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The Many Faces of Jane Eyre

Joan Fontaine as Jane Eyre in the 1944 film
(Wikimedia Commons | 20th Century Fox)

It's been 160 years since Charlotte Brontë's death 31 March 1855. Yet her best-loved creation, Jane Eyre, still endures. Jane's story resonates with audiences long after its original publication – we cringe at the way the young orphan is treated by relatives and teachers; we worry with Jane about the mysterious events at Mr. Rochester's home; we sigh happily when Jane and Rochester are able to be together at last. We love Jane Eyre for her independence, her passion, her ability to understand and forgive others.

It's those qualities that have kept audiences coming back to Jane Eyre year after year – not just to the original book, but to dozens of adaptations and reimaginings for stage, screen and the printed word. Today we look at a few notable takes on Eyre.

 

 

Jane Eyre, 1944 (Wikimedia Commons)The classic 1944 film wasn't the first big-screen Jane Eyre – it was preceded by five silent films and a 1934 talkie – but it was far above its predecessors in terms of star power. With Orson Welles as Rochester and Joan Fontaine as Jane, the movie offered a moody, foggy atmosphere that was true to Brontë's gothic romance. Welles contributed enough to the movie's artistic vision – the fog and long shadows were reportedly his ideas – that he was offered a producer's credit, but he turned it down. Another of this adaptation's claims to fame: it includes a very young Elizabeth Taylor in an uncredited role as Jane's childhood friend Helen.

There have been several musical adaptations of Jane Eyre. A notable one is the Tony-nominated 2000 Broadway musical. Though it ran only six months, it gained a cult following and earned Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for Marla Schaffel as Jane. It joins other adaptations in a musical trend that's heated up over the past 15 years: a 1994 ballet created by the London Children's Ballet, operas by John Joubert in 1997 and Michael Berkeley in 2000, a symphony by Michael Bosc in 2009, and other, less successful stage musicals.

The BBC has displayed an understandable love for Jane Eyre over the years. It has produced not one, not two, but four television versions: in 1963, 1973, 1983 and, after a bit of a delay, 2006. Respectively, they starred as Jane the actresses Ann Bell, Sorcha Cusack, Zelah Clarke and Ruth Wilson. In the United States, fans of PBS' Masterpiece Theatre may have caught the most recent version when it was broadcast here in 2007. Reviewers loved it, and it won Emmys for Art Direction, Costumes and Hairstyling.

Wide Sargasso Sea (Wikimedia Commons)Jane Eyre adaptations go beyond stage and screen. Authors have been inspired to write sequels, prequels, retellings and more. Written in 1963, Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea tells the story of Bertha Mason, Mr. Rochester's former wife whose madness leads him to confine her to the attic and conceal her existence from Jane. The retelling explores her early life and allows her to be more than just the inconvenient madwoman – she's young and beautiful and complex. Jasper Fforde's 2001 The Eyre Affair takes the plot of Jane Eyre and turns it on its ear as part of a goofy, crime-solving romp through Eyre and other novels. In last year's Jane Slayre, author Sherri Browning Erwin runs with recent trends as she turns Jane into a vampire killer. And there are more, from Rochester's point of view to Adele's, from Daphne du Maurier's Eyre-inspired Rebecca to the recent young-adult novel Jane Airhead.

Taking the reins in 2011 is a new film adaptation starring Mia Wasikowska as Jane and Michael Fassbender as Rochester. It starts in the middle of the story and tells many of the novel's events in flashback, allowing a tightened version of the story for modern (read: impatient) movie audiences. The locations offer Gothic gloom to compare with what Orson Welles gave us in 1944. And audiences are responding, with critics and regular folks alike giving it high marks – especially for Wasikowska, who is being called by some the best cinematic Jane Eyre yet.

What would Charlotte Brontë think of the myriad projects her novel has inspired? It's hard to say for sure, but we like to think she'd be proud of Jane Eyre's enduring popularity… and that she'd have a soft spot in her heart for even the strangest of adaptations.

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