Jane Eyre (1944)

This was originally written for one of my Masters assignments, unfortunately I’ve had to rewrite it to shorten it and to remove superfluous elements. It’s also become far more conversational in tone, I did not call Jane Eyre (1944) a bad film in the original, nor did I call Rochester’s character played by Orson Welles a lying liar. It’s a weird hybrid of blog post and academic article, I’m not sure whether this experiment has been a success or an utter travesty.

Jane Eyre (1944) is a bad film; it’s an offensive film that compounds its offence through every action it takes. The cause of this offense can be traced back to two places, the one Fullscreen capture 27102013 205759.bmpthat legitimises it is the name itself and the other is the fantastic Orson Welles. We see the first in the begining of the film, it opens with the cover of a book on it is proudly proclaimed that; ‘TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX PRESENTS JANE EYRE BY CHARLOTTE BRONTË’[1]. This technique is hardly an original one, as Kamilla Elliott points out in her book Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate; ‘makers of “authoritative” editions and adaptations frequently invoke the authorial spirit to authorize their work’[2]. It is that claim of authorisation and what it then does with that mandate makes the sexism within more abhorant.

The stronger force than the legacy and name of Charlotte Brontë is that of Orson Welles, which featured heavily in the ‘marketing campaign’[3], we see this again when the page next turns and we are given both Orson Welles’ name and Joan Fontaine’s in large letters while the roles they play (Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre respectively) are in smaller type below. I will contend that those aspects, that of Orson Welles’ presence and of the claim of authority from Charlotte’s Brontë’s name makes this a regressive and moreover abominable adaption.

The last page we are shown before beginning the action is one headed ‘Chapter One’, evidently purporting to be from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. The intermingling of text Fullscreen capture 27102013 211740.bmpand film might lead one to think that the opening words would strongly echo that of the book Jane Eyre; ‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day’[4]. Yet begins quite a different set of words, ‘My name is Jane Eyre — I was born in 1820’[5]. Is there any need to change it? Well it tells the audience the time period this film is in, presuming the audience doesn’t have a familiarity with the text. Which, it turned out to be a rather fair assumption that went even beyond the audience into supposedly knowledgeable critics, as Sumiko Higashi points out in her ‘Jane Eyre: Charlotte Bronte Vs. The Hollywood Myth of Romance’ that the reviews ‘advertised their own ignorance about literature by echoing studio publicity statements that the film was a close adaptation of the novel’[6].

Given this blind acceptance of what is being presented on screen, it is not too hard to imagine that the rest of the films claims to authenticity and consequently worth are accepted with just as much lack of critical thought. Sumiko Higashi asserts that ‘Given the characterisation of Jane in the novel and the social and economic context of the forties, it could have been a meaningful film’[7]. In this I completely agree, even if all the filmmakers had done was create a faithful adaption it would have been a far more progressive work than the film as it stands. To reemphasize, if they had taken a book that even at the time was nearing a hundred years old and straight translated it to the screen it would have been far more progressive than the Orson Welles spectacular we got.

On this lack of adherence to the source, Kamilla Elliott states that we ‘learn more from adaption’s heresies than we do from attempts to conform adaptations'[8]. The film Jane Eyre is not completely ignorant of it’s failings and even seems to be self-aware. In Orson Welles dominating the narrative, Rochester states in the film and the book that ‘The fact is I do not wish to treat you as an inferior’[9], the lying liar that he is then fails to correct himself. In the book he recovers a modicum of humility by correcting himself that he only claims ‘such superiority as must result from twenty years’ difference in age and a century’s advance in experience’[10], the film never forces Orson Welles to clarify himself and in so appears as a barefaced arrogant liar.. As well as that we have a statement that Rochester Fullscreen capture 27102013 211223.bmpmakes, one that is only in the film; ‘Love’s a strange thing Miss Eyre, you can know a person’s worthless without heart mind or scruple yet suffer to the point of torture when she betrays you’[11]. This passage, certainly given the Rochester we are shown in the film equally applies to Jane’s feelings towards Rochester after the discovery of Bertha. Part of this reading is only available once we consider that unlike the book Rochester is never shown to be interacting with Jane on that level of intellectualism. The Rochester of the film dominates Jane Eyre by force of presence alone, she falls in love with a worthless man because he is after all played by Orson Welles. The film Jane Eyre, if we look at the story that it presents itself as, is one of many ‘Cinderella romances’[12] produced by the Hollywood of that era. The Rochester of the book in comparison may be as contradictory as the film but is far more likeable, and perhaps more importantly he and Jane are far more equals than Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles ever were.

In conclusion, while Jane Eyre (1944) is a bad film, it is not one devoid of value. The worth of the film exists in what Sumiko Higashi described so wonderfully in the title to her essay on the subject, that it highlights this ‘Hollywood Myth of Romance’[13]. Yet it is also rather damaging to the original, leading people to believe they are familiar with a book that does not exist, a book where Jane Eyre starts with a statement of individuality ‘My name is Jane Eyre’[14], and then continues to be subsumed within a relationship where she is far from equal with Rochester.


[1] Jane Eyre, dir. by Robert Stevenson (Twentieth Century Fox Film, 1944) [on DVD] 0:18
[2] Kamilla Elliott, Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) p.141
[3] Rebecca White, ‘Fresh Eyre’? How Original is Sandy Welch’s Televised Jane Eyre?’ in Bronte Studies, Vol. 33, No 2 (Maney Publishing, 2008) p.141
[4] Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre ed. Richard J. Dunn (New York: Norton & Company, 2001) p.5
[5] Jane Eyre, dir. by Robert Stevenson (Twentieth Century Fox Film, 1944) [on DVD] 1:45
[6] Sumiko Higashi, ‘Jane Eyre: Charlotte Bronte Vs. The Hollywood Myth of Romance’ in Journal of Popular Film Vol. 6, Issue. 1 (Washington: Heldref Publications, 1977) p.24
[7] Sumiko Higashi, ‘Jane Eyre: Charlotte Bronte Vs. The Hollywood Myth of Romance’ in Journal of Popular Film Vol. 6, Issue. 1 (Washington: Heldref Publications, 1977) p.13
[8] Kamilla Elliott, Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) p.181
[9] Jane Eyre, dir. by Robert Stevenson (Twentieth Century Fox Film, 1944) [on DVD] 40:09
[10] Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre ed. Richard J. Dunn (New York: Norton & Company, 2001) p.114
[11] Jane Eyre, dir. by Robert Stevenson (Twentieth Century Fox Film, 1944) [on DVD] 46:18
[12] Sumiko Higashi, ‘Jane Eyre: Charlotte Bronte Vs. The Hollywood Myth of Romance’ in Journal of Popular Film Vol. 6, Issue. 1 (Washington: Heldref Publications, 1977) p.14
[13] Sumiko Higashi, ‘Jane Eyre: Charlotte Bronte Vs. The Hollywood Myth of Romance’ in Journal of Popular Film Vol. 6, Issue. 1 (Washington: Heldref Publications, 1977) p.13
[14] Jane Eyre, dir. by Robert Stevenson (Twentieth Century Fox Film, 1944) [on DVD] 1.29

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