‘Jane Eyre’ movie rekindles Austen vs. Bronte, the battle of the bonnets

March 17, 2011

Enough with the empire waistlines, the sparkly dialogue, the pride, the prejudice, the Colin Firth trudging out of the lake again and again on the late-night minithons on A&E. Enough with all that.

The devoted readers of Bonnet Drama have always known that if it came down to it, if someone held a flintlock musket to their heads and demanded an answer, that “I love Jane Austen and the Brontes equally” would not suffice. Sides must be chosen:

You are either a Janeite. Or you are a Charlottan.

The Brontes’ resurgence

“When I need order in my life, I read Jane Austen,” says Alison Owen, an English film producer. “When I’m feeling more emotional, and when I need that passionate punch, I turn to ‘Jane Eyre.’ ”

For two decades, Austen’s Janeites have held the public hostage in an infinite Regency-era loop. Elizabeth Bennet played by Jennifer Ehle, played by Keira Knightley, played by Aishwarya Rai. Elizabeth Bennet fighting zombies. A cultish What Would Jane Do movement emerged, as if Austen were not a favorite author but a chatty oracle.

The Charlottans have waited.

Now, victories:

On Friday, the nationwide opening of “Jane Eyre.” It’s the newest remake of the most famous novel to be written by Charlotte Bronte or her two author sisters, Emily and Anne. Owen is the producer; the director is Cary Fukunaga, whose last project was the Mexican gang drama “Sin Nombre.” This new “Eyre” stars Mia Wasikowska, the “Alice” of Tim Burton’s “Wonderland,” as plain governess Jane, and Michael Fassbender — an appropriate blend of sexy, cruel and mangy — as her tormented employer, Mr. Rochester.

In Britain, director Andrea Arnold is finishing up edits for a new version of Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” — the first version to cast a black actor in the role of Heathcliff.

In New York, a Bronte fan has launched a one-time magazine called “Eyresses,” dedicated to the painstaking worship of the 400-page novel. It includes a “Jane Eyre Community Cookbook” and an e-mail chain between two dudes who confess that they both secretly love the book.

A Bronte biopic has been in the works for years; the faithful hope it will get off the ground soon.

The faithful are very protective of their source material.

“There is nothing about this movie that is reinventing what the story should have been,” Fukunaga says of his film in a telephone interview. “The book is frightening,” he says, promising that his “Jane” preserves the Gothic elements that have been sacrificed in previous versions. “There are other ‘Jane Eyre’ films out there that are mostly treated as romance films.”

The problem for Brontophiles isn’t that the books haven’t been made into movies. With the exception of Anne’s works (everyone always forgets about Anne), many of them have; “Jane Eyre” had a made-for-TV makeover just five years ago. The problem is that so many of these adaptations have been lacking. Whereas “Pride and Prejudice” will forever be defined by Colin Firth, the cinematic world is still in search of the perfect Bronte adaptation.

“I cannot tell you how many Bronte films I have seen,” says Rebecca Fraser, a Charlotte Bronte biographer. “Orson Welles [1943] was very Byronic, but not so attractive. Timothy Dalton . . . people generally think that Timothy Dalton [1983] did not work.”

“The worst adaptation, that’s the 1934 one,” write Manuel Del Estal and Cristina Lara, co-sovereigns of the Bronte Blog, via e-mail. “It’s almost like a parody.” (They apologize for the electronic communication, but they are vacationing in Haworth, England, the home of the Bronte sisters, and they have authentically rented a house without a telephone.)

Most everyone agrees that the one starring William Hurt was a disaster. How could it not be? It bungled the best quote, with Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Jane telling Mr. Rochester, “I may be poor and plain, but I’m not without feelings.”

No. Incorrect.

The correct quote, to be spoken with immeasurable misery, is:

“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless?”

Anyone who can’t see the difference is entirely missing the point.

The brutality of Bronte

Jane Austen is easy to love. Her heroines are smart; her heroes are righteous. People say funny things and wear lovely clothes and spend a lot of time going to balls or sitting in drawing rooms, meaning that the scenery is just gorgeous. Everything ends happily for everyone who deserves it.

The Brontes are more difficult. Things don’t end well. The writing is beautiful, but Mr. Rochester and Heathcliff — Charlotte and Emily’s two most famous heroes — are basically thugs in morning coats. They say savage things. They emotionally torture the women they claim to love. They keep other women locked in attics and blame drunken housekeepers for bumps in the night. Things burn. People die.

“Jane Eyre is basically like ‘Mad Max,’ ” offers Mikki Halpin, one of the women behind the “Eyresses” project. “It’s basically like a horror movie set in this very hostile terrain.”

More modernly, Jane Eyre is “Twilight.” The women who think it is sooo sexy that the vampire Edward Cullen is a borderline abusive boyfriend are the same women who will discover that borderline abusive boyfriends have been sooo sexy for 160 years.

Jane Austen? She, as others have pointed out, is “Gossip Girl.”

One doesn’t know what Austen would make of the Bronte sisters — she died before their works were published — but one does know how Charlotte felt about her:

“She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well,” Bronte wrote in one letter to a friend. “She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him with nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood.”

The storminess of the Bronte women’s writing makes for an intensely personal reading experience — a private world of melodrama and creepy love. This might explain why there has never been a definitive film version. For any screen adaptation to approach the emotional pinnacles achieved by readers in their imaginations, it would have to include so much lavish emoting that it would end up looking ridiculous.

“It’s especially true with ‘Wuthering Heights,’ ” says Andrew McCarthy, the director of the Bronte Parsonage Museum in England. “As a naturalistic adaptation, it’s unfilmable, really. There almost needs to be a new media or a new art form.”

In some ways, McCarthy says, “the most successful adaptations are the ones that pay the least respect to the book.”

Hush, Mr. McCarthy, and we shall never speak of that statement again.

Must we choose?

Austen or Bronte. It’s not as if it has to be one or the other, as if one must die so the other might live, when all have been dead for 200 years (The Brontes! All died before 40! So sad!).

“No one asks why Shakespeare in the Park is redone every summer,” says director Fukunaga, slightly peevishly, and he’s right — there might be some latent, dismissive misogyny involved in the concept that there is only enough cultural love for one female literary figure at any given time.

Some analysts have wondered if the Brontes are built for economic downturn — that difficult times draw us to difficult stories. The Bronte heroes find happiness, but not without losing a hand or their eyesight, or having their manor burned down. It’s a bruised happiness, one that might appeal to the foreclosed modern viewer.

The new version of “Jane Eyre” hits most of the pleasure centers required of any good “Jane” adaptation. It has the horrible Red Room, the “left rib” speech, the muddy moors. It also handles gracefully the last third of the book, in which Jane lives with a minister and his sisters — which other versions have either ignored or totally mucked up.

It is likely to please the Charlottans.

Indeed, it is likely to please the Janeites, and anyone else who has ever loved the sight of a beautiful man begging for the love of a working-class woman.

Meanwhile, do you know what is long overdue for a big-screen adaptation?

Middlemarch.”

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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