Jane Eyre — 1943 film based on the novel by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre 1943 film

How can Charlotte Brontë’s masterwork, be crammed into a time frame of just over an hour and a half? This feat of compression was accomplished by Hollywood for the 1943 film version of Jane Eyre. To clear up any confusion, the film was released at the end of 1943 in Britain, and had its American release of February, 1944.

Nearly a quarter of the film covers young Jane’s torturous experience at the Lowood School, based on the actual place that Charlotte and her sisters attended in Yorkshire. The experience proved fatal for one of the Brontë sisters, Maria, who became gravely ill and died.

Maria was likely the inspiration, if one can call it that, for the character of Helen Burns, one of Jane’s fellow students who becomes a dear friend. Helen is played by a young and lovely Elizabeth Taylor. She’s uncredited in the cast, but her breakthrough role would come soon after as the star of National Velvet (1944).

Peggy Ann Garner and Elizabeth Taylor in Jane Eyre 1943

Peggy Ann Garner as young Jane Eyre
and Elizabeth Taylor as Helen Burns

A gothic mood

The film is dark and moody, even gloomy, with black clouds always swirling, in keeping with the gothic mood of the story. Even interiors are dark and dreary. There are the attendant bursts of overly dramatic background music typical of that era’s films. The casting is great, with Joan Fontaine as Jane Eyre — a character likely very much based on Charlotte Brontë herself — and Orson Welles as the peculiar, brooding, yet ultimately redeemable Mr. Rochester.

The best part of the film is seeing actual passages from the book appear on the screen, such as this one:

“What sort of man was this master of Thornfield — so proud, sardonic, and harsh? Instinctively I felt that his malignant mood had its source in some cruel cross of fate. I was to learn that this was indeed true, and that beneath the harsh mask he assumed lay a tortured soul, fine, gentle, and kindly.”

Yes, gentle and kindly — this she writes before finding out that the man she has fallen in love with has stashed his mentally ill wife in the attic — Bertha Antoinetta Mason is the proverbial madwoman in the attic.

Rushed pacing

There’s Bertha’s first attempt to set the castle ablaze, Edward Rochester’s declaration of love to Jane after spurning a glamorous, gold-digger, and his confession the alter that he already has a wife, after a last-minute “I object!” His plea to Jane to live with him as his wife, her refusal, her departure.

The rest of the movie speeds through the original plot, all but eliminating Jane’s quest to become her own person in the world before considering a return to Thornfield. After all, there are but twenty minutes or so left of the film. For those who don’t know the story, we’ll stop short of giving away spoilers.

Not the best version, but you can watch for free

There are those who love this film, as evidenced by the comments on YouTube, where you can watch this film version of Jane Eyre in its entirety for free. It’s not terrible, but as an adaptation, it doesn’t live up to 1940’s Rebecca nor 1939’s Wuthering Heights, in this genre of moody gothics. It also didn’t receive the kind of accolades or award nominations of these related films.

There are later film adaptations of Jane Eyre that are an improvement over this one , but better yet, read the book or listen to an unabridged version on audio.

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