Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre and David Lean

by Mark Wallace

Further to my last post about Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, I wish to speak about the opening scene in the film. Moira Buffini’s script rearranges Bronte’s story considerably, bringing Jane’s flight from Thornfield into the beginning, and presenting all the earlier stuff as flashback, interspersed with the scenes from the Rivers household from after the flight, and all this becomes the NOW in the film. In the book, it’s all flashback, as Jane is reciting it all from a “Reader, I married him” vantage point far in the future, and so the NOW isn’t part of the narrative, it just provides a distanced point from which to view everything.

So, anyway, the first shot is of Jane throwing open the doors of Thornfield and rushing out. I was reminded here of that shot at the end of David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946) where Pip (John Mills) throws open the windows at Miss Havisham’s, letting in the light, and Estella is thereby magically transfigured and they walk off hand in hand.

First Shot of Jane Eyre, she opens the doors of Thornfield

Pip opens up the windows of Satis House

Then Jane goes out and walks hurriedly away from the house; we see her face for the first time, and her eyes are brimming with tears. There’s a shot of her standing at a crossroads, irresolute, then she sets off walking again. It cuts to her out on the moors, and this is where it begins to recall Lean’s other great Dickens adaptation, Oliver Twist. The weather turns nasty, and we’ve got the same set-up as Lean’s memorable opening scene from Twist (a scene that I have already discussed on this blog), a slight young woman battling against the elements. She is dwarfed by her surroundings, and buffetted by the wind and rain, as she trudges on, viewed in relief against the lowering sky. Then she sees a light in the distance and makes for it, while the rain and wind try to beat her back till, at the end of her strength, she makes it to her destination: in Oliver Twist, this place is the workhouse where the woman gives birth to her son and dies; in Jane Eyre it’s the Rivers house, where Jane is to be reborn.

Agnes’s first appearance.

Jane on the moors.

Lean’s is a great opening sequence, though plot-wise it doesn’t do anything. There’s no exposition. It’s not setting up character, because the woman dies straight afterwards. And, for several minutes at the start of Oliver Twist, there’s no dialogue at all. It’s all about the cinematicity, the visuals: great shots of the sky, the water rippling as the wind rises, the moon coming out from behind a cloud, the bare branches silhouetted against the sky, the briars quivering in the wind, etc.  It’s just a metaphor for the struggle Oliver is to go through in his quest to make a life for himself. Jane Eyre tries the same thing: the complete absence of dialogue, and the evocations of a natural power that in this case is maybe an analogy for Jane’s inner turmoil, the storm raging inside, as it were.

Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre, against the elements

Josephine Stuart as Agnes in Oliver Twist.

Ultimately, whatever metaphor one wishes to read into it, the scenario seems to have a suggestive power that has caused the scene to live on, and has caused Fukunaga to revisit it and place it in a different context. This blog post is not the place to go into theorizing the scene, but its recurrence is interesting. The opening of Jane Eyre also goes to demonstrate the pervasive influence of Lean’s Dickens adaptations on the field of 19th century adaptations. I’ve already devoted two posts to Lean’s Oliver Twist’s great influence on subsequent adaptations of that novel, but it even goes beyond that, to adaptations of other novels of similar vintage. Lean is the Shakespeare of the period adaptation, the great precursor who can neither be avoided nor overcome, and his adaptations continue to be mined for inspiration by the “ephebes” of our generation, as Harold Bloom would call them.

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