If one views adaptations as situated utterances, one may be able to link the specific contexts with a particular adaptation. Brontë’s Jane Eyre has been adapted multiple times – of which two examples are films made in 1943 and 2011. While in the novel Eyre’s time at Lowood describes a wide variation of themes, in the films this is not the case. A matter of interest is what has been done with the themes in the adaptations and how these fit the contemporary social contexts. This paper will argue that Eyre’s time at Lowood is adapted in the 1943 and 2011 films to fit contemporary anti-fascist, patriotic, and anti-patriarchal contexts. In order to be able to compare the works, this paper will show how the time at Lowood is depicted in the novel, as well how it is adapted in the 1943 and 2011 films. For both films there will be given an analysis in support of the argument.
Lowood in the novel
In the 1847 novel Jane Eyre, Eyre’s time at Lowood makes up 10% of the length of the novel. It is marked on the one hand by descriptions of a harsh environment, but these are softened by the prose on other subjects. In the following paragraphs there will a short overview of what is written on Eyre’s time at Lowood, in order to be able to analyse how these scenes have been adapted.
In the novel, Eyre’s time at Lowood is divided in two time periods. The first described period is the January until May after her arrival (ch. 5 – 9). The second time period is Jane’s time as a teacher (ch. 10), after which she leaves for Thornfield.
When reading chapters 5 through 9, certain themes spring to mind. Some of these are ‘education as a means to get to know the world’ (57-58, 85), ‘the Eyre-Burns relationship’, ‘Mrs. Temple as a knowledgeable, exemplary female role model with Christian values’ (55, 79-84). Other, harsher themes are also present: ‘Brocklehurst’s pedestal of the liar’ (73-76), or, ‘disciplinary measures’, ‘the typhoid pandemic’ (87-95), among interwoven descriptions of the harsh climate at Lowood.
The second time period spans ten years following the first time period. Lowood is to be improved to be more “convenient” at the start of the second time period (96-97). For the first eight years Eyre will be a pupil, and for the following two years she will be a teacher (97). Eyre “in both capacities bears [her] testimony to its value and importance” (97). Some of Eyre’s time as a teacher, as well as preparations to get a new job at Thornfield Hall, have been written about. To conclude the second time period there is a scene in which Eyre meets Bessie (104-108), after which Eyre leaves for Thornfield.
Lowood in the 1943 film
Eyre’s time at Lowood takes up 17% of the film. Lowood is first described as “…a school that was more like a prison” [0:07:50] by Eyre’s voiceover. Then, the film curiously depicts ‘Brocklehurst’s pedestal of the liar’ without any context. The discipline the pupils undergo is military-like, which is shown by means of synchronic movements at washing, praying, and walking time. This, combined with the manner in which Mr. Brocklehurst uses his voice, as well as inspects and punishes the children, make Brocklehurst’s tyranny an overarching theme in the Lowood scenes.
That does not mean that there is only tyranny in the Lowood scenes. There is also kindness – especially in the Eyre – Burns – Dr. Rivers relationship. Mrs. Temple’s character is adapted by means of her kindness being transferred to Dr. Rivers. He can be seen as having some of her characteristics. On the matter of education, Dr. Rivers tells Jane:
“You know what duty is, don’t you? […] Your duty is to prepare yourself to do God’s work in the world […] And who can do God’s work? An educated woman, or an ignorant woman? […] So you have to get back to school, even though you may hate the very thought of it.” ([0:19:05])
Eyre agrees. When she is older, Brocklehurst appoints her as a teacher. Eyre declines, after which Brocklehurst is outraged. When Brocklehurst asks her “Where do you intend to go?”. Eyre replies: “Out into the world, sir. […] I intend to seek a position as a governess” ([0:22:22]). Brocklehurst leaves and Eyre looks through his post and finds a reply to her advertisement. She then leaves for Thornfield.
There can be connections made between Jane Eyre’s adaptation of the Lowood scenes and patriotic ideas such as independence and standing up to tyranny. Brocklehurst is continuously depicted as a tyrant because of his behaviour and the way he punishes the pupils, and the connection between him a certain contemporary dictator would likely not escape a 1943 audience, since, in that time, the United States – where the film was made – was in the mid-WWII boom. Eyre, Burns and Dr. Rivers embody values of freedom in this film, with Helen and her love of God, Dr. Rivers and his reason, and with Eyre’s declining of Brocklehurst’s offer. There is also a hint of the American Dream in Dr. Rivers guiding Eyre back into education after Helen’s death and the way Eyre leaves for Thornfield.
Lowood in the 2011 film
The Lowood scenes make up 6% of screen time. The scenes are several short flashbacks, intermingled with Eyre’s time at St. John, Marie, and Diana.
The first scene is Eyre’s entrance at Lowood [0:10:50], where she meets the rather sour teacher Mrs. Scatcherd, as well as Burns, and has to undress in order to receive a uniform. The other pupils’ hands are being checked for cleanliness by a teacher. Burns smiles at Eyre, after which we get a flash-forward. Prior to the second flashback, corporal punishment at Lowood is shown, after which Lowood is introduced as a “Most thorough [education]” ([0:13:50]). The curriculum at Lowood is depicted as preparing the pupils for subserviency to a man (“A little wit… will serve… a fortunate man” [0:14:05]). After this short insight into Eyre’s institutional education there are two punishment scenes: Burns being struck by Mrs. Scatcherd and Eyre having to stand on the ‘pedestal of infamy’. After Burns tells Eyre how she copes with being struck, Eyre responds with “If she hit me, I’d get that birch and break it under her nose” ([0:16:30]). The third flashback [0:22:40] shows Eyre being greeted by her pupils, saying “Goodbye” to Mrs. Scatcherd, and leaving for Thornfield.
Does Eyre then only learn grim lessons at this institution? Not quite. In her meeting with Burns in the grass ([0:16:21]), she learns Christian values from Burns – such as the idea that you get punished because you are loved (Proverbs 3:12), not staying vengeful, and the omnipresence of God.
The early 2010s retained the influence of the feminism movement, with the #MeToo movement having started in 2006. With regards to feminism, it is highly likely that the drill exercise at the start of the second flashback at Lowood in which the pupils repeat the sentence “A little wit will serve a fortunate man” ([0:14:05]) would be regarded as problematic for certain audiences. What is also prominently shown in the 2011 film is the theme of corporal punishment in school. At the time of release, corporal punishment in schools was still used in some places in the West as well as debated (CORPUN). This film could be positioned in the debate as taking a stance against corporal punishment through Eyre saying “If she hit me, I’d get that birch and break it under her nose”, as well as the cinematographic focus on the punishments, which is likely to invoke opinions against cruelty and in support of children’s rights. It is notable that Mrs. Temple has not been adapted into the 2011 film, as she serves as a female role figure for Burns and Eyre in the novel – she could have been adapted as a figure embodying female solidarity. Instead, in the 2011 film nothing of her beneficial impact remains. This makes Eyre’s time at the Lowood institution merely a negative experience.
From the above we can see that many Lowood themes have been omitted in the 1943 and the 2011 adaptations, but the films’ Lowood scenes can be seen as more of a representation of the contemporary social contexts. In the novel, the time at Lowood was harsh, but also one of relationships and character development. In the 1943 film, the overarching theme is the effort of kind forces against tyranny. The concept of tyranny in the mid-WWII United States could easily be confused with fascism. In the 2011 film’s Lowood scenes allusions have been made to female and child rights, through the means of showing female pupils learning to ‘serve a man’ and corporal punishment. Thus, the Lowood scenes in the 1943 and 2011 films have been adapted to fit their contemporary social contexts.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: Penguin English Library, 2012. Print.
CORPUN (World Corporal Punishment Research). 2010 and 2011 archives, 2016. Web. 25 Jan. 2021.
Jane Eyre. Screenplay by Aldous Huxley, Robert Stevenson and John Houseman. Dir. Robert Stevenson. Film.
Jane Eyre. Screenplay by Moira Buffini. Dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga. Film .
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