Friday, July 01, 2011

What Makes A Good Film Adaptation? "Jane Eyre"

 I am confused and impressed that my highest viewed blog post was a short paragraph I wrote that asked the question: "What makes a good film adaptation?" There were several interesting responses (See post here But I did not adequately express what I felt was involved in such a thing, though I am highly opinionated on the subject (Are you surprised? Don't be). Many of the post views have come from people who typed just that very question in Google. It seemed somehow sad that so many people went to the post and were disappointed by a lack of clear thought. I seek to rectify that in this post(s) by beginning with my thoughts on the recent film adaptation of "Jane Eyre", a Victorian novel by Charlotte Bronte.

 The Evening Of
To say that I enjoyed this film would be an understatement. The question however is why I found it so enjoyable. The conditions were excellent: Ali Sacks (my ballroom hero) organized a group of girls to go see the film we had wanted to see for a very long time; it was at State Theatre (local State College theatre with an old school feel, red plush seats, an eclectic taste in performances and film showings, and alcohol); we sat in the balcony; the apricot beer being consumed beside me smelled amazing; I may or may not have been watching it for free; and the company was such that there was excellent commenting happening before, during, and after the showing. Such a context cannot help but add to the pleasure of a period film.

The Love of the Book
Now to the film itself. One cannot consider an adaptation, I believe, without commenting first on one's thoughts on the original text. That is the very point of an adaptation and must be evaluated in those terms. I loved "Jane Eyre" in middle school and reread it periodically since then. The gothic feel has since lost some of its fascination and charm since then and I have also grown weary with the long childhood introduction that bored many of my peers. I defended it in those days out of a sense of duty. But the basic narrative captivated me: a fiesty, wronged child grows in harsh conditions into a quiet, but equally strong woman. She becomes a governess and falls in love with her employer as does he with her. I hope (as my friend Anjali also hoped/guessed) that most viewers of the film will have read the book or I would continue with the short recounting of the plot. The essence of the narrative attraction is found, however, in the evenings of tension that Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre share and everything that is not spoken between them, but felt and seen. Bronte does a masterful job of crafting these small, domestic, fraught scenes and they carry the novel. They are what stay in the mind even while the familial relations and various relatives dying and leaving inheritances are forgotten. Oh, that and the mad wife in the attic, running around the house at night trying to burn the place down (There's a whole potential disertation in the Brontes for Victorian/gothic perspectives on disability and "the grotesque". I bet someone's already taken it though. Another thought for another time).

Define: "Faithful Adaptation"
I've grown (I hope for the better) away from being a purist in my hopes and dreams for film adaptations. My first introduction to the art of the adaptation was through the 1980s BBC production of the Narnia books. They enacted the books almost word for word in a low budget attempt to tell the story well. Too bad for Disney that I still think they capture the spirit better than the high budget, fancy smancy stuff they pull these days. But it set up the unrealistic belief that word for word extraction was what made the spirit come alive. While it was part of the wonder of book into sound and light, it was not what made it beautiful: it was the ethereal and immediate ability to take the heart of the book and share it, in tact, in another medium. Meaning, that a good adaptation will take the heart of character and voice and make it tangible for the viewer in images and moments the way the author makes it tangible in words choice, syntax, diction, pacing, paragraph spacing, etc.

How that is accomplished can be different for each film maker. In fact, it is also the enacted role of the reader each time the book is experienced throughout life, assuming, of course, that all great books in life could potentially be loved well several times and not just once. My favorite example of film adaptation would be Ang Lee's "Sense and Sensibility", whose elegant visual directing combined with Emma Thompson's screenplay was able to alter the pacing, timing, and plot elements of Jane Austen's novel and create cinematic excellence. Thompson received a Golden Globe for her screenplay that year, an award I appreciate: the task of taking Austen's language and changing it, altering it, plot and voice for human bodies to use is a daunting task. It cannot be just "straight from the novel" as I once believed. My favorite scapegoat would be the most recent "Pride and Prejudice" which involved a modern sensibility for the awkward and strange, bizarre lighting and shapes, and a strangely mixed up performance by two actors who were either 1) dreadfully miscast and 2) badly directed. I believe it was both since I've loved McFayden in "Little Dorrit" and disliked Knightly in most everything other than the first "Pirates" film.

Elemental Critique
All of that is just to give a general intro to my thoughts on film adaptations. Now to apply it to Cary Fukunaga's "Jane Eyre." I found that the film was new enough in its take on Jane to make it worth making. I think of two aspects in particular that stood out to me of strengths 1) film order and 2) timing (with music. Will explain).

This adaptation took a unique turn by starting the story the moment Jane runs from Thornfield Hall the morning after her wedding (though we don't know that at this point). We follow her as she grieves while wondering the moors and looking for a reason to be alive. She is found by someone outside of their home and she just barely made it. We are as lost as the family is, full of questions. Her childhood is then given to us in flashbacks as well as her time as governess at Thornfield. The layered rather than sequential order helps to understand why we should care about her as a child and creates curiosity and engagement: you have to pay attention to keep up with the location changes and the progression of Jane's character.

The music was stellar. It added deft mood and tone to each scene and was powerful even in its absence. There was not booming music but was left to play subtle and beautiful notes in our experience of the piece. Sound was a primary tool in making the atmosphere work in this film, and it largely succeeded in ways I don't remember in other adaptations, even ones filmed at the same location (I think this is true, though I am not certain). There were several moments of intense fright for the audience that made us jump, a particular problem if you were Ali beside me with a mostly full cup of beer. The moments of quiet in dialogue also allowed for comedic moments that I would have missed otherwise to be thoroughly enjoyed with the theatre audience who let out audible laughter and gasps at exceptional moments. So perhaps what I mean by "music" and "sound" is  fantastic editing.

And the acting. I have defined my definition of good adaptation as largely depending on the translation of character and spirit. I found Mia Wasikowska to be one of my favorite Jane Eyre's thus far. She was, as Ali said, "Beautiful, but in a way that didn't call your attention to it so you might not notice it." She gave a very controlled performance, which was very skillful but was sometimes surprising when she would have passionate moments (ala tree and lightening scene). Mr. Rochester was somewhat less satisfying to me though I know he is the hardest to time well. I missed the manipulative, nigh abusive, blunt charm he wields in the novel. This one "smiled too much" and left me confused as to whether he actually experienced a connection with Jane Eyre like he said he did, something I was not missing in the Masterpiece Theatre adaptation from 2008.

Judi Dench was, of course, a charming and perfect housekeeper.

"Jane Eyre"... Again
An interesting question, though, is why "Jane Eyre" continues to inspire new adaptations. In the last two decades of period film resurgence (the mid 1990s for the Jane Austen fan, and the work of Masterpiece Theatre), there have been three different adaptations ( out of a total of twenty two since 1963. Compare that to Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" which has seen two adaptations in the last two decades (one for tv with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth and the other for the cinema with Mathew McFayden and Kiera Knightly [mistake]) and nine total adaptations (film and television) since 1952. It may be worth noting that the Austen films seem to have inspired more fan commitment and so may have not inspired quite the revisiting that our Jane has done. There were also more novels. And more spin offs including a Bollywood adaptations and one by the Church of Latter Day Saints (you think I'm kidding but I'm not). However,  perhaps an even more interesting comparison can be made between "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights", the sister-banes of young high school men's literary education: WH has had fifteen adaptations with one in the works for this year, including, apparently, a special song by Mumford and Sons (?). While still more adaptations than P&P, a gap of seven film adaptations between WH and JE is a lot of time and money spent on Jane and not on Heathcliffe.

I think it is because it offers a challenge that seems to tantilizingly easy to conquer. The small scenes between Jane and Mr. Rochester are, as I noted before, the heart of the film. There is also a very intangible spirit to the novel that is difficult to capture and is key to how I define faithful to the original text. There is also something to be said for the fact that I have been watching "Jane Eyre" adaptations for a long time, to the point that I get them confused with each other. Many of them are not profoundly different from each other, especially this most recent one and the Masterpiece Theatre adaptation, which I need to see again to decide whether it is indeed my favorite.

My great appreciation for the plethora of adaptations and most particularly this most recent one was that it allows different aspects of the novel to be explored and greater understanding for the long time reader. I am particularly grateful for the editing in this film that allowed subtext to rule the dialogue and interactions of Mr. Rochester and Jane. I felt as if I understood the subtext and followed it for the first time. But perhaps that can also be attributed for the process of growing up in a story and finding my own self more able to understand and enjoy what I had always felt to be worth investing in.

Also see a review of Anajlai Narayanan, who was with me to see this film:

1 comment:

Chelsea said...

Hooray! I enjoyed watching this movie on the plane back to Cambodia. Just wanted to resoundingly approve of your analysis of Matthew McFayden: dismal in P+P! Excellent in Little Dorrit! I know Colin Firth is a tough act to follow, but I expected little and was very pleasantly surprised by him in "Little Dorrit." And while I'm no expert on JE adaptations, this Jane was understatedly lovely, just as you said.