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 Brontė'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 Brontė'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 Brontė'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 paperboard slipcase.
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 Brontė, 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.