Next month, yet another version of Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre will be adapted for the screen, this time as a major motion picture by director Cary Fukunaga. While there have already been many film and TV versions of the book, Fukunaga’s take promises a sharp departure from the mild, romantic presentations of the past, taking on a much darker and menacing tone. (Watch the trailer.)
This new look at Jane Eyre has got me wondering about the appeal the novel has today. The classic is often construed as a girls’ novel, the mother of the romance genre. As I remember it, girls usually choose it in school, while boys preferred something more brash, like Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. It’s often organized as “women’s fiction” (a bizarre and seemingly arbitrary term that apparently includes both Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and Snooki’s A Shore Thing).
I’ll admit, I’ve avoided Jane Eyre, as well as Pride and Prejudice and other similarly categorized novels, based purely on the way they’ve been marketed to the genders. Because I’m a guy, it never seemed like these books were for me to read. But I now find myself anticipating the new Jane Eyre film, which will star Mia Wasikowska and Dame Judi Dench. It actually makes the book look, well, cool.
If Fukunaga’s adaptation of Jane Eyre brings out the strength in Jane’s character, it also seems like it will appeal to more men. It appears to tell the tale in a more traditionally masculine way: the trailer conveys a sense of imminent danger, spiritual conflict, and brooding mystery. Perhaps it will inspire more men to pick up the zombie-free version of the novel. I’ll be among them.
In the wake of Jane Slayer, which re-imagines Jane as a zombie-slaying heroine (part of a trend that also includes Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), people are beginning to recognize Bronte’s gothic influences. The story of Jane Eyre, it turns out, is a complicated and nuanced tale not merely of love gone bad. At its core is a story about character, morality, and independence.
The movie also appears to emphasize Jane as a heroine—an essential part of the story, and a designation Jane doesn’t often receive. There has been some recent debate over this: last week, Salon.com contributor Laura Miller wrote an article called “In Defense of Jane Eyre,” in which she cited the “importance of Jane’s resolve” as a key feature of the novel. Jane Eyre, she argues, is in truth a story of self-actualization, of a young woman expressing moral certainty in a culture that often refuses her the right to express anything at all.
Charlotte Bronte wasn’t just writing a steamy romance. She was writing about the unbalanced social climate of her day—something that still resonates in 2011.
What do you think? Can a two-hour film successfully break a 150-year-old novel out of the “women’s fiction” section? Men, will you be lining up to see it?