I've mentioned many times over that the 2006 adaptation of Jane Eyre is my favorite. It still is, but I've come to realize that I've been overly reluctant to even watch other versions. There are too many that I haven't even yet seen. And Jane Eyre adaptations aren't as bad as, say, Wuthering Heights adaptations. At least that's what I'm finding as I dig in and watch more. The one for today's topic is the 1944 version, directed by Robert Stevenson and starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine.
Really, I shouldn't be surprised at how good this version was given those three stars. It has that moody, Gothic tone. We have a chance to see Jane's isolation and loneliness from childhood into adulthood. Joan Fontaine gives a remarkable performance: she captures Jane's calm exterior that hides a broiling heart inside. While I love the 2006, they did put Jane's emotions a little more on the exterior--which I like and which works for film but isn't exactly how Jane's character reads in the book. The "high class" quality to Joan Fontaine's performance works well to capture both Jane's education and her isolated social status. Granted, she is much too beautiful to be Jane--yet she makes us so believe in Jane's loneliness that we believe that no one gives her a second glance.
Orson Welles, too, gives a great performance as Rochester. The temptation with adaptations is to make Rochester too debonair. Yes, he's meant to have a certain rugged, masculine appeal, but he's not meant to be straight out attractive and he is rude and abrupt. Orson Welles is willing to give that performance, while also emphasizing Rochester's brokenness. Like with Jane, we see the beating heart beneath the exterior he presents to the world. And so it is when their inner selves meet that we see the chemistry between the characters. Even with less scenes between them (since this movie is a little shorter than most of the modern ones), the nuances of their relationship are portrayed quite well.
A big element that was missing, though, was Jane's faith (the inclusion of which is one of the reasons why the 2006 remains my favorite). The opening scenes with her childhood allow us to see the cruelty she faced due to religious hypocrisy. But we don't get to see how Helen teaches her another way to believe. We don't see that it is her devotion to God first that causes her to leave Rochester when she learns his lies. We don't see her struggle through the moors. We don't see her relationship with the Rivers family, St. John in particular. And so we assuredly don't see Rochester's description of how he cried out to God in the aftermath of the tragedies. Jane and Rochester get each other in the end--but there is no sense of the divine.
What was intriguing, though, was to see that the 2006 version directly borrowed certain scenes or angles from this one. Like when young Jane awakens in Lowood for the first time as the girls line up by the washing bowls. The fact that they chose to pay homage to the earlier film is a testament to how well done it was. It isn't perfect and it has some gaps--but it's quite good and I in fact highly recommend it.