On Wednesday, Sheffield Gothic assembled to watch Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre (2011): an elegant, superbly cast adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel. Of course, I’m incredibly biased. I adore the Brontës and believe that Jane Eyre is one of the most (if not the most) radical female characters of the Nineteenth Century, so of course I was going to enjoy it, even more so the second, third and fourth times. But what makes Fukunaga’s version different from any other adaptation? How does it stand out? And, crucially, is it Gothic?
Although Jane Eyre is not necessarily a conventional Gothic novel in the same vein as Otranto and its contemporaries, it does perform a number of Gothic motifs, from the spectre of Mr Reed in the Red Room to Rochester’s buried secret: his ‘demonic’ first wife. Fukunaga’s adaptation, therefore, is doubly performative in that it performs Jane Eyre which, in turn, performs the Gothic.
On re-watching the film, I was struck by how well it engaged with Brontë’s language of spirits: Rochester repeatedly compares Jane’s spirit to that of a restless, caged bird, accuses her of ‘bewitchment’ and relegates her to an ‘invisible world […] a kingdom of spirits’. Fukunaga preserves this strain throughout, reminding the audience that Jane Eyre is largely a story about concealment. It is what we don’t see and what we don’t know that is frightening. References to the spirit world and the soul are ubiquitous in both texts, arguably making Jane Eyre a ghost story without a (visible) ghost. The film, perhaps more so than the novel, omits superstitious possibilities (the ‘ghost of Mr Reed’, for example, is a mere cloud of black smoke from the fireplace) and yet, it is still a tale of haunting in the form of personal turmoil.
Admittedly, Fukunaga’s version does shy away from some of the darker passages of Brontë’s novel in favour of the crowd-pleasing, romantic predictability we’ve come to expect from popular period dramas today. When the DVD came out in 2011, it was marketed as a Mother’s Day gift idea, complete with a free National Trust membership offer. Incidentally, a NT membership won’t get you into the privately-owned Haddon Hall (Bakewell, Derbyshire) where parts of Jane Eyre were filmed.
Haddon Hall was allegedly one of the models for Thornfield Hall. Another possible source of inspiration is the much smaller North Lees Hall in Hathersage. Luckily for Sheffield locals, it’s right on our doorstep, meaning that Michael Fassbender was a mere 20 minute bus ride away from Sheffield at some point in 2011. Just let that sink in for a moment.
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Filming at Haddon lends Fukunaga’s retelling an added dimension of authenticity, as it directly engages with Charlotte Brontë’s imagination during the composition of Jane Eyre and highlights the importance of place/landscape in her novel. You can read more about the connection between Brontë and the Peak District in Claire Harman’s recent biography, or if you’re inclined to outdoors-y adventuring, you can physically trace Brontë’s steps on the ‘Jane Eyre Hathersage Trail’ here:
Overall, Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre is a faithful adaptation that doesn’t take any risks. For me, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just look at Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights (2011) for an example of why it’s sometimes better to stick closely to the source material. You know what they say: if it ain’t broke…
With that in mind, I’d be interested to know if anyone thinks it could’ve been more ‘gothicised’. Should future adaptations of Jane Eyre explore the Gothic elements of the novel in more detail? Tweet us at @SheffieldGothic with your views!
Carly Stevenson is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Sheffield. She's on Team Edward (Rochester).