Jane Eyre and the perfect enchilada

There was a time in my childhood when my mom was on a quest to find the perfect enchilada.  She tried out numerous recipes, and every one was, somehow, disappointing — too dry, too bland, you name it.   I don’t remember her ever finding the perfect enchilada during my childhood, but a few years back, when I was hosting a party for Scott’s birthday, she shared a recipe from a cookbook she bought in New Mexico.  It was the best enchilada I’ve had outside a restaurant, and I guess it’s proof that if you are willing to keep up the search, you will eventually be rewarded.

I thought of Mom’s enchilada quest just recently, as I watched the latest film version of Jane Eyre.   For about the last fifteen years, I’ve been on my own quest to find the perfect Jane Eyre movie adaptation.  And though some have come close, none of them has ever been exactly right … until now.   This movie was, in a word, excellent.

And believe you me, I am picky about my Jane Eyres.  I first read the novel in sixth grade, when  much of it flew right over my head.  A few years later, though, I re-read it, and the novel sank into my very bones.  When I lived abroad the year after graduating from college, my battered paperback edition came with me.  Like Jane, I was thirsting for new adventure, encountering surprising new experiences and constantly navigating the line between throwing myself into them with wild abandon and not losing my moral center.   Jane was a fabulous companion for that  journey.  For years, I’ve wanted to see a movie adaptation that was worthy of the book.  And guess what?  I’ve found it.

(Before going on, let me say that there will be some spoilers in what I say.  If you’ve never read Jane Eyre, you should stop reading this post.  Actually, if you’ve never read Jane Eyre, you should stop reading this post and immediately go start reading Jane Eyre, because yes, it’s that good.  And then please come back and tell me how you liked it, okay?)

So what worked in this movie version:

1)  Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester.  Great casting.  He really captured the tortured quality of the man, and his desire for redemption.   Too many of the other movie Rochesters act just plain angry, which frankly makes the character come across (pardon my French) as a real jackass.  Rochester only really works as a character if you understand that his brusqueness is the result of someone who knows he’s made an epic mistake, and who keeps on making more epic mistakes in an effort to correct that first one, while still painfully aware that he is going about it wrong.  It’s not easy to communicate this on-screen, but the actor nailed it.

2) Mia Wasikowska as Jane.  I’d never seen her before in any films (yes, I totally missed the Alice in Wonderland of a few years ago), and she also did a great job of not making Jane into a namby-pamby goody-two-shoes.   What’s tough about the character is that so much of her depth and passion is lived in her thoughts, not in her interactions with the other characters; I think it takes a very sensitive actress to show those depths on her face.  She manages to make Jane both believably Victorian and totally modern.

3) The screenplay.  It’s tough to distill this novel into a two-hour movie, but this screenplay did a great job of being economical while still including a few extra little touches to enhance the characters.   I also love how they started the movie with Jane fleeing from Rochester and being taken in by the Rivers family, with the rest of the story told in flashback.  That established a certain tension (why is this girl wandering the moors so upset and all alone?) and also helped draw connections between her formative years (oh, that terrible school!) and the woman she became.

4) Judi Dench.  Any movie is better with her in it.

5) Giving enough weight to the character of St. John Rivers.  You might recall, fellow Eyre-heads, that after Jane flees from Rochester, she is taken in by the Rivers siblings.  St. John, the clergyman, proposes marriage and tells her that she should come with him to India as a missionary — not because he loves her, but because it would be noble of her to dedicate her life to God’s service.   This section takes up almost an entire third of the book.   In most movie adaptations, they give it ten minutes, which always makes me want to throw something at the screen.  Because the whole point of this second proposal (which Jane rejects, smart girl that she is), is to show that Jane knows what she wants and will not settle for less.  Rochester offers her passion without morality; St. John offers her morality without passion.   The book shows us that the second option is just as soul-killing as the first. Jane knows that a marriage without love would compromise her very sense of self, just as love without marriage would do.   And she knows herself well enough to refuse both options — only to be rewarded, movingly, in the end.

This film version really *gets* that.  Rather than treating the St. John section as a boring episode to rush through before getting Jane back to the now-blind-and-reformed Rochester,  they do let us see his religious extremism, and the way that he tries to guilt her into marrying him.  (He’s an even more chilling character in the book.)   I’ve long had a hunch that Charlotte Bronte’s creation of St. John as a character speaks volumes about her own understanding of God.  She seems to have believed that God wants us to live moral lives, yes, but — above all — he also wants us to live joyful ones.    The book has survived over the generations for many reasons, but I think that implicit message is a large part of its appeal.  There are lots of things in this world that look like they’ll lead you to  joy (Rochester tries most of them in his wanderings about the continent), but this book says that the real thing is worth waiting for — even if it requires tremendous amounts of self-knowledge and patience.

I had to wait a long time to find the perfect Jane Eyre, too.  And I’m happy that the wait is over.

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