Book Versus Movie: When Bad Movies Tell Good Stories

By Killarney Traynor

Word Count: 1839

Rating: G

Summary: A review of various Jane Eyre adaptations though the years.

JANE-jumbo
Image Credit: New York Times. 2011 version of Jane Eyre 

“The book is always better,” someone said to me one day. “I don’t know why you even bother watching film versions. They are never as good.”

 

She was referring, of course, to my Jane Eyre movie collection and was trying to stop my unasked for in-depth discourse on the comparative qualities the various films. Her question brought me up short. Why did I watch so many versions when the book was so much better? If I must watch Jane Eyre, surely one good quality version (the 1983 BBC miniseries is the best) would suffice.

 

Perhaps. But I, like most humans, love stories and storytellers.  Good books are rich troves of characters, motivations, morality plays, and human interest, which, when seen through a variety of lens (literal and figurative) can add to our enjoyment. Directors, producers, actors, and screenwriters are all storytellers who put their own complexion on stories, bringing to light hidden depths or spinning the narrative slightly so you can see it from a different point of view. While occasionally there are misfires (I’m looking at you, Sherlock Holmes in New York), even an unfaithful movie version of a book can offer interesting insights into the story.

 

To prove my point, I offer three comparisons: a faithful adaptation of a book (in one case, an extremely obscure version) against a more imaginative retelling.

 

Case One:

House of the Seven Gables

Book Synopsis: A young country girl goes to live with her relatives in Salem, where an old family curse still haunts their halls… and rumors of hidden treasure stirs old dangers.

 

The Movies:

Universal’s 1940 movie starring Vincent Price and George Sanders versus 1958’s Shirley Temple’s Storybook, starring Shirley Temple and Robert Culp.

 

This is, admittedly, the oddest mix of the batch. Vincent Price, king of the 1960s horror flicks versus Shirley Temple, everyone’s favorite little orphan girl from the 1930s. But this works, so stay with me.

 

Shirley Temple’s Playhouse was an hour show that presented a three-part play with simplified costumes and backgrounds. This particular play has a great cast, but is hampered by wooden acting, poor lighting, and stilted dialog. However, it is faithful to the story, keeping the main character, the innocent, courageous Cousin Phoebe front and center for the whole story (watching Greatest American Hero’s Robert Culp chewing the scenery as the mysterious photographer is a treat), and reminding viewers that greed rewards its followers with emptiness. It is dark (in its way), weird, and small, very much like the book itself and despite its drawbacks, I found it entertaining.

 

Price’s Seven Gables is a horse of a different color. It starts twenty years before the actual novel, showcasing the young Price as Clifford Pyncheon, a dashing, bold musician ready to chuck his tainted ancestry to the wayside for a musician’s life in New York with his fiancé, Hepzibah. When Clifford is convicted of murder, thanks to his wicked brother Jaffrey, the grieving Hepzibah seals the House of Seven Gables, denying Jaffrey entry as revenge. But it’s when Clifford meets young Matthew Holgrave in prison that the real revenge plot gets going.  Cousin Phoebe, the star of the novel, is delegated to a side-character while Hepzibah’s performance is strong and powerful. What I really liked about this rendition was how lively and strong the characters came across: Holgrave is a reformer, Clifford is a rebel, Hepzibah is driven by grief and love, but none of these seemed stilted or antiquated. They are as alive and as lively as anyone living today, reminding the viewer that people in old New England weren’t all that different than people today.

 

The most interesting thing about these movies is how important perspective is to each. Temple’s Seven Gables is about a young woman helping to free her family from the guilt of a crime committed by an ancestor. While this is referenced in Price’s movie, the focus is on wrong done to Clifford and Hepzibah, the time that was stolen from their lives by his brother’s greed. While all of the same facts are in evidence (with the exception of poor Phoebe’s reduced role), the take on the story is vastly different and offers the viewer different points to ponder on. While greed is present in both, Price’s movie talks about justice and revenge, while Temple’s adheres to the novel’s themes of sin visited upon the generations.

 

Why the Remake was Necessary: The Price version shifts perspective so entirely that the main character, Phoebe, is lost in the shuffle, reduced to Pretty Young Thing status. Hawthorne never would have approved.

 

Case Two:

The Scarlet Pimpernel:

Book Synopsis: A young French woman tries desperately to save her brother from the guillotine, all while unaware that her estranged dandy husband is in fact the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel.

 

The Movies:

Leslie Howard’s 1934 black and white movie versus the 1982 TV movie starring Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour.

 

Howard’s Pimpernel is hands down the better movie: it’s more faithful to the book and it has a satisfying pace with little to no wasted time in it. Strong performances offset occasional stilted dialog and even the poor quality of the black and white film doesn’t detract. While it isn’t quite as good a movie as, say, Captain Blood or Tyrone Power’s Zorro, it’s a good swashbuckling film that holds its own. Howard is great as Sir Percy: a truly brave character who’s willing to play a fool for everyone, including his wife, in order to save lives. He is well matched by Merle Oberon, and the two scenes where Sir Percy and Lady Blakeney separately realize the truth about each other shows their subtle strengths to perfection.

 

Andrews’ Pimpernel… well, let’s just say it feels like a TV movie. Though generously endowed with great scenery, gorgeous costumes, and a good cast, it’s hampered by awkward pacing, clumsy dialog, an overpowering soundtrack, and awkwardly played out scenes. Combining two of the Scarlet Pimpernel books (the original with the sequel), it somehow manages to feel too long and like it ought to have been a miniseries (Wikipedia tells me that the intention was to turn this into a TV show, but it never materialized with Andrews).

 

All that being said, Andrew’s Pimpernel is actually the more interesting movie, in its way, because of the manner in which it treats the main villain, Ian McKellen’s head of state security, M. Chauvelin. While the book keeps the narrative simple (the French in power are cruel and bloodthirsty, while the British are noble heroes who quite literally laugh in the face of danger), the 1982 movie gives Chauvlin more credit. He is, in his own way, as idealistic as Sir Percy, committed to the ideals of the revolution. Sir Percy appears to represent everything that Chauvlin is fighting against – the well-fed, well-heeled, laughing, careless aristocracy that brought France to its knees to begin with (Chauvlin’s frustration when Sir Percy steals his girl is almost heartbreaking). It’s a solid, unexpected reminder that the French Revolution was, among other things, a battle of ideals and ideas that went too far.

 

Why the Remake was Important: Honestly, it probably wasn’t – Howard’s is a good solid movie without many mistakes. However, the 1982 movie does give Anthony Andrews this line, spoken while wooing Jane Seymour: “You must tell me all about yourself, in every detail. But ever so slowly. So very slowly, so that it takes a very…very long time.” For that reason alone, you should watch it. (Seriously, that line should not work. But it totally does. Sigh!)

 

Case Three:

Jane Eyre

Novel Synopsis: A young woman, orphaned and abandoned by her family, finds love and understanding in the house of her new employer, but when secrets from his past threaten to ruin her, she must find the courage to keep her own integrity intact.

 

The Movies:

Vivien Leigh and Orson Welles’ 1943 version against the much more faithful BBC miniseries starring Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton

 

The 1943 movie is filmed like a cross between a noir and a horror film: Thornfield house is a castle filled with long, shadowy passageways, turrets reverberating with ghostly sounds, and lots of atmosphere: when Jane nurses a man after an attack, she’s left alone in a turret room while a lock door rattles under some unknown person’s pounding – really a pretty chilling scene. Similar to poor Phoebe in Price’s Seven Gables, Jane’s role is diminished and more time spent on Welles’s Rochester. Women, in general, have a reduced role in this movie: it isn’t the teacher, Miss Temple, who helps to train young Jane in a better way, but a kindly doctor, while the Rivers sisters and their brother are completely written out. Instead, when Jane flees from Mr. Rochester, she returns, penniless and homeless, to her Aunt Reed, (a retreat the Jane of the novel would never have made). And when Jane does return to Thornfield, it is as a bereft, still-penniless woman, who begs Rochester, “Please, don’t send me away!” Feminists, be very wary.

 

When I first watched the 1943 movie, I dismissed it as revisionist and silly. But watching it again, I realized that, while this Eyre doesn’t do its heroine much credit, it does lend some new light to the character of Rochester. Welles’ Rochester is a sadder figure, more kindly than a cursory read through the book would suggest (his first thought, after putting out the fire in his bedroom, is to check on his daughter, Adele) and the movie shows more of his actions than the book does. While the movie does take liberties, it has the effect of making Rochester likable and more of a whole person rather than merely a motivational prop for Jane’s various awakenings.

In contrast, the faithful BBC miniseries does an admirable job of capturing the spirit of the book: Zelah Clarke is very good at conveying both Jane’s inner struggle and strength. Her stalwart exterior pairs up nicely against Timothy Dalton’s almost manic Mr. Rochester, all seething frustration and despair. Even their difference in height plays nicely into the drama: when Jane accuses Rochester of dismissing her feelings because she is ‘little and plain’, you really feel for her. While the six-hour miniseries might be a little too stiff for some, it’s rich in detail and well-thought out. Jane’s isolation, youth, and steady character shine against the variegating characters surrounding her, and the ending, faithful to Bronte’s, is a satisfying cap to what is, at times, a heart-wrenching journey.

 

Why the Remake was Necessary: As powerful as Orson Welles’s acting is in this role, the story is Jane’s, not Rochester’s. The 1983 BBC version never forgets that. Also, Orson Welles never played James Bond, so there’s that, too.

Killarney Traynor is a writer, actor, director, bookworm, and bad-movie addict who lives in southern New Hampshire. The author of four books, her blog can be found on her website at http://www.killarneytraynor.com.

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