Adapting Charlotte Bronte's greatest novel has never been easy; previous versions have often been overblown or underwhelming, and the book itself, told with a lengthy girlhood prelude preceding the main narrative, does not lend itself to a fluid adaptation. At times, it falls into Victorian purple prose. And to make matters, if not worse, then more difficult, Jane Eyre is at its core a Gothic novel, with all the right bits: grand old houses on the moor, stormy-tempered gentlemen, hidden rooms, secrets dark enough to shock even the modern viewer.

Jane Eyre is not a morality tale. But though it is at its core a story of redemption, and even faith, when read truthfully it's a bit scandalous—even vaguely erotic—around the edges. Such a story, too faithfully adapted, is a melodrama.

Mia Wasikowska as Jane

Mia Wasikowska as Jane

But literature lovers, rejoice: Cary Fukunaga's lean, restrained, and gorgeously shot adaptation preserves all the best of the story without falling into its traps. And that's not easy with a tale like this—beginning, as it does, with a miserable Jane (Mia Wasikowska) running headlong out of Thornfield Hall and into a stormy landscape, weeping and struggling against the weather, pursued by whispers from beyond. She is rescued by young country minister St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his two sisters, who nurse her back to health, then give her work and a home.

As she slowly moves toward restoration, she is haunted by recollections of her past: a childhood spent first abused by the aunt who had sworn to take her in and treat her well, then at the dismal Lowood school, where the first person to show her kindness, a fellow student named Helen Burns, dies in her arms. Piety is linked with severity and entirely divorced from love in Jane's world, except for Helen. So Jane grows to maturity reserved, observant, austere—not bitter, but not expecting anything good from life. She is utterly frank, acting without hypocrisy, speaking her mind when necessary but uninterested in playing a part she does not rightfully fill.

Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester

Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester

Called upon to serve as governess at Thornfield Hall, Jane leaves Lowood and transitions to a world she has not experienced, filled with good work, comforts, and a more free life than she's known. Months after her arrival, the master of the house, Edward Fairfax Rochester (Michael Fassbender), arrives. He and Jane strike up a friendship of sorts that grows toward love, against societal odds. Jane allows herself, for the first time in life, to anticipate happiness. But all is not as it seems, and Rochester's past is coming back to haunt them.

Rochester—while hardly as stormy as Emily Bronte's Heathcliff—is still a tortured sort of heir, prone to outbursts and black moods. He isn't an anti-hero, exactly, but he's certainly no Mr. Darcy. Jane's attraction to him in the book can be a bit mystifying. But here Fassbender (Inglorious Basterds, Fish Tank) inhabits him with intelligence, wit, and raw passion. This Rochester would indeed intrigue rather than repel Jane, whom Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland, The Kids Are All Right) imbues with both quiet practicality and an air of otherworldliness.

Jamie Bell as St. John

Jamie Bell as St. John

Both characters have tried to cut out a part of their humanity because of their own private tragedies, but there is a fully alive person simmering right below each character's surface. They are an unlikely, but even match; their interactions crackle with electricity. Yet this is still Jane's story, and Fassbender's performance allows Wasikowska the room she needs to fill her out. The tightly wound tale is very nearly a mood piece, occasionally impressionistic: a glance conveys the entirety of an emotion, and a single change in weather stands in for pages' worth of description.

But most importantly, it preserves what lies at the core of the original: a meditation on what it means to really live. Rochester must be brought low and helpless, made to feel his limits. Jane must grasp both independence and real, unconditional love to reach her fullness; she cannot ignore her humanness in pursuit of some unearthly goal.

And all of this can only happen in the refining fire.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Throughout the story, Jane seeks her freedom. To what authority does she ultimately submit? How does this shape her choices?
  2. Do you expect the best from life, or do you expect difficulties? What experiences in your past shape your expectations? What does Scripture say we should expect out of life?
  3. Have you ever been made to choose between what you desired and what was right? How does Jane choose? What did you choose?

The Family Corner

Parents to Consider

Jane Eyre is rated PG-13 for some thematic elements, including a nude image and brief violent content. This film actually manages to treat the occasionally lurid plot points in the original with restraint, but they may still frighten younger viewers. There is some blood in one scene that takes place after an off-screen violent encounter. A painting of a nude hangs in Thornfield Hall, and Jane examines it by candlelight.

Jane Eyre
Our Rating
4 Stars - Excellent
Average Rating
(1 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for some thematic elements, including a nude image and brief violent content)
Directed By
Cary Joji Fukunaga
Run Time
2 hours
Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell
Theatre Release
April 22, 2011 by Focus Features
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