A 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.
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.”
AND CAN WE TALK ABOUT THE ENDING PLEASE
Sarah: Jane Eyre got incepted!
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!
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.