I am not sure why I identified with Jane Eyre as much as I did as a child since I did not go to boarding school, I wasn’t an orphan and did not have a very mean aunt or awful cousins. Yet somehow I figured out that if I had lived back in the Bronte era I was fairly certain I would have been a governess and probably would have been as easy mark for an older dude in breeches with an estate and a crazy wife locked up in an attic.
Because of this deep affection for all things Jane Eyre, not to mention other similar gothic-style novels (some even written by other Brontes), I have pretty much seen every adaptation of this creepy classic. Key word is pretty much. The book was first filmed in 1934 and the resulting film was so bad it took another (almost) ten years to give the story the cast and the crew it needed to make something memorable.
Jane Eyre 1943: this version has an all-star cast, Orson Welles as Mr. Rochester back when Welles was still kind of hot and years before he ballooned up and became the Gallo wine spokesperson of my childhood. “We will sell no wine before its time” or something like that was the slogan. Joan Fontaine, who many thought was far too pretty to play plain Jane but nonetheless pulled it off. A very young, very lovely Elizabeth Taylor as Jane’s sweet-but-doomed Lowood school friend Helen Burns, and Agnes Moorehead, who went on to play Endora the worst mother-in-law a guy in advertising could ever hope for on Bewitched. Black and white in all its glory, this one crops up on TCM and PBS occasionally and is totally worth a look.
Jane Eyre 1983: this was a BBC mini series which means it probably aired on PBS back in the day and I probably saw it but I totally don’t remember it. Since I remember most things I have ever seen on Masterpiece Theater but not this I am going to say it was not very good and not worth looking for, although if you were to look for it you could find it on Amazon Instant. It starred Timothy Dalton before he became James Bond for a bit and well after he became the president of Gallifrey (home planet of the one and only Doctor Who).
Jane Eyre 1996: Meh. William Hurt gets to be Mr. Rochester for this nineties version and that is not a Martha Stewart good thing. His leading man career was in a downward spiral and this film didn’t help. Charlotte Gainsbourg seemed like she would be a good Jane but I don’t think she was and the whole thing was such a bore by the time the crazy wife set fire to the place I didn’t much care about them or Thornfield Hall or even sweet Adele.
Jane Eyre 2006: This is my favorite adaptation so not only do I remember seeing it on Masterpiece Theater but I have loved it ever since. Ruth Wilson (that would be the one, the only, Ms. Alice Morgan from Luther) nails it as Jane, and while she is certainly cuter than we are supposed to imagine our heroine to be, I think Wilson has a quirky enough look and acting demeanor to pull it off. Toby Stephens plays Mr. Rochester in this version which is a bit steamier and sexier than the others. Works for me. Fun fact: Toby Stephens, is none other than the Dowager Countess (of Downton Abbey) herself Maggie Smith’s son.
Jane Eyre 2011: the most recent, but am sure not last, filmed version stars Michael Fassbender as the misunderstood Mr. Rochester and Mia Wasikowska as Miss Jane. I waffle back and forth about Fassy, is he attractive? Is he kinda scary? Both of which I guess are a perfect fit for a character as prickly as Mr. Rochester. Wasikowska is probably the closest in age to the character of Jane Eyre and that in itself might have been what made me stop from completely liking this as much as I should have. It is beautifully shot and it has Judi Dench as Mrs. Fairfax. Judi Dench is like the acting equivalent of the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. But Mia just seemed so much younger than Fassy that I kept waiting for Chris Hansen from Dateline’s To Catch a Predator series to show up. And that was before I had seen Shame.
Jane Eyre has also been a play (which I have seen, Guthrie Theater) and a musical (allegedly on Broadway, but didn’t last long) and if they turned it into an amusement park I would book a trip there tomorrow.