I know, even though I totally got to meet that guy). But I feel like Fassbender and Mia each got at the parts of those characters that I felt like Ruth and Toby sort of missed. I kind of wish I could see Fassbender and Wasikowska act in the 2006 version of the screenplay. Including, of course, all of the horizontal make-out scenes. Especially those. 


Sarah: Jane Eyre got incepted!

Beth: WTF

I needed so much more denouement than that. For cripes sake. I mean, holding her head and shaking with sobs is good, don’t get me wrong, just like Toby with a tear running down his cheek really worked for me (Melissa says that handsome British men crying is my porn — and she’s not wrong). But I really wanted a good five more minutes with them reuniting. Dammit.

Did that not bother you?

Sarah: Oh it bothered, it bothered. I really feel like the banter they have when she returns is a CRUCIAL part of the story, it cements how Jane is In Charge now and also of course how much they still love each other. I really didn’t like the fact that Cary Fukunaga said he thought Charlotte Bronte should have stopped earlier. I mean everyone has their blind spots, but that is a big one.

Also, you should make a t-shirt line that says “Handsome British Men Crying Is My Porn.” I’d buy one!

Beth: I’ve already asked Melissa (who designed all the art on my site) to design me a sticker that says “I’d rather be at Thornfield.” I don’t think it would be too much to ask her to produce a Handsome British Men Crying T-shirt as well. I’ll see if we can’t get her on that.

I agree about the banter at the end cementing things. So vital to show the inversion of the power dynamic in all its manifestations. I guess Cary thought he “showed” it without “telling” it. Whatever. There was a TON left on the editing room floor, you can tell from all the scenes they promoed in the trailers and other videos on the website, but that weren’t in the film. I swear they could have made a four hour version with what they shot if they had wanted to.

Sarah: Yes, I read somewhere that the “director’s cut” or his preferred cut was half an hour longer, but the original cut was like a full hour longer. Yes, I can haz extended DVD if/when it comes out!

And you know I always laugh when I think about the Freudian reading of “Thornfield” as being phallic and “Ferndean” as being vaginal. So why wasn’t the ending in a marshy ferny setting, why was it on the Thornfield grounds? Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar would not be pleased

Beth: And why the hell was Mrs. Fairfax looming about the ruins of Thornfield, anyway?

Sarah: TOO MUCH FAIRFAX. Can’t resist the Dench appeal.

Beth: When I thought about it, I rather liked the neatness of placing Rochester at the base of the old chestnut tree, reliving painful memories. But yeah, Ferndean.

Sarah: I really have to hie me to a theater to see multiple viewings so I can continue to analyze.

I’ve been watching bits and pieces of the Hinds/Morton Jane Eyre which has been on Ovation nonstop. Why was the perfect Captain Wentworth such a histrionic Rochester? Things I want to know. But I’m digressing.

Beth: OK yes, you need to go see this many more times for full analysis to be possible. Of course that goes without saying. I’m torn between dreading when it ends its run in the adorable little ramshackle arthouse cinema on the Cape it’s playing in (you couldn’t possibly walk out of this movie into a better, starker, gloomier environment than late winter/early spring northside of Cape Cod) and itching to get my hands on the DVD. An addict’s life is an ugly thing.

And I have to admit that I am not much one for reviewing the older versions of Jane Eyre. It’s a shameful thing, but I find them all so hard to stomach.

Sarah: The only one I think is worthwhile besides 2006 and 2011 is the Orson Welles one…. we tried to watch the beginning of a few on neflix instant but they were all terrible.

Beth: Some people have a deep fondness for the William Hurt one, alarmingly. It’s just — I don’t feel like any of those versions came at it with any sort of affection whatsoever for the story, for Jane especially. They just saw a title to exploit.

Nothing like getting all judgy on things I haven’t fully experienced. FTW.

Oh and one other thing I liked about this version was the spare use of soundtrack. So much of it was in silence, with just all these breaths in your ear. Very effective. Also: dark. Captured what life by candlelight was like.

Sarah: Yes, it managed to be beautiful without romanticizing — it also was effective at making the loneliness of it all apparent. It gets an A+ for cinematography.

Beth: And a C- on horizontal make out scenes (it would be an F except for all the fan fic in my head)

Sarah: More horizontal makeout scenes PLZ! I love the part in 2006 when he has his hands on her throat. Okay, now I’m getting fanficy, if you know what I mean.

Beth: Of course I know what you mean! And yes, I love those flashback scenes, too. But I did appreciate the new film’s emotional honesty in the breakup scene in front of the fireplace as a replacement for the making out in the 2006 version. Actually, both versions of this bit had me nodding and saying, yup, I’ve been there. I’ve had that breakup conversation. When Toby rolls over in despair and stares at the ceiling. I was like, oof. Yep. That’s what that feels like. Same thing with the look in Fassbender’s eyes in front of the fireplace. OMG PLZ DON’T GO.

Sarah: I totally know what you mean. It’s all very complicated, because it’s so much more than a love story, but the love story is such an epic one. I guess that’s why I’m glad we have both of these excellent interpretations and there are STILL aspects of Bronte’s brilliant vision I have never seen onscreen. But you can’t deny that both those guys got the whole “longing” and “smouldering” thing down pretty pat.

Beth: Oh my yes. Smouldering olympic champions, both of them. In short, I’m extremely happy to add this newest, sexed up, tormented and smouldery Rochester to my internal universe. Always room for more.


Sarah Marian Seltzer is a journalist and writer. Her work has appeared in venues including The LA Times, The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, and NPR, and on the websites of The Christian Science Monitor, The Nation, The Wall Street Journal, Jezebel, The Daily Beast, and Mother Jones. Sarah has been quoted in The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and the Canadian Press (Canada’s AP). Sarah lives in New York City with her husband, also a journalist. She hangs out on the internet as “fellowette” and can be found on various social networks under that name.

13 Thoughts.

  1. The group in our art house theatre literally sniggered at the abrupt ending. Unless one has read the book, this choppy, inadequate script would totally mystify the newbie viewer. Beautiful costumes. Check. Beautiful settings. Check. Great actors. Check. Jane Eyre? Uncheck.

  2. Beth and Sarah, I *loved* this review (even though I don’t share the same overall opinion)! I definitely agree with Beth’s: “I think this version requires deep familiarity with the story for it to really work for the viewer.” How long was this movie? Someone told me 90 minutes, another source said 120 minutes. Even if it was 2 hours, a few more minutes could have been used to add some crucial scenes and to give a satisfactory ending, at least! MY best Jane Eyre? The 2006 Stephens/Wilson.

  3. IMBD says the run time is 120 minutes, so I will go with that length. Remarkably, the film is getting 7 or 8 out of ten ratings from critics and viewers. My expectations going into this film were high. I stand by my disappointment.

  4. I loved the film (and your review) but I too was deeply disappointed with the ending. I mean, what was with the Grizzly Adams beard? I felt sorry for Mia trying to kiss him through that. Yuck! Aaaaaand way too abrupt! I wanted to graft the ending from 2006 onto this film. No one would have noticed that would they?

    And I saw it a second time with girlfriends, three of whom were not familiar with the story. They thought Rochester was dead as Mrs. Fairfax said that “the fire consumed him” so when he popped up, they wondered if he was a ghost or her imagination. I don’t think that was what the director was going for somehow!

    Thanks for the great insights.

  5. TOTALLY on it, with the “Handsome British Men Crying Is My Porn” tee. I mean, duh.

    Sigh. You know how I felt about the movie, er, film, ah, what the hell: movie. And I will go into it all publicly and in bloggy depth with full linkage soon, of course.

    For now, let us say that I loved it, love your exchange above, love the story, love seeing it with you, love seeing it with you at the Cape Cinema and love you. And it. And us.

    And that we totally *touched* that guy.

    See you soon for Salty Candy. xoxox

  6. Love this convo! :) I think she was the best Jane and Rochester yet– for capturing both of their flaws but for also not impeding these flaws by presenting them as too wooden, austere, etc.

    The courtship was my main complaint, seemed a bit whirlwind- when Rochester says, “We’ve been good friends, haven’t we Jane?” I thought to myself, “HAVE they?” That aspect may be one the 2006 version does better, if only for time available- really letting you get to see them get to know each other. When Jane says, “I have LIVED…at Thornfield,” I wasn’t sure that came across in this film. Of course I missed the way he really messes with her too, it’s just too disturbing and compelling at the same time! However, the film’s focus on her character was so subtle but such a shift from previous versions and I find that is what is so captivating about the novel- it is not a dry old tome but a readable woman’s story.

    The only major issues I had were leaving out of the pre and post-reunion I think these are two crucial elements. Clearly rochester GETS Jane, but at the same time, he does not. Once engaged, he plies her with dresses and jewels which she does not want. I think this is an important clue separate from the existence of Bertha, as to why their characters are not yet ready to be together. For her part, she needs to go be on her own for awhile and all that entails.

    Post -reunion, I think it is really important to point out that they do in fact marry. Though she returns without knowing this is possible, (she doesn’t know that Bertha is dead), the film left me hanging. You didn’t really get to see how decrepit and dependent he is and how Jane is able to marry him in the “right” way morally for herself, if that makes any sense. She could have lived with him anyway halfway through the tale, but the end result is quite different. (It is, right? This is the most fascinating part of the story for me. )

  7. Not having yet seen this version of JE (but I’m trying, really), I can’t join in the discussion – still I cannot let this pass unremarked: “Rochester Cracked Corn, and I don’t care.” Oh Ms. Dunn, Ms. Dunn….!

  8. “Charlotte should have stopped?” Fukunaga really said that? Does he know anything about literary traditions of that time period, or storytelling in general? The fact that I loved the movie might contradict my annoyance at that comment, but it still bugs me. Maybe he was just having a “moment.” This is an excellent conversation!

  9. oh i must confess… i went to the movie last night, and was not enamored. i agree with vic above — great cinematography, great actors, not enough story, not long enough, not deep enough, not sumptuous enough. too many changes to the original story line. it lost it’s heart, really, and, as my movie-going friend sherry said, “it was like reading the cliff notes for jane eyre.” …and then this happened. …and then that happened. i don’t know how anyone who hadn’t read the book could follow it, or think it made sense. i’m sad, cause i wanted to love it. didn’t. :(

  10. So, here’s the thing, folks who didn’t like it. And I am truly sorry that you were disappointed. But I did warn you in my original review, that this one was “…like seeing the whole story through a half-filled slide projector.”

    It was woefully incomplete. But I still think that the slides that were in the projector were so searingly beautiful that it’s a big mistake to toss this one away just because it skipped over parts of the story. The parts it depicted, it depicted beautifully. And I am glad, for one, that those parts exist.

    This is why I was all obsessive about whether or not it worked for people who don’t know and love the book. And why I eventually decided I didn’t much care, because I was glad enough to add these images to my personal photo album of Jane Eyre. Certainly not complete in itself. But of such breathtaking beauty and originality that I cannot leave it out on the mountainside like an unwanted child because of that.

    And that’s just me. I’m a Jane Eyre obsessive. So it worked for me, because I already have such a richly populated Jane Eyre theme park inside my head. As I said in my original review, I love it selfishly, knowing full well that it’s not of the right cut for everyone, perhaps for most.

    Does it stand alone as a great way to learn about Jane Eyre? No. Is it a gorgeous addition to the collection of images and interpretations that exist for this great book? I say, unequivocally, yes.

  11. I’m just chiming in to echo Beth’s comments. The thing about Jane Eyre, to me, is that it is 100% impossible to do a “definitive” adaptation of a book that spans so much time, wears the hats of gothic frightfest, feminist polemic, sexy byronic romance as well as bildungsroman and social critique simultaneously, and relies heavily on the strength of its unique first-person narrative for its helft and originality. The definitive JE will never happen. Therefore, each film adaptation to me has to be measured by its own yardstick, what themes it picks up on, what shades it uncovers that haven’t been uncovered before. To me, this adaptation worked because it picked up a thread of Jane’s character I haven’t seen onscreen before (but one that I think mattered a lot to the author) and because of what Beth describes above, its haunting visual beauty, its moments of intense emotional transcendence. Yes, there was a lot lacking; yes, it was a sliver. But it was a sliver that spoke to me, exactly as is said above.

    But I do understand the distress it occasioned for some, thinking back to my own enduring disgust with the 2005 “Pride and Prejudice” which was also visually stunning and which also plucked some interesting and thoughtful,. threads out of Austen’s text, but it had a script that read to me like blasphemy. So what I’m saying is, I feel you even as I disagree.

  12. Now I’ve (finally) seen the movie, and I’m among the Enlightened.

    I loved this version. For me, it’s hands-down the best. It’s one of the most stunningly beautiful movies I’ve seen in ages, the casting is wonderful, and the costumes – oh my why hasn’t anyone else commented on how divine the costumes are?

    Like Beth, JE is a big-deal *important* book to me, one that hit me hard as an adolescent and hasn’t lost that magic since. Given that baggage, this movie still worked for me, much better than many earlier versions that tended to be a bit too histrionic. I loved the sparseness of this version, what was implied rather than bludgeoned. I loved how so much of it was shot at such close range, emphasising the intensity of the relationships. I loved that there wasn’t a whole lot o’ modern snoggery added on, too. This is a story about passion and desire, but it’s also about control and restraint (though I did love that little flash of Rochester’s bare thigh through the slit in his shirt, and loved that Jane noticed, too.)

    Did it work for viewers who hadn’t read the book? My DH went with me (bless him, this was a true act of love, since nothing exploded) and though he hadn’t read the book, he totally got the movie. From the comments of the rest of the audience – and their comments were loud and clear – it was obvious that the majority had not read the book, and yet they loved it. Unlike Vic’s art-house crowd, no one sniggered. But I did see lots of women blotting their eyes with tissues on the way out.

    I don’t envy film-makers who make famous books into movies. It’s an impossible task, because with the best books (and famous books do tend to be best books as well), the author offers just the right words to inspire the readers’ imagination to bring the story to life. A book is a partnership that way. So while “my” version of JE has the same characters as everyone else’s, it’s not going to be the same. Everyone’s reading and interpretation is going to be unique, just as every filmed version is going to be that film maker’s interpretation, rather than the definitive be-all-end-all version.

    I’m guessing that Charlotte Bronte would understand that, too. While she did her best to capture her story on the written page, I’d bet the farm that there were parts that frustrated her because she could never get them translated from her imagination to the page, that they never were exactly “right.” It’s just one of the joys/curses of being a writer.

    All of which is probably why JE has been made over and over before this, and will likely be made scores more times in the future. There’s never going to be one version, because there are so many. Jane and Rochester have that power.

    If you go to JE expecting one of those JA Regency-romps, all beamy sunshine and witty banter, you’re bound to be disappointed. Is every word from the book included? Nope. Nor is it perfect (I could really have done with less of the tediously pious Rivers family, and less, too, of Judy Dench being Judy Dench.) But I felt this version captured the spirit of the book and of Bronte as well.

    Thanks for the excellent conversation, Beth. :)

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