Adapting any novel is a difficult task; successfully adapting a well-loved novel that clocks in at over 500 pages into a two-hour film is nearly impossible. Having previously read Moira Buffini’s superb screenplay for Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation of Jane Eyre, I was not as shocked as I might have been by what a significant achievement the film is, but I was certainly surprised, and utterly delighted.
Jane Eyre is a messy masterpiece, particularly read from a modern perspective. There are, of course, moments that do not translate to the twenty-first century quite as well as we might hope, as there are in most (if not all) of the Victorian novels that have survived. More to the point, Charlotte Brontë’s views on religion and the role of women in society, the work’s major themes, are at times startlingly, refreshingly ahead of her time and at other moments disappointingly tentative or even reactionary. She has a habit, conscious or not, of hedging her bets, an unfortunate tendency that comes to the fore in the novel’s disappointing epilogue. Mr. Rochester is a tortured man who has done bad things, but he is infinitely more likable, sympathetic, and redeemable than St. John, who is the kind of man of god who uses his faith as a justification for his actions even when they are not particularly morally justifiable. Though Brontë does not say as much in her text, the comparison she mounts between Jane’s two pursuers makes a provocative suggestion about what makes a good person, and the questionable role that religion plays in dictating a person’s worth and morality. She also, of course, makes sure to cut Mr. Rochester down to size, seemingly placing Jane in the alpha position in their relationship, a move that effectively allows her to have her cake and eat it to regarding the romance and the points she is making about female autonomy and authority.
It is disappointing, then, that the novel’s epilogue pulls back from these progressive positions. Rochester’s virility and authority begin to come back once Jane has gotten pregnant, compromising her dominant role in their marriage, and, more perplexingly, Jane finishes her narration by praising St. John’s missionary work in India in language that borderlines on hagiographic. These are only the most obvious examples of Brontë’s hesitant tendency; there are moments throughout the work that fall into a similar pattern. Though there is much to recommend in Jane Eyre we must inevitably read it with a critically modern eye, fettering out those elements that may not sit well with us. The story is certainly engaging - deeply moving, even - but we nevertheless remain a degree removed from it. This can lead to productive and fascinating academic work but is something of a negative when it comes to the casual reader.