Gothic Melodrama and Spiritual Romance: Vision and Fidelity in Two Versions of Jane Eyre

By Riley, Michael | Literature/Film Quarterly, Spring 1975 | Go to article overview

Gothic Melodrama and Spiritual Romance: Vision and Fidelity in Two Versions of Jane Eyre


Riley, Michael, Literature/Film Quarterly


The Victorian novel has been a fertile ground for filmmakers, and of the novels of the period, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre has been among the most popular sources of adaptation, having been brought to the screen seven times.1 By far the best known - and generally most esteemed - version is that directed by Robert Stevenson (1944). Recently, the Delbert Mann film (1971) was shown as a television special in the United States and was released as a theatrical feature world wide. Despite their obvious narrative similarities, the two films are strikingly different, so different, in fact, that a close comparison provides a useful means of considering just what constitutes fidelity in cinematic adaptation of novels. While no adaptation can embrace all the details of its literary source, there is in the case of well-known novels an assumption by both audiences and critics that an adaptation will follow the major outlines of the plot, present the principal characters, express the important themes, and attempt to capture the prevailing tone. Obviously, this constitutes an insufficient prescription for fidelity. When the literary work is from another era, filmmakers must also consider differences in the taste and sensibility of contemporary audiences from those of the earlier period. Pauline Kael has suggested that the key to success lies in dealing with the "characters and situations in terms of the greatest honesty possible in the film's own time."2 In other words, just as a successful novel speaks to its readers, so. too, must a successful film adaptation speak to its viewers. A respect for the literary source and, even more importantly, an understanding of it are required. But these are not enough, for filmmakers must serve the demands of their own art. Initially, a film adaptation's claim upon our attention may rest upon the book's reputation as a literary classic, but beyond that initial attraction it is the film which must hold and move us.

The Stevenson Jane Eyre has much to commend it, and it has long been regarded as a model of successful adaptation. Even those who have not seen the picture for many years tend to remember it with enthusiasm as an effective mood piece distinguished by a literate screenplay, Orson Welles's vivid presence, and the beautiful, evocative cinematography of George Barnes. The production embraces the Gothic aspects of the novel rather than shrinking from them. The Mann film, on the other hand, seems much less Gothic and brooding. It tends to downplay the stong melodrama inherent in the novel, focussing instead upon the psychological realism and emotional power of Bronte's characters. Jack Pulman's screenplay, which is largely faithful to the narrative line of its original, has eloquence and wit. And under Delbert Mann's sensitive and thoughtful direction, George C. Scott creates a strong, richly detailed, and finally quite moving Edward Rochester. Although some English critics accused this version of failing to capture the spirit of the novel, I think that it is a very successful adaptation, that, indeed, it is in general superior to the Stevenson production.

Charlotte Bronte's novel3 is the story of an education, in many respects spiritual or moral, for its principal lessons are those of duty to God and man, strength of character, humility, sacrifice, love, and redemption. Both as a child and as a young woman, Jane Eyre's status as a dependent renders her vulnerable to hardship, hypocrisy, and capricious fortune, but the strong will and independent spirit so evident in her early youth are gradually tempered by Christian humility and wisdom. As an adult. Jane is able to cope with the uncertainties and difficulties of her circumstances because of her honesty with herself and the moral and psychological liberty which results from that trait. Her humility is genuine, but it never contradicts her conviction that she must stand up for herself and for what she knows to be right. Jane's love for the master of Thornfield Hall. …

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