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Adaptation and Jane Eyre

alexandrakg's picture
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   Recently, in our class the Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories with Anne Dalke and Paul Grobstein, as part of our curriculum we watched the movie AdaptationAdaptation stars Nicholas Cage as Charlie and his twin Donald Kaufman.  Charlie is trying to write a screenplay based on the The Orchid Thief, a nonfiction book written by Susan Orlean, a writer for the New Yorker.  The subject is John Laroche, an eccentric orchid enthusiast who was arrested for poaching certain rare species on state land in order to attempt to cultivate them.

In Adaptation, Charlie struggles to complete the screenplay.  At first he tries to remain true to the book.  In discussion with a representative, he insists, “It’s someone else’s material; I have a responsibility to Susan” (Adaptation).  Indeed, one of Susan Orlean’s first lines is, “John Laroche is a tall guy, skinny as a stick, pale eyes, slouch-shouldered, sharply handsome, despite the fact he's missing all his front teeth,” which is word for word the first line of the original article she wrote on Laroche (Orlean).  However, as Charlie struggles to continue the script, he ends up putting more and more of himself into it, first through the characters’ personalities, and eventually his own physical self into the story.  He tries to make the film original and without any typical Hollywood stereotypes, but ends up with sex and violence dominating the end of the movie.


The film bring up some interesting questions about how one can adapt a book to a movie.  How much creative leeway should the film be allowed in terms of determining how to portray the novel?  We have discussed in class the possibility that film will be the next medium of expression, and perhaps even replace the novel.  The real question is, is that possible?  Can a film truly convey what a novel can?  Or, does it matter?


One adaptation of a classic novel that comes to mind is the 1943 production of Jane Eyre, directed by Robert Stevenson and starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine.  The film is only 97 minutes long, yet tries to fit an entire novel into that time.  It certainly takes more than 97 minutes to read Jane Eyre the novel.


The film clearly makes an attempt to follow the novel.  The novel is a first-person narrative, following the life of the orphan Jane Eyre.  The movie in turn is voiced over by Joan Fontaine as Jane in between scene changes, and includes shots of the section of the novel she reads from.  


Many lines  in the dialogue are direct quotes from the novel as well.  For example, during a discussion with Mr. Rochester, Jane says, “I should never mistake informality for insolence.  One I rather like, the other, nothing free-born would submit to, even for a salary” (Jane Eyre).  This one line in particular certainly gives the reader or viewer insight into Jane’s character, particularly in terms of her life choices and interactions with others.  Certainly the movie had to make changes and cut out full dialogues, but what the screenwriters could keep, they did, and the more important lines that were key to the story were maintained as well as possible.


However, a huge section of the plot was missing, namely when Jane discovers her true family and acquires her fortune.  The movie covers up this portion seamlessly, so if one were to watch the movie without having read the book, one would not notice a huge plot hole.  The cut was most likely to save time, and a few scenes from the novel were switched around to cover for it.  Often when movies try to cut scenes, a little is lost on the viewer’s part.  There are some characters whose backstories are never explained, or a little trip the main characters took that does not quite make sense.


What makes this movie work despite the cuts was which cuts they chose to make and how the actors portrayed their characters.  As long as the movie captures the essence and main themes of the novel, it is a good adaptation.  A movie cannot be exactly like the novel because a movie is not a novel.  There are certain things you can only do in books just like there are certain things you can only do in movies.  A writer simply cannot tell you exactly what someone looks like; in a movie there is much less room for visual interpretation.  However, the visual aspect is not the only aspect of the movie.  Movies can have just as much depth and meaning as a novel, you just have to learn how to find it.


Jane Eyre was a wonderful interpretation because it was very emotional and true to the feeling one gets from the novel, the gothic horror, the impossible romance, and the stubborn and independent spirit of two people fighting against what society and life demand of them.  Maybe a scholar of Brontë would be offended at this adaptation, but it is just that, an adaptation.  This movie is not claiming to be the novel, but rather the interpretation of its makers.  It should be judged on its own merits.




Adaptation. Dir. Spike Jonze." Perf. Cage, Nicholas. Columbia-Tristar: 2002, Film.


Brontë, Charlotte, and Margaret Smith. Jane Eyre. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. Print.


Jane Eyre. Dir. Robert Stevenson. Perf. Welles, Orson and Joan Fontaine. Twentieth Century Fox Film Company: 1943, Film.


 Orlean, Susan. "Orchid Fever." New Yorker 23 Jan 1995: n. pag. Web. 15 Apr 2011. <>. 


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Anne Dalke's picture

On the merits of film

I'm puzzled by this project. It looks @ a film adaptation of a novel without any recognition of the conversation we've been having in our class about the limitations of the "fidelity discourse" of conventional adaptation studies--in which the original is valorized, the worth of an adaptation judged by that standard (which is what you do when you say that "As long as the movie captures the essence and main themes of the novel, it is a good adaptation").

You say that "Movies can have just as much depth and meaning as a novel, you just have to learn how to find it"-- but you don't give us any guidance into how to go about that "finding." What are the very explicit ways in which film studies induces us into close readings? What are the elements of cinematography that are particular to films, and so unique to the viewing experience? You say that a film "should be judged on its own merits," but you don't get into a detailed discussion of what those merits might be.

I'm also puzzled that you chose this 1943 version of Jane Eyre when a brand new version of the story has just been released in the theaters. One way to complexify the project you take on here would be to compare these two filmic versions of Bronte's story; might you want to take on that analysis as your final project? How might such a comparison contribution to "thinking evolutionarily" about literature?