Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre

Reading Peter Conrad’s recentish article about the latest Jane Eyre film adaptation, I was impressed by the rightness of starting the story with Jane running away from Thornfield Hall, an event which takes places quite a long way through the book. It plunges Jane, and the viewer, directly into a moment of crisis, something you’re always telling your students to do when you teach creative writing. It means that the events of the narrative are precipitated by an action taken by the central character, and it shows her doing things, making choices, as she tries, heroically, to find a way of living that meets all her expectations. (I haven’t seen the actual film yet, although I would like to; these observations are based on the trailer and things I’ve read about this latest JE outing.)

As a writer, and as an occasional teacher of creative writing, I’m always looking for ways to tell a story in the most compelling way possible, including using the techniques of the dominant artforms around us: cinema and television.

I think there are plenty of useful lessons for fiction writers in the movies. The need for action; for characters who do stuff; for the quick jump into action, the three act structure and the need for a climax. They make for a satisfying story. But when I think about both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, what movie-fying does is to suck some of the strangeness out of them. Jane Eyre is perceived these days, at least in pop cultural terms, as a precursor to the modern romance. Sure, there are some Gothic bells and whistles which give it its particular flavour; but it’s all about Jane and Mr Rochester, right? But Charlotte Bronte’s novel has a lot more in it, and is structurally a lot stranger  than that summary would suggest. The novel gives as much weight to the strange, vivid, emotionally wrenching scenes that take place in Jane’s childhood, among hostile relatives, and her adolescence at school, where she is surrounded by characters both hostile (Mr Brocklehurst) and kind and beloved (Helen Burns, Miss Temple). This is a novel that is filled with rage, the rage of a young woman whose intelligence and abilities are not valued by the society she lives in, where there are scandalously few opportunities, and where accidents of birth, wealth, and personal appearance can doom a woman to a dull, dreary, desperate life. This rage is one of the things I love about Jane Eyre, and about Charlotte Bronte. But even today, rage is not an emotion we are comfortable with, and it is not an emotion you can easily represent on the screen.

Similarly, it is the wildness of Wuthering Heights that often seems to be missing from screen adaptations. There is something wild and elemental and crazy about Cathy and Heathcliff – they’re two Ids running amok – and on the page, it works and is breathtakingly exciting. On screen, though, it looks overwrought and stupid. The thing about Cathy and Heathcliff is that they are fundamentally unlikeable – they’re fascinating, and dark, and demented, and dangerous and wrong. They’re this profoundly negative force, let loose upon the world, and they suck people in and destroy them. Their story isn’t a romance: it’s a horror story.

But unlikeable and the movies? That’s a problem.

What Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre offer are representations of psychological states, psychological realities, which are related to dreams: they’re heightened, extreme, dangerous, undecorous. They speak from dark places. They don’t always make sense. When you read them, they do make sense. But ocne you try to describe them, and to show them in naturalistic terms, they sometimes lose their power. It is the access that a novel gives you to another mind, speaking in all its strangeness and mysteriousness, that makes the novel still so special. More than film, or possibly any other genre – any suggestions? – it lets us get at the oddness of the experience of being human.

But just quietly, wouldn’t Being Human’s Aidan Turner be the Best Heathcliff Ever?  

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