Jane Eyre movie adaptations: Why are there so many, and which is best?

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March 10 2011 7:08 AM

Up in the Eyre

Why are there so many movie adaptations of Jane Eyre, and which one is best?

Also in Slate, Dana Stevens reviews the new Jane Eyre movie.

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Players: Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt (1996)
Creep factor: Off the charts

More than any other Jane to date, Gainsbourg's seems palpably wounded: scarred but intact, cagey, conserving her every word and movement, bearing a heavy burden of experience and ghastly memories on her thin shoulders. (When she smiles, it's as if she must consciously arrange her facial muscles in the appropriate pattern—her smile has an accent like a language learned too late.) Gainsbourg is, at least to this viewer, Jane incarnate, which makes it doubly disappointing that Hurt clomps through the movie in a floppy Klonopin haze and delivers all his lines with the same eye-rolling, double-chinning sarcasm. For J&R's first embrace, he doesn't kiss her so much as lay his face on hers. One longs to spirit Gainsbourg-Jane off to Paris, where she will pioneer the trendsetting governess chic and become an early patron of Jeanne Lanvin.

Players: Samantha Morton and Ciarán Hinds (1997)
Creep factor: High

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The '90s were not a good time for Jane Eyre. Morton somehow manages to make Jane smug in this threadbare A&E production, spinning the character's profound self-possession as a twinkly-eyed superiority; she always seems on the verge of giggles. She treats her man with moony condescension, which is apt—Hinds' Rochester is a honking lech, blustering and bloviating beneath the carpet swatches on his face as if he's auditioning for the Alfred Molina role in Boogie Nights.

Players: Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens (2006)
Creep factor: None

Should the BBC receive indefinite custody of Jane Eyre? This four-hour adaptation is luscious, patient, and features a jaw-dropping proposal scene that all but shudders with swoony catharsis. Stephens has the airs and pedigree (he's the son of Dame Maggie Smith) for the upper-crust Rochester, whom he plays as shifty yet sweet, brusque yet painfully self-aware. With her rubbery features, stern slanting eyebrows, kind eyes, and resolute overbite, Wilson is gorgeous without being conventionally "pretty," and she lends her character the swagger of a tomboy: This Jane is bolder, less remote, more robust, more butch than we're used to—more explicitly a protofeminist hero, and on equal footing with her moody bastard of a mate. She is, in short, a Jane we've never met before but one we feel we know intimately, proving that no matter how many times Brontë's novel might be revived, it's still possible to make it new.

Also in Slate, Dana Stevens reviews the new Jane Eyre movie.