Guest post by January Jones
Book to screen adaptations are not a new phenomenon, however, the recent popularity of such films has reached heightened proportions. You’d have to be living under a rock to have missed the hype surrounding recent blockbuster The Hunger Games; the first film of a trilogy based on Suzanne Collins’ bestselling young-adult series. Despite widespread praise and a position as one of the highest grossing films, it has also been plagued by controversy surrounding what some fans believed to be an ‘inaccuracy’ regarding three characters’ ethnicity. This resulted in angry fans taking to Twitter to complain about the casting choices, with such comments as ‘To all my hunger games readers out there: Did anyone picture Rue as being black? No offense or anything but I just didn’t see her like it’ and ‘Cinna and Rue weren’t supposed to be black… Why did the producer make all the good characters black?’ Of course, as has been discussed since, Collins had written those characters’ ethnicities very specifically in the novels, and such interpretations displayed an almost wilful textual incomprehension, not to mention blatant racism.
However, it does raise interesting questions regarding the imagination and expectation of the reader in the adaptation of an original work, and as I discovered, not only in film adaptations. Fictional texts will often reference, rewrite, and derive inspiration from works that have preceded them. This begs the question, what exactly is at stake in the adaptation of an original work? And what happens to this original work as a consequence? Do aspects of the rewrite affect it or does it remain a stand-alone piece?
I recently considered such questions while watching Cary Fukunaga’s screen adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, one of my favourite novels. I first read Jane Eyre after it was a required text for an introductory literature class I undertook in my first year of university. I was instantly drawn to the gothic themes and complex characters, cementing my fascination with gothic literature and the Brontë sisters. But my real attraction to the novel was Jane herself. She was the first female protagonist I had come across who was strong, intelligent, and so I believed, a proto-feminist. Jane demanded equality in her relationship with Rochester and insisted on her independence. Watching Fukunaga’s film, however, I suddenly found the story utterly unpleasant and my earlier interpretations naïve. Evidently, this had little to do with the film, although the poor quality of the adaptation didn’t help. Instead, my newfound intolerance for the relationship between Jane and Rochester originated from reading two novels that adapt the Brontë story; Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966) and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938). Neither of the novels would be considered adaptations in the strict sense, however, each are clearly informed and inspired by the original.
Wide Sargasso Sea acts as a prequel to Brontë’s famous novel by depicting the married life of Rochester and Bertha before Jane ever arrives in the story. The first part of the novel is set in Jamaica during the emancipation of the slaves when our narrator Antoinette is only a young girl. The novel then alternates between the newly married Antoinette and her husband Rochester (although he is never named as such). The final section is solely from the perspective of Antoinette who has now been renamed Bertha by her husband. It is here where the overlap occurs between the two novels as Bertha is confined to the attic with Grace Poole as her keeper (the same character who guards Bertha in Jane Eyre).
Rhys’s retelling of Jane Eyre is undoubtedly a feminist one. The novel aims to give subjectivity and agency to Brontë’s ‘madwoman in the attic’ by dismissing this often demonised version of atypical womanhood in Victorian literature. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar analyse the presence of this archetype in their invaluable literary critical work The Madwoman in the Attic (1979). This work of feminist criticism exposed the persistence of the ‘madwoman’ versus the ‘angel of the house’ in Victorian literature and argued for the destruction of such stereotypes to allow for truthful and multifaceted representations of women to evolve in its place.
Unlike Wide Sargasso Sea, du Maurier’s Rebecca is not a feminist retelling of the Jane Eyre narrative and is instead told from the point of view of a nameless heroine (the ‘Jane’ of this story). Connection to the original is less overt than Wide Sargasso Sea, as Gilbert and Gubar suggest, it is the ‘aunt’ of Jane Eyre. Du Maurier, does however, use many similar plot devices to connect the two novels. The narrator is a young orphan who marries a wealthy older gentleman (Maxim de Winter) and moves to his grand country estate. His late wife (Rebecca) is exposed as devious and mentally unstable, and at the close of the novel the house is set on fire and burned to the ground. Rebecca overtly uses the good/bad woman binary to set the two women apart, and even as an explanation for Maxim murdering Rebecca.
After reading these two novels I decided to watch the film version of Jane Eyre and instead of enjoying the visual representation of a story I had previously adored, I discovered that my view had completely altered. The relationship between Jane and Rochester became distasteful, and I often caught myself thinking about Bertha/Antoinette, the madwoman locked in the attic. In place of the empathy and affection I once felt for the orphan Jane (and I can’t blame this entirely on Mia Wasikowska’s acting), I saw her as naïve and insipid, a sanctimonious enabler for Rochester’s brutality towards his former wife.
Reading these adaptations of the Jane Eyre narrative has caused me to reconsider, and consequently, dislike the original. Just as reading Rebecca after Wide Sargasso Sea left me unconvinced by Maxim’s explanation that he murdered his late wife because of her sexually deviant behaviour. Despite this, I can’t help wondering whether such a reaction is fair to the original work, which in this case is ultimately a work of its times. Or has reading the later works encouraged me to view the original more critically? Either way Jane Eyre will never be the same loved story from my youth, I just haven’t decided if this is a good thing.
— January Jones is a Masters student at the University of Melbourne. Her work has appeared in Australian Book Review and Kill your Darlings.