Penelope Jenkins writes about a Brontë Society event with the writer of the new film, Moira Buffini, and its producer, Alison Owen, which took place on 17 September.
There have been over 30 film and television adaptations of Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre. The latest, showing until October 6th at Warwick Arts Centre, stars Mia Wasikowska as Jane and Michael Fassbender as Mr Rochester. At a recent Brontë Society event the film’s screenwriter, Moira Buffini, and producer, Alison Owen, revealed how they adapted the novel from page to screen.
Producer Alison Owen, known for her previous films Elizabeth and The Other Boleyn Girl was certain that there was room for another film of Jane Eyre. “I didn’t feel that there had been a definitive version and wanted to make a film with a younger Jane – others had been made with an older Jane. The novel is about the discovery of sexuality and emotion," she explains.
Thankfully the film’s backers, BBC Films, didn’t need much persuading to produce a 2011 version, despite BBC television screening its own adaption as recently as 2006. Screenwriter Moira Buffini, with whom Owen previously worked on the film Tamara Drewe, was passionate about the story she wanted to write. “The novel covers society, poverty, women and men, and is not just a love story.” It was her job to distil the novel into 120 minutes of screen time, not an easy task considering the complexity of the novel and its structure. “I could imagine all the scenes dramatically but by the end of the first draft I knew the structure of the book wasn’t going to work on screen,” she says. “Until Jane leaves Thornfield it was going swimmingly. In dramatic terms you want to be tightening everything up and racking up tension, but then introducing a year, a new family and lots of characters didn’t work.”
Buffini’s solution was to begin the film with Jane’s flight from Thornfield Hall. The viewer sees her previous experiences filtered through Jane’s memory. “I think the Rivers are important and really interesting characters,” Buffini explains. “In terms of the austerity of their house and what Jane has been offered by Rochester you can see what her alternative would be.”
Owen and Buffini felt that the story became more powerful when they cut away extraneous material.
Owen and Buffini both recognise that the casualty of this structure and screen time for the Rivers (with Jamie Bell giving an excellent performance as the sympathetic yet repressed St John Rivers) is the amount of screen time devoted to Jane’s formative years at Lowood and her relationship with Helen Burns. Buffini thinks, however, that “because you are looking through Jane’s memory you can be selective”. More scenes at Lowood were shot but Owen and Buffini felt that the story became more powerful when they cut away extraneous material.
There’s powerful chemistry between Jane and Mr Rochester, with the age difference between the actors emphasising Jane’s youth and inexperience. Mrs Fairfax, effortlessly played by Dame Judi Dench, acts as a mother figure, warning Jane to keep Rochester at arms’ length until their wedding, advising that “men don’t often marry their governesses”. Buffini says that they were incredibly lucky with the casting of Wasikowska and Fassbender. “Mia’s intelligence shines through which is one of the qualities that Jane has. Fassbender made Rochester’s authority look effortless. The pair talk each other into love in very difficult language.” Neither actor wanted the language modernising to make it easier to speak.
Ellen Page, the star of the offbeat film Juno, had been the first actress the pair talked to for the part of Jane. Owen is open when it comes to the vicissitudes of casting. They needed an actress who was well known enough to draw in audiences and satisfy the financiers, but who also could equate to the budget. Page was unconfident about tackling the Yorkshire accent (Yorkshire and its moors play a key scenic role in the film) which is when the team talked to Wasikowska. She had been cast as Alice in Tim Burton’s version of Alice in Wonderland and showed potential to become a huge star. As Jane they saw a naivety about her, bringing home to the viewer that Jane is experiencing situations and emotions for the first time. Importantly she and Fassbender have the Yorkshire accent down to a tee, belying their Australian and German/Irish roots.
Jane Eyre is, as classic works of fiction go, relatively cheap to make. Jane Eyre, Owen admits with a chuckle, is, as classic works of fiction go, relatively cheap to make. Unlike Pride and Prejudice or Vanity Fair there are no balls, street scenes and sumptuous location changes. The 2011 Jane Eyre, she says, is a film for austerity times on an austerity budget.
The film’s director, Cary Joji Fukunaga, had a clear idea for the way it was to look. Whilst he includes the wild lushness of the Yorkshire scenery there’s also a starkness to his visual direction, making use of low levels of light and gloomy rooms lit by fire or candlelight. Sticking to the original text in an almost documentary way, he avoids the pomp and finery of many classic novel adaptations that become mere heritage productions, bedecked with antiques, carriages and nostalgic representations of yesteryear. In Jane Eyre there’s no unnecessary visual detail.
“We wanted to make the Jane Eyre for our times,” Buffini says. “We wanted to show how modern she still is and how her story is still relevant to us, particularly to young women.” Will this in the future be thought of as the definitive adaptaton? “Someone will come along later and make another for their times,” she says, but the team hope that theirs will be the benchmark from which to measure it by.
Penelope Jenkins is Editorial Assistant for the Knowledge Centre at Warwick University and a member of the Brontë Society. This article first appeared on the Knowledge Centre's website, which can be accessed here.