Jane Eyre is one of my
favorite books, so of course I'm interested in film or television
adaptations of it. A fairly long novel, with a complex plot, it's
best handled in a miniseries, with the multiple episodes allowing for
development of Jane's life and adventures. I consider the 1983
adaptation with Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clarke to be outstanding,
but I'm always open to a new favorite, so I was eager to see what the
1973 version had to offer.
Well... apparently this version is
beloved by at least a certain percentage of viewers. I think that
whatever appeal the 1973 Jane Eyre has goes to show the power
of Charlotte Brontë's
storytelling: even with a dramatization as dreadful as this, the
inherent power and drama of the book and its characters manages to
show through, somehow, to at least some people. Not, alas, to me.
Let me offer a disclaimer. I watched
this DVD when I'd re-read Jane Eyre fairly recently, so the
original novel was fresh in my mind. I suspect that the contrast
between the effectiveness of the story as written, and its portrayal
on-screen, made the faults of the television version stand out more
clearly than perhaps they would have otherwise. (Or perhaps not.)
This Jane Eyre starts off by
exhibiting, in the first episode (nay, in the first fifteen minutes)
all the faults that it will demonstrate throughout its five 50-minute
episodes. As the series opens, we meet the young Jane and her
obnoxious aunt and cousins, who treat the orphan Jane with contempt.
It's an essential part of the story that we see this, and that we see
Jane's odd mix of quietness and rebellion, but it's badly mishandled
here. The episode tries to establish the character of Jane within the
first few minutes... but such a complex character as Jane's is not
easily represented in ten minutes or so. The Reeds are represented
more grotesquely than they need to be, but Jane is presented rather
colorlessly (due, I suspect, to a less than ideal choice of actor for
the young Jane). The important scene involving the "Red Room"
is rushed and badly handled, so that as a result what should be a
defining moment in Jane's inner life feels awkward and pointless. We
don't have much time to reflect on that, though, because the series
hurries on to Lowood School, and on, and on, presenting us with
set-piece after set-piece from the book, but not developing any of
them in a meaningful way.
I think the issue here is that, from
the very beginning, this series shows a tension between "showing"
and "telling": repeatedly, we'll be shown a scene that
advances the plot or develops the characters... and then we're told,
via the voiceover, what happened. Not only do we get comments that
show Jane's internal reactions, but even comments that describe
things like the other characters' expressions, behavior, or
reactions. What are the actors supposed to be doing, then? (Not much
of use, apparently.) Not only is the voiceover redundant, it's also
often quite intrusive, jumping in and out of a scene repeatedly -
even, sometimes, between lines of dialogue from the actors.
I get the impression that the
filmmakers are trying to exactly represent the book, which is
narrated in the first person and is filled with Jane's observations
and reflections on what she experiences. Unfortunately, such a
translation is impossible. In a sense, "faithful is as faithful
does": though the series tries to get exactly the same content
as the book, by trying so hard, it actually misses the grace and
power of the book by a mile. This version of Jane Eyre feels
very much like an animated picture-book, giving us acted-out scenes
from the novel, laced together by bits of narrative voiceover.
The odd pacing and artificiality of
the voiceover would perhaps be forgivable, if it weren't for one
other key factor: the acting is dreadful. It really is. The actors
all seem to be cast to type fairly well, in the sense that they all
look more or less like how they're described in Brontë's
novel, but unfortunately that isn't enough. The acting is almost
universally over-theatrical, ringing false and often sounding
unbearably cheesy. (One actor who seems to handle his material
reasonably well is Geoffrey Whitehead, as St.John Rivers; sadly, he
doesn't have much company here.) Is it the quality of the actors? Is
it the quality of the adaptation, which seems to reduce Brontë's
prose to awkward and melodramatic lines of dialogue? Both, I would
say; the rather lifeless direction doesn't help much, either.
The five 50-minute episodes are
packaged in two DVDs, each in plastic keepcases, inside a glossy
The outdoor scenes are extremely
soft and grainy, with a lot of obvious and distracting print flaws.
The dark scenes have too much contrast, so that the characters are
nearly swallowed up in blackness. The indoor scenes are clearer, but
there are some colored halos, and edge enhancement. Overall, the
program is watchable, but the age of the print is sadly evident, and
the poor quality of the image is a distraction. The episodes appear
in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
The soundtrack is adequate; the
actors' voices are presented clearly and without distortion. The
volume is slightly muted overall, so it is necessary to turn the
volume up considerably.
Disc 1 has a text biography of
Charlotte Brontë, and
cast filmographies. There are no other special features.
I really can't recommend this
version of Jane Eyre at all. For a miniseries that's both
faithful to the book and well handled as a television production, I
would point you toward the 1983 version with Timothy Dalton; that's
the version that does justice to a great book. This 1973 version,
though, just hasn't aged well at all, and I really don't suggest
bothering with it. Even if you liked it when it was originally on
television, the transfer quality is poor enough that you should give
it a second thought before you bother with it. Skip it.