A few weeks ago, I braved the bad popcorn and non-stadium seating at the River Oaks Theatre* to see the latest adaptation of Jane Eyre. It was a weekday afternoon, and the crowd was sparse. I cracked open the can of soda I’d secreted into the theater in my oversized purse, silenced my cell phone, and prepared to begrudgingly love Rochester as I always do.
Oh, the brooding.
I very much enjoyed the film, and my love for Mia Wasikowska has only grown, despite my dissatisfaction with the latest Alice movie. But I’m not here to write a review of the 2011 Jane. My good friend Ryan has done so here, and he expresses my own feelings about the movie quite well. I particularly appreciate Ryan’s point about Cary Fukunaga’s wonderful decision to include the Moor House plot and the wish that this movie had departed from its predecessors to make more of Jane’s years at Lowood.
But the moment in the movie that struck me had more to do with the audience than the actors on screen. The theater was certainly not full, but seated behind me were at least three or four groups of friends — mainly the ladies who lunch on West Gray. I heard them pause in unwrapping their candy as Jane, urged on by the disembodied voice of her craggy, bigamous love, approached Thornfield. The camera panned upward, dwarfing Jane in her bonnet to reveal the hall as a shell, hollowed out by fire.
These ladies behind me. They didn’t just gasp. They cried out. I heard at least one of those strangled mewls that happens when you sense, one instant too late, that an accident is about to happen. When something beautiful is ruined. A glass of red wine on a wedding dress. A deer struck by a car. A happy ending abruptly and maliciously withdrawn.
The image of Jane gazing at that ghost of Thornfield was powerful for me, as well, but my shock was due to cinematography and, perhaps, sympathy with the heroine. But the noises behind me in the theater suggested that at least a few of my fellow watchers were wonderfully gobsmacked, jolted out of their faith in a promised reunion by this ugly mess. Injustice!
That’s the problem, of course, with knowing a story so intimately. Jane’s discovery of a ruined Thornfield isn’t necessarily the most dramatic scene in the narrative, but I have read the novel so often that I’m denied that moment of surprise. And it made me a little sad. Because really, there are few literary or cinematic pleasures as sweet as that sudden and stinging imbalance. Not the cheap plot twist, but the moment when everything changes in a way that is completely believable. In a way you hate believing. Seeing Thornfield not as Jane’s strange hybrid of prison and sanctuary but instead as a sooty scar on the landscape feels somehow familiar.
Yes. I know what it feels like when the universe does that to me.
I was talking about that loss — that moment when a book can no longer surprise you in that visceral way — with a colleague in reference to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.** It’s such a teachable novel, we agreed, and it’s wonderful to experience it alongside students who haven’t read it before. While I find it unlikely that many undergraduates are so immune to pop culture references to Jekyll and Hyde that they don’t know that the two characters are (spoiler!) one and the same, it’s possible. And if that doesn’t shock them, there’s that savage old man beating in the middle of the book. Yikes. Poor Sir Danvers.
There’s merit, then, to being aghast, agape, agog at a novel. But there’s also comfort, of course, in knowing Jane’s fate before she’s shipped off to Lowood. And knowing that Jekyll’s servants will eventually huddle outside his office door, listening to the strange growls within, allows me to pay more attention to Stevenson’s wonderful language.
Oh, how I love his description of the back entrance to the surgical theater — a “blind forehead of discoloured wall.”
* Note: I enjoy the River Oaks Theatre, and I don’t mind the seating. But the popcorn. It’s a problem.
** I actually don’t remember which colleague! My apologies.