According to the New York Times, there have been 18 film adaptations of Jane Eyre, 19 if you count I Walked with a Zombie. In the midst of this summer’s heat wave, I sought refuge at a movie theater where the latest version was playing. A total of six people sat in the audience, all of us old enough to have seen several versions. Still, we held our collective breath as on screen the otherwise astute heroine failed to realize that the strange sounds emanating from the attic were in fact the ravings of her beloved employer/fiancé’s first wife.
I knew all about the first wife in the attic. The whole audience knew. Poor Jane didn’t catch on until she saw the madwoman, in the flesh, with her own eyes. That’s what movies do: they let you see things with your own eyes.
I believe that literature—by which I mean printed writing written with thought and structure and meaning and on good days with imagination and flair—has given movies their most memorable characters, meaningful images, and magnificent landscapes. Movies, in turn, have transformed precious moments off the printed page into pictures so vivid and compelling we don’t just watch them, we experience them with all the intensity of being there. At best, movies and literature have a beneficial relationship wherein one enhances appreciation for the other. At worst, the relationship devolves into diminishing returns including television series, comics, cartoons, computer games, sequels, prequels, take-offs, spin-offs, and, of course, remakes.
One of my pleasures while viewing a movie made from a book is identifying what filmmakers got right (i.e., visualized the way I visualized it when I read it) and what they got wrong, either because they left something out or their interpretation was misguided (i.e., different from mine).
I also enjoy identifying a film’s sources, obvious or obscure. Recently, for example, I saw a movie claiming to be a modern update of an old-fashioned western. When the protagonist rode into town silent and alone, I recognized him at once both as an archetypal cowboy and as the latest incarnation of Jane’s Mr. Rochester. Think about it: a strong, gruff, reticent hero, feeling guilty about his first wife, who in this case had been abducted by aliens.
Since at least 1910, when the first Jane Eyre movie appeared, literature has inspired films. A hundred years later, films are still made from books. The difference is that, now, movies shape how books are written. Today’s writers write in scenes; describe characters in close-up; show action through a wide-screen lens; avoid exposition and introspection. Editors and audiences encourage them to cut to the chase.
After much discussion about which Jane Eyre is the most authentic, which Rochester the most appealing, I re-read the book. For me, Brontë, despite overwritten passages and overwrought ruminations, aimless meanderings and perplexing detours, trumps all imitators and adaptors. Only she has the freedom the printed word affords to go where the story goes, accept characters in all their humanity, and look at life in all its complexity, without having to force it into a short form dictated by common wisdom and designed for current taste. That is why her work endures, in my opinion, in a variety of forms, ever changing but always essentially the same.