For Brooding About the Brontës, I thought I should talk about my all time favorite adaptation of Jane Eyre. I did talk about this version some years ago as part of Awesome Adaptations, but I didn't really expand on the depth of my feelings for this miniseries. There are a lot of reasons why this is my favorite, but to give this post cohesion, I want to give it a focus and that will be in it's fidelity as an adaptation. Most people who really love a book want it's adaptation to live up to whatever it was they loved about it. The plot, the characters, the tone, the feelings they got when they read it. But that's very subjective and it's difficult to translate a book to a visual medium. Usually when these people like or dislike an adaptation it's because they feel it didn't capture the book in the right way. Most of the time I think it comes down to: did the adaptation fulfill your perception of the book or not. And for me, this adaptation fulfilled my perception of Jane Eyre because of it's fidelity to the novel.
Jane Eyre 1973 is a version that many love because it's so faithful. Personally I think it is the most faithful, because while it omits scenes, it adds or embroiders very little. I would say the adaptation that is also often cited as the most faithful - the 1983 adaptation, added a bit more to the story. But many people also find fault with this adaptation because it is too faithful (someone is always unhappy!) I see disparaging comments on the voiceovers in this version which takes viewers out of the story (even though the voiceover supplies narrative from the novel), or on the feeling that this version is boring because it features a lot of almost verbatim dialogue from the book. And the staging and visuals of the production are quite dry.
I have to agree that the production values in this version aren't the most captivating. It's a good indication of the budget and value the BBC put on period dramas at the time. They just didn't have a lot of money. And it's unfortunate because if the film quality was better, and the camera took advantage of the setting and the vistas - OMG, this version would be too perfect. My heart wouldn't be able to take it. For the voiceovers, I don't have much of an opinion about it actually. I have seen that a good adaptation can work without them, but I also love Charlotte Brontë's words and I don't mind that this version takes the time to let the audience hear Jane's thoughts. I'm still caught up in the story, and I don't feel it a break in the narrative at all. As an argument for it though, I would say that it can allow the viewer to feel the same sort of intimate knowledge of Jane as you do when you read the novel with how it's filtered through Jane's thoughts. It's the filmic equivalent of Jane addressing the "reader", without the extreme corniness of her looking into camera and winking perhaps. Thankfully no adaptation has done that... yet.
The script, a highlight of this adaptation, is very close to the novel. I believe that most of it takes verbatim text, with just trimming of lines and scenes and the addition of brief connecting dialogue to keep the whole thing from being 16 hours long. I love that about this version, because to me it's like watching the book come to life. Some people may feel that so much dialogue is not necessary and comes off clunky, but to those people I say 'sshhhh'. If you love the novel, you should at least appreciate the fact that this version loves it too, and honors it by not hacking and slashing inordinately. There are so many quotes from the book that are dear to me, and I am delighted that I can hear them in this version. The feel of this miniseries is definitely one of a high quality play production with some very talented actors, so to have them "speak the speech" "trippingly on the tongue" - it's glorious. And it lends some distinction to the script because some of the nuances that you pick up from the novel are in this version. The humor of Jane and Rochester for instance. Jane's ironic wit is not lost, and neither is Rochester's teasing, sarcastic humor. For a story that often comes across as highly emotionally overwrought in many adaptations, it's nice to get the lighter side of the story coming through.
First Sorcha Cusack has more of a lightness to Jane that most adaptations don't show - with Rochester saying all of these unexpected things to her, Jane is matched with him in banter. Jane is so often shown as submissive and meek in her first interactions with Rochester, and it's refreshing to see that Sorcha's Jane has more pep, and can smile a bit at how ridiculous Rochester can be. Jane does not respond conventionally to Rochester, and that spark in their exchanges, not only in the quick way they trade lines, but also in the flashes of a smile or a twinkle in the acting just make this scene more engaging. Their conversation is a strange one - Rochester is asking for comment on his looks, touching on an obviously painful past to a governess he hardly knows, talking in the abstract about repentance and regeneration - I mean, what kind of ice breakers are these?? There should be some humor as well as the tension and the attraction between the two.
I do love Sorcha's Jane so much in this scene, but her Jane is reacting to Rochester, and it's Rochester that has to do the heavy lifting. I could write endlessly about how brilliant of an actor Michael Jayston is, but I'll keep it to just his acting as Rochester. My Rochester - the one I grew to love from reading the book in high school - is a strange man. 'Changeful and abrupt' is a good way to start thinking about him. And if you watch Michael Jayston's performance carefully (or obsessively in my case) you can see how natural he is at embodying that. His changes in mood are so natural, his line readings - from sardonic, teasing, mock outrage, to thoughtful, pensive, and dark - are fluid and nuanced. I feel like the best Jane Eyre adaptations make the story natural and flowing and realistic. And as unrealistic as Mr. Rochester can be with his speech, his actions and his sort of overshadowing presence, Michael Jayston fixes so much of that for me because he makes him feel real. If it's weird that Mr. Rochester would open his arms and say "Come in bonny wanderer" to welcome an imaginary angel, Jayston makes it seem like the perfect and most natural movement to illustrate his contemplative state. I admit, I fell in love with this adaptation about 10 years ago and Michael Jayston's voice is always in my head now when I read Rochester's words. The presence he gave the character made the character real to me. I feel like he's the Rochester equivalent to Darcy and Colin Firth. He just is Mr. Rochester.
I should also mention the other stand-out portrayal in this version which is Blanche Ingram. I still haven't seen an actress play Blanche as well as Stephanie Beacham. Sure, it's not a hugely important part of the overall story, but I'm not just saying that Blanche here is really well done - I'm saying she is far and away the best I've seen. Not only does she fit the physical description from the book (which I generally just appreciate, since Blanche is blonde so often in other adaptations), her performance is so natural for a character who is almost a caricature of a mean girl. Even though Blanche is spoiled and petty and full of pride, Stephanie manages to make her extremely attractive. It's not hard at all to think that Mr. Rochester might be stupid enough to want to marry her. I feel like that is the mark of a good Blanche. That she can seem even remotely attractive, and attractive in her flirtations despite her personality (and not come off as trying too hard, or whiny or manipulative like she can be in other adaptations.)
Alright, I think I've droned on about this version for too long, so I'll try to wrap up my thoughts. If you haven't seen this version and you're prepared to indulge yourself in some old-fashioned aesthetics and a focus on quality acting, I think this version will delight you. The attention to detail, the way Charlotte Brontë's words are brought to life, and the real emotional weight of these characters which is brought through in the acting should also appeal, especially to the devout Jane Eyre fans. I hope I'm not overselling this version, but in case you think I am, please understand that I've watched it more times than I can count over the course of 10 years, and it is ingrained in me. For me, I can't sell this version enough!