There have been over sixteen English language film versions of Jane Eyre, beginning in 1910 with the first of eight silent movies based on the book. There are even more if you include versions filmed in other languages, and more than that if you consider adaptations more loosely based on the story. (Including a 1943 horror movie involving a zombie. Who knew?) It’s entirely possible that - in the interest of research - I have watched most of these film adaptations of Jane Eyre. And equally possible that I created an elaborate rating system to determine the merits of each film.
Warning: this is a long post. At some points, it devolves into a sort of stream-of-consciousness thing akin to Movie Yelling on The Toast. But probably not as funny. For the three of you who continue to read this, I’ll assume that you’re equally obsessed with Jane Eyre and are therefore okay with this. Everyone else, you might as well leave now. Go get a burrito or something.
Warning, part deux: do I even have to mention SPOILER ALERT? This post is basically one big spoiler. I’ve probably already spoiled something by now. Why are you reading this if you haven’t read the book?
Through much deliberation, I have written this in order of rank, from worst to best. Some films required more deliberation than others. Full disclosure, I omitted the 1996 Zeffirelli version because although Anna Paquin was amazing, I could not get over the casting of William Hurt as Rochester. Even the best movie falls short of the actual book - obviously. Important elements that were taken into consideration include, but are not limited to:
Child Star Rating
Laughability of scenes in which the lead actors refer to themselves as unattractive
Craziness level of the attic wife
Adherence to the book
Bonus points were given if the film included the fortune teller scene. Because it is the best.
Jane Eyre 1934 starring Virginia Bruce & Colin Clive
I sought this out specifically in the interest of watching ALL THE ADAPTATIONS. It was even worse than expected.
Laughability of scenes in which the lead actors refer to themselves as unattractive: No only do both child Jane and adult Jane have long blonde ringlets, not only are they straight up pretty, but adult Jane isn’t even wearing the required Quakerish frocks and the traditional unflattering Brontë hairstyle. I am appalled.
Adherence to the book: If they could change it, they did. Seriously as I watch their stupid pretty simpering faces, I can’t help but be completely outraged. HOW DARE YOU CALL YOURSELVES JANE AND MR ROCHESTER??? Grrr.
Summary: Ugh, this is the worst. These are basically completely different characters who happen to be living out the plot from Jane Eyre. Did not finish.
Jane Eyre 1970 starring Susannah York & George C. Scott
I’ve have never even tried to watch this one previously -- my expectations are low based on the fact that it’s from the seventies and neither of the leads fits my idea of Jane or Mr Rochester. But I do it for you, reader.
Child Star Rating: Pretty good. Young Jane looked too old, but she did a good job with the part. Little Adele is very good. Small, cute, and believably French.
Laughability of scenes in which the lead actors refer to themselves as unattractive: George C. Scott might qualify, but Susannah York more than makes up for it by being SO FAR from plain that it is completely ridiculous. I mean, really, if you’re going to cast someone who was later eulogized as an English Rose, maybe cut that dialogue about not being pretty from the movie.
Craziness level of the attic wife: Crazy, but not crazy enough to tear the veil. More catatonic than maniacal. MORE IMPORTANTLY, when he introduces them, Rochester tells Jane he “loved her as I love you know” WTF that is not how Bronte wrote it.
Production values: Seventies era. What can I say.
Cinematography: See also - production values.
Adherence to the book: Fail. Gateshead is completely cut out of the story, dialogue is changed -- key dialogue like Helen Burns’ death scene (they completely ignore the character’s piety and instead make her a kid who doesn’t know she’s dying). They also take morality out of it completely when Jane talks of leaving Rochester as he tries to convince her to live as his mistress. Instead of self-respect and God, she talks about “rights.” It seems all reference to religion is to be erased from this version. Whatever you think of religion, it’s integral to Jane’s character and the entire book, and therefore I heartily object.
Gothic Level: Low.
Gypsy Disguise Watch: Nope.
Summary: OH, god this is terrible. George C. Scott must be the worst Rochester ever - he looks like he’s Jane’s grandfather (even though the actors weren't that far apart in age.) He doesn’t even have a British accent, he just speaks in that weird early Hollywood American with British affectation type deal.
Don’t do it. Save yourself.
Jane Eyre (BBC miniseries) 2003 starring Ruth Wilson & Toby Stephens
Full disclosure: the first time I tried to watch this version, I had to stop because I was so mad about the way they completely deviated from the dialogue in the book. This time I was able to watch it as a story based on Jane Eyre, rather than an actual version of Jane Eyre, and was therefore able to appreciate it for what it is.
Child star rating: Young Jane is serviceable - we don’t spend a lot of time with her. In fact, one of the best things this version has going for it is the way it races through the scenes at Gateshead Hall and (especially) Lowood, getting right to the good stuff with Mr. Rochester. These scenes seem especially stylized, which works for the film but lacks the rich character of the novel and the other versions. It’s as though instead of detailed watercolor, they use broad strokes in charcoal. Adele looks like a teenager when she should be a six year old, but since we’ve just decided to IGNORE THE BOOK, no big deal.
Laughability of scenes where the lead actors refer to themselves as unattractive: I actually think Toby Stephens, while not ugly, fits Bronte’s description of Mr. Rochester well. Ruth Wilson obviously doesn’t count as plain, although I find her lips really distracting. It’s hard to think of her as my Jane.
Craziness level of the attic wife: Grace Poole gets a lot of screentime, and she does a good job. Bertha has awfully well groomed hair for someone who’s supposed to be crazy. She’s not really scary at all, even though she does curse in Spanish.
Production values: Very good
Cinematography: As with the 2011 version, the scenes at Thornfield are quite dark. The newer versions seem to play up the Gothic aspect of the book through dark interior shots, as though pairing these with a pedestrian take on the love story will make up for the lack of passion. Ahem.
Adherence to the book: Meh. It feels like the story as related by Charlotte Bronte is sketched in broad strokes, which are filled in with some kind of modernized version that feels very flat to me. I strongly object to the way they ignore the original dialogue but then take the time to add in a lot of bosh about science vs religion, etc cetera. If I had never read the book, I might like this version but the reason they’re even making a miniseries of it is that it’s a GODDAM CLASSIC. So use it!
Gothic level: Nothing to write home about.
Gypsy Disguise Watch: They reworked the gypsy fortune telling scene in a way that really works, so I give them figurative points for that.
Summary: While it improved on a second viewing, and I can appreciate it for what it is, I can’t get past the changes to the dialogue, which I feel are for the worst.
Jane Eyre 1943 starring Orson Welles & Joan Fontaine
Another one I tried to watch and abandoned. But I love Orson Welles, so it only seems fair to give it another try.
Child star rating: Were child actors better in the 40s? Elizabeth Taylor famously plays Helen Burns in an early, uncredited role. They really breeze through the scenes at Gateshead, in less than 10 minutes Jane is on her way to Lowood. Little Jane is perfect, too -- starting off meek and timid and bursting out passionately when falsely accused by Mrs Reed. Margaret O’Brien is terrific as Adele, despite her lackluster French accent. But since she was only SIX YEARS OLD at the time, it’s not that bad. Fun fact: she’s eighty now, and still acting!
Laughability of scenes in which the lead actors refer to themselves as unattractive: Not even the terrible Jane Eyre hairstyle can take away from Joan Fontaine’s perfect face. So, pretty hilarious. Young Orson Welles was not unattractive, but at least his personal allure is not quite in the style of a traditionally handsome man. One can almost see him at a pattern for Rochester. Fun fact, Joan Fontaine also played the "plain girl" in Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 version of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, which most agree was a retelling of the Jane Eyre story.
Craziness level of the attic wife: So crazy we are not even allowed to see her.
Production values: Decent.
Cinematography: Moody and delicious black and white. There are a few shots that are truly outstanding, like the one where Little Jane is standing on a stool and the shadows cast around her look like prison bars.
Adherence to the book: Cardinal sin - they start the credits in the form of turning book pages, and when they focus in on “Jane Eyre, Chapter One” IT’S NOT THE ACTUAL TEXT. However, a lot of the dialogue between Jane and Rochester is verbatim from the book, and Rochester’s words really come alive through Welles. They completely cut the parts at Moor House, combining St John Rivers with the pharmacist character into something completely new, presumably in the interest of time? Meh.
Gothic level: The melodramatic music, the black and white, Orson Welles in a billowing cloak. SWOON.
Gypsy Disguise: No scene, of course, but a sly nod to it when a gypsy approaches the newly engaged couple and Welles says they are going to make their fortunes themselves.
Summary: Neither my favorite Jane Eyre nor my favorite Orson Welles flick. But if you’ve exhausted all of the other versions and you want to see that billowing cloak, it’s worth watching on YouTube.
Jane Eyre 2011 starring Mia Wasikowska & Michael Fassbender
Of course I saw this in the theater and have watched it at least once since. But I'm willing to make the sacrifice and watch Michael Fassbender for another two hours.
Child star rating: Is it just my imagination or do child Jane and Adele look like they could be sisters? Child Jane is too big, as usual.
Laughability of scenes in which the lead actors refer to themselves as unattractive: SO LAUGHABLE. Even in Rochester’s post-fire scene when he’s supposed to be looking quite beastly, Michael Fassbender just looks like the lost Avett brother. I guess when your star is that pretty you don’t want to cover him with a scar? JUST BECAUSE IT’S IN THE BOOK.
Craziness level of the attic wife: Low, very low; she looks like she should be taking a selfie at Coachella with her artfully disheveled hair and flowy gown.
Production values: The Best.
Cinematography: Also The Best. It feels like it plays a leading role and elevates other elements that are lacking.
Adherence to the book: Middling. A lot of stuff gets cut, as usual (looking at you Gypsy Rochester!) including some pretty major stuff like the fact that Jane and St. John are ACTUALLY RELATED. Meanwhile, Jane’s random doll gets a lot of screen time.
Gothic level: For all its natural lighting, it seems very atmospheric to me. Interior shots lit only by candles, a muted color palette, and lots of storms. Second only to the Orson Welles version to me.
Gypsy Disguise Watch: No. Obviously not. But I would have like to have seen a cross-dressing Michael Fassbender, wouldn't you?
BONUS RANT: Are you telling me with that huge budget, they couldn’t find a Newfie to play Pilot?
Summary: This whole film is a paean to Mia Wasikowska’s tiny waist and moody lighting effects, not necessarily in that order.
As much as I love Michael Fassbender, I find this version of the love story to be a bit perfunctory, missing the sparkling/teasing dialogue and the passion that Jane and Rochester have in the book. Mia’s Jane, in particular, is so grim that she takes all of the fun out of it. Although she looks great in a corset.
It was a bold move starting the way they do instead of with the typical Jane vs John Reid grudge match. The first time I saw it, I was absolutely shocked, but they have my respect for at least having a new take on the material, even if that take is a bit too glossy and heartless for me.
Jane Eyre 1997 starring Samantha Morton & Ciaran Hinds
I have watched this one several times previously, but I will watch it again. For science.
Child Star Rating: Young Jane is excellent -- possibly my favorite. However, she is balanced out by one of the worst Adeles. Too big, not cute, and just annoying.
Laughability of scenes in which the lead actors refer to themselves as unattractive: How do I put this nicely? Finally leads that are not Hollywood pretty! Ciaran Hinds, while dashing in Persuasion (please watch immediately if you haven’t seen it) really embraces the role. And Samantha Morton does, too.
Craziness level of the attic wife: Pretty crazy. But where did she get that red lipstick.
Production values: Fair to middling.
Cinematography: Bland. Not bad but not noteworthy, either.
Adherence to the book: It’s too short to be very true to the text. They cut the childhood scenes down to about ten minutes, and cut and changed the Moor House part in a way that completely changes Jane’s situation -- eg., she is no longer an heiress or related to the Rivers family. So major points get deducted for that. The chemistry between Morton and Hinds works, and they keep some of the dialogue. Special shout out to Gemma Jones for being a great Mrs Fairfax.
Gothic level: Low. There’s way too much sunshine and green grass featured. Hinds’ Mr Rochester is more peevish than brooding. There’s not even a lightning strike.
Gypsy Disguise: It’s like it never even existed.
Summary: Let’s just get this out of the way - oh god the proposal scene! Worst kiss EVAR. Samantha Morton does this thing wherein her way of conveying sexual excitement is to roll her eyes back in her head and gape her mouth. Consequently, watching her “kiss” Mr Rochester during the proposal scene is so squirmingly uncomfortable, it takes away from the entire production for me. However, in many ways I find this to be an excellent adaptation and a generally good film. Not my platonic ideal, but worth watching if you’re a Jane Eyre fan.
Jane Eyre (BBC miniseries) 1983 starring Zelah Clarke & Timothy Dalton
I may have lost count of how many times I’ve watched this version.
Child star rating: Starting with the opening line of the book A++ and then we see our terrible Child Jane who is (as always) way too big. She’s particularly sturdy looking and has the added detriment of looking nothing like Zelah Clarke who plays Regular Jane. Even with the time provided by the format, they completely miss the change from docile Jane to her moment of revolt against John Reid. She starts out officious when she should be meek so that when she tussles with him on the floor, it looks like something they’ve been doing for years. But to be fair, Adele might be my favorite of the Adeles.
Laughability of scenes in which the lead actors refer to themselves as unattractive: I feel like this is somewhat up for debate, especially as regards Timothy Dalton. While the leads are not empirically unattractive, they don’t make me roll my eyes too hard.
Craziness level of the attic wife: I would not want to run into her on a flaming rooftop.
Production values: 1980s BBC, so pretty much what you’d expect. Sets mostly look like they were filmed in someone’s older aunt’s fancy house.
Cinematography: Possibly the worst. Between the Sunday visit to your aunt’s house sets and all the stupid daylight, this is completely lacking in Gothic visual awesomeness.
Adherence to the book: Excellent.
Gothic level: To reiterate, it’s really lacking in the Gothic department. Don’t get me started on Jane’s arrival at Thornfield IN THE DAYLIGHT. Also, Thornfield, which is surrounded by a thoroughly un-Gothic green lawn.
Gypsy Disguise Watch: Guys, it happened!! And it was just as amazing as I hoped it would be. No one else in the history of Jane Eyre films pulled it off, but I think it worked.
Summary: Despite my grousing about the lack of Gothic splendor, the low production values, and the terrible young Jane, this is actually my favorite adaptation! Maybe it’s a bit of a cheat, since it’s a miniseries and not a feature length film, but I can’t resist all of the delicious dialogue, especially the banter between Jane and Rochester. I feel like the lead actors really capture various facets of their roles and that we see more moods from them than we do in most productions. And let’s not forget there’s that fortune teller scene!
Wow, if you've made it this far, you are either a huge Jane Eyre fan or really bored. Maybe both? Tell me your favorite version and what criteria do you use! And if your preferred version was lower on the list than you thought it should be, keep in mind that other than maintaining the 1983 version as my favorite (and disliking the 1943 and 1970 versions), I found it really challenging to rank everything else. I'm prepared to be swayed. After all, any excuse to watch Jane Eyre...