In Search of Jane Eyre

Timing is everything, right? I wish I could say that I would appreciate a quality work of art at any time in my life, but years of experience suggest otherwise. The books, movies, and music that I love the most have earned that status in part because I encountered them at the right moment.

Allow me to let my English nerd flag fly for a minute. I freakin’ love Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. I read it for the first time in a Victorian Novel class with an awesome illustrated edition assigned by Susan Jaret McKinstry, and it was a revelation. Dame Darcy’s comic-style illustrations emphasized the Gothic elements and forever influenced my impression of the story. And okay, I won’t attempt to deny that I wasn’t in the happiest frame of mind when I read the book. It was one of those low moments in the life of a college student, and the subtle agony of buttoned-up Victorians had a strange appeal.

When I saw the first trailer for the 2011 film adaptation, I was thrilled that they seemed to be emphasizing the same Gothic undertones that I love so much. For a viewer unfamiliar with the plot, this Jane Eyre looked like part love story, part horror film. And that mixture just happened to perfectly match my own conception of the book.

Since the film was only in limited release, I had to make a pilgrimage to Minneapolis from Carleton just to see it. Luckily I wasn’t the only devotee on campus. Leaving the theater, I was not disappointed. Fast forward to October, and I decided to rent the movie from Netflix for a second (and third) viewing. However, there was a difference between experiencing the story when I was relatively down and when I was happy. Although I still enjoyed the movie, I didn’t feel the same visceral connection that I did two years ago when I first read the book.

At least that’s what I decided had me dragging my feet to write a blog post about it. Me feeling ambivalent about Jane Eyre? Preposterous! Still, as the English major equivalent of a squealing fangirl for this book, I can recommend the movie wholeheartedly. The most noticeable difference from the book is the way the film plays with the timeline. That is, the events remain the same, but the story unfolds in a nonlinear way. The film opens with Jane running away from Thornfield, which any nerd can tell you happens at the beginning of volume three. Then her past is revealed in a series of lengthy flashbacks. It’s a device that works well in film, so I have no problem with the change.

The best that both the novel and the movie have to offer is the character of Jane herself. I was skeptical when I heard that Mia Wasikowka was cast, knowing her only as “that girl from the new Alice in Wonderland.” Seeing her in The Kids Are All Right gave me more faith in her acting, but I still wasn’t sure that she could pull off Jane. The trailer provided some relief because at least they made her plain. Not as “Goth chick” as Dame Darcy would have me believe, but appropriately unassuming. As it turned out, I was pleased with her performance. Jane Eyre is all about pent-up emotion, and Mia Wasikowka was able to convey outward calm with turmoil just beneath the surface.

If only she had said, “Grant me at least a new servitude!” Then I may have died of happiness.

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