I've put a lot of space before digging into more because, well, I didn't feel like I had much incentive to watch more adaptations if I didn't think any of them would be much good. But it's come time to start back in, beginning with the 1934 version directed by Christy Cabanne and starring Virginia Bruce and Colin Clive. Interestingly, the screenwriter was a woman, Adele Comandini. We make a big deal out of female screenwriters today, but this film is close to a hundred years old.
Almost as soon as the film begins, the changes made in the adaptation are so great as to be entertaining in their own right. I didn't really feel sympathy for young Jane, and the girl playing one of the Reed sisters looked too cute delivering her lines to be a snobby bully kid. Jane is sent to an orphanage rather than a "school," which I suppose matters little. But she leaves because she's fired not because she has taken the initiative to advertise and get a governess position outside on her own. Jane says she'll be okay because she has enough money that her uncle left her to get by until finding another position--instead of receiving the inheritance at the end as a sort of redemptive gift.
Oh, yes, and Jane is described as beautiful in the film and she can sing and she has a fancy evening gown and she's quite a spitfire. She isn't a plain, trodden down shadow desperately trying to be seen. And Rochester. If they didn't call him Rochester, we wouldn't even recognize him as the character. He's polite and gentlemanly and attentive and also affectionate toward his "niece," Adele. I guess they thought it would be less scandalous to have Adele be his niece instead of his possible daughter.
The effect, then, of this Rochester with his loving niece Adele becomes more like a touch of The Sound of Music. It's just a man naturally inviting in a woman to share his life and family in spite of a difference in class. It isn't a woman desperate for affection finally feeling like she is being seen. And Bertha? Whew, what changes they made there. In trying to lessen the blow of Rochester's lies to Jane, in trying to make him less of a bad guy, they in fact removed the chance for a redemption story. The story has to go to a very dark place and both Jane and Rochester have to, in their own ways and on their own, pass through a kind of death before they can find new life.
This movie just didn't portray any of that. Instead, its focus was more on the element of family. Jane's relationship with Adele gets more focus, and so even her relationship with Rochester takes on that father figure element. Having no father, she falls in love with the man that she sees is a good father figure toward Adele. Adele is the orphan that Jane wishes she could have been. It's okay as a story--but it's so very different from Rochester's actual character.
I thought that, as the first talking adaptation of Jane Eyre, this film would by default be boring because it's so old. But it's actually vastly entertaining. If you're a fan of the story and doing analysis like this, it's quite a novelty to watch. Watching something more recent like the 1996, you're just disappointed that they didn't do a better adaptation. But with something so old, created in a time in which film was such a different medium, there is some separation. So you can just create a running commentary of disbelief at all the changes they made, and that's some good entertainment.