First released in the UK in 1943 and America in 1944, Jane Eyre is an American adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s novel of the same name released by 20th Century Fox and starring Joan Fontaine as Jane Eyre and Orson Welles as Mr. Rochester. The film’s screenplay is based on a previous radio adaptation of the novel and was written by John Houseman, Aldous Huxley, Henry Koster, and Robert Stevenson; Stevenson also directed the film. Jane Eyre is currently available for streaming on Netflix.
The film commences with young, spirited, and unhappy Jane Eyre learning from her Aunt Reed and Mr. Brocklehurst that she is to be sent to school. She is initially excited to be leaving the Reeds; however, upon arrival at Lowood Institution, Brocklehurst announces to the students and teachers that she is a liar and makes her stand on a stool all day. A girl named Helen Burns approaches Jane, and the two become friends. After Jane objects Mr. Brocklehurst’s cutting of Helen’s hair, both girls’ hair is cut, and they are punished by being forced to walk in the rain until Dr. Rivers, a kind physician who serves the school, brings them inside. Helen Burns dies later the same night, apparently from said punishment.
After ten years, Mr. Brocklehurst offers Jane a teaching position at Lowood, but she determinedly declines, opting instead to take a position as a governess, which she had advertised for, at Thornfield Hall. While on a walk one evening, Jane first meets her employer, Mr. Rochester, when she startles his horse, which causes him to be minorly injured. Mysterious laughter awakens Jane later that night, and she discovers and helps to put out an unexplained fire in Mr. Rochester’s room.
Later, Mr. Rochester returns from a trip with a number of guests; it is rumored that he will marry the beautiful Blanche Ingram, which disappoints Jane until Mr. Rochester tells her that Blanche is only interested in his wealth. One night, a man called Mason shows up unannounced, and Jane is later awakened by a scream and made to care for his mysterious wounds that he received somewhere in Thornfield Hall.
Jane confronts Mr. Rochester about finding different employment after he marries, but he asserts that Blanche left after he declared she was only after his wealth and proceeds to propose to Jane. However, during the wedding, Mason’s attorney attests that Rochester has a living but insane wife; Jane leaves Thornfield and returns to Gateshead, the home of the Reeds.
There she reconciles with her Aunt Reed, who is ill after the suicide of her son. After Mrs. Reed’s death, Jane is at a loss as to what to do, but she suddenly and inexplicably hears Mr. Rochester’s voice call her name; she thus returns to Thornfield only to find it destroyed by a fire, which resulted in the death of Mr. Rochester’s wife and left Rochester himself blind. Jane and Mr. Rochester are married, and Jane tells the viewers that Mr. Rochester’s sight returned with the birth of their son.
For the most part, this film avoids depicting Jane as too independent of an agent and as such reinforces gender roles and expectations of the period. A crucial plot invention in this adaptation is Jane’s direct return to Gateshead after she flees from Thornfield Hall. She is hardly on her own for too long of a time, much less forced to fend for herself or sleep on the ground out of doors. It is also interesting that Jane is never given an extensive explanation for Mr. Rochester’s actions. Moreover, earlier in the film, Mr. Brocklehurst offers Jane a teaching position, which she rather obdurately refuses. Although she defies authority with this act, the expectation itself is what really speaks; apparently, a woman of her background would be lucky to be offered such a position, hence Brocklehurst’s and his committee’s disbelief at rejection. Furthermore, in this adaptation, Mr. Rivers is a physician who frequents Lowood School rather than Jane’s cousin and marriage prospect; the decision to omit the entire Rivers family subplot, in addition to thwarting an arguably incestuous relationship, ostensibly prevents Jane’s inheritance from her uncle. All of these factors, as Hopkins suggests in Screening the Gothic, seem to ensure that women “are not to be exposed to dangerous ideas about women's potential for self-reliance and economic independence” by watching this film (89). In fact, another interesting point Hopkins makes about this adaptation regards the camera angles, which seem to emphasize that Jane must look up to Mr. Rochester (90). One might also question the casting of Joan Fontaine, a stereotypically beautiful actress, as the plain Jane Eyre, since presenting her as especially outwardly attractive seems to draw some attention away from her intellectual attributes.
Mr. Rochester as a Romantic Hero
The casting of Orson Welles makes for an especially prominent Mr. Rochester; Hopkins even labels him “fiercely overbearing" (93). Taciturn and mysterious, yet eloquent and haughty, Welles embodies a strong male lead against Fontaine’s more subservient Jane. According to Turner Classic Films, Welles actually insisted on top billing as a condition of accepting the role of Mr. Rochester, consequently mitigating the prominence of Fontaine’s Jane, an interesting detail considering the film’s overall downplaying of Jane’s headstrong and determined disposition. Moreover, The New York Times reviewed that the heroine of the story is “strangely obscured behind the dark cloud of Rochester's personality” in this adaptation. Welles’ Mr. Rochester speaks loudly and clearly, and his somewhat tall, dark, and handsome demeanor underscores his mysterious nature and his secrets. His appearance, moreover, allows him to be a more aesthetically equal match for Fontaine’s especially attractive Jane, at least in terms of appearance, and further romanticizes his character. Welles’ Mr. Rochester can be particularly considered a romantic hero in his rejection of norms via his attempt to love and propose marriage outside of his extant union and his dark and domineering personality, among other characteristics. As a result, Jane’s character is not only overshadowed but also essentially spellbound by this Mr. Rochester; his romantic hero pushes Jane to the side to become the center of this adaptation.
Society and Realism
Lisa Hopkins makes another interesting point in Screening the Gothic with her statement that this adaptation “remove[s] from the story all of the suggestion and indeterminacy so fundamentally associated with the Gothic and replace[s] them with the schematic or with details which serve to anchor the story firmly in the realm of the social rather than the psychoanalytic” (Hopkins 91). Indeed, the importance of societal and class relations seems to be emphasized in this film, including gender roles, and in a sense displaces the gothic; the film relies on the social relationships Jane experiences while traditionally gothic elements, especially the Bertha Mason narrative, are effectively moderated. That being said, the film reduces the visibility and influence of characters or even omits some of Brontë’s original characters for time’s sake, while the story’s timespan is both telescoped in comparison to the novel and is overall slightly unclear, as seen, for example, in the immediacy of Thornfield’s fire in relation to Jane’s flight. So far as “suggestion” and “indeterminacy” go, this Jane Eyre hardly experiences any question as to what will happen next, always having a plan or a place to go, as is clear in her refusal of Mr. Brocklehurst’s job offer in favor of the governess position and her immediate return to Gateshead after the wedding disaster. The most mysterious element remains Mr. Rochester, and even his story is limited. This adaptation compacts the narrative but attempts to preserve its social aspects, which fundamentally establishes this story as one of society, class, and overall realism rather than the gothic.
Although it is evident in reviews from sources like The New York Times that some audiences were displeased with the casting choices and plot alterations in Stevenson’s Jane Eyre, the film maintains relatively impressive ratings, with a 7.6 out of 10 stars from IMDb and a 100% rating from Rotten Tomatoes.
Significance of the Film
In Screening the Gothic, Hopkins notes that “one of the most remarkable features of the 1943 Robert Stevenson film… is that it not only offers itself as an adaptation of the text, it effectively replaces it, at times even going to the extreme of actual rewriting” (89). Stevenson’s Jane Eyre opens with a woman’s hand tracing along a bookshelf, selecting the book, and proceeding to read it, with Jane narrating. The film returns to this book throughout the film, using it as a tool for narration and also to indicate the passing of time, as it is made clear to viewers when new chapters of the book and of Jane’s experience in the film are begun. However, while stylistically grounded in nineteenth-century convention, the Jane Eyre that one sees in this film is not at all the book that Charlotte Brontë wrote; it is in this sense that Hopkins argues that the film is “replacing” the original text. Moreover, this replacement goes beyond the words and the story, as key thematic elements are also effectually replaced with this new book.
As preciously noted, this film is rather unique in its casting of Joan Fontaine, making for a beautiful Jane Eyre rather than one who is plain. Moreover, this Jane, while narrator for her story, reads a text less characterized on the introspection and gothic elements one might expect; for example, the first lines of the film and subsequently of the book Jane narrates from are simply and straightforwardly, “My name is Jane Eyre.— I was born in 1820.” The text that is presented to viewers is grounded in blunt social realities and therefore grafts this gothic narrative upon an experience of realism while effectively pushing the gothic elements to the side, if not totally neglecting them, perhaps serving to instead emphasize these social relations and experiences including gender, class, and family.
This adaptation of Jane Eyre has been praised for its musical score, its set, and its cast, and sees overall positive ratings from critics. Ultimately, this adaptation might be considered a classic, both in terms of Jane Eyre adaptations and Hollywood cinema.
- Jane Eyre on IMDb
- Jane Eyre on Rotten Tomatoes
- Jane Eyre (1943 film) on Wikipedia
- The New York Times
- Turner Classic Films
Lisa Hopkins. “Fragmenting the Gothic: Jane Eyre and Dracula.” Screening the Gothic. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005. Print.