As autumn creeps into view and the cold sets in, the only real way to lift one’s spirits is to settle down with a period drama, a behind-the-scenes tour of the Brontë’s home, and a talk on the moors with a Hollywood director. So, naturally I headed up to Haworth in Yorkshire, land of windswept heather and numerous local businesses with the word Brontë in their name, to interview Cary Fukunaga, 34, whose brilliant new adaptation of Jane Eyre is out today.
Jane’s tempestuous love affair with the enigmatic Mr Rochester has already spawned eighteen TV and film adaptations, but there really is something special about this one, which follows Cary’s 2009 Sin Nombre – perhaps it’s Mia Wasikowska’s stunning performance as Jane, headstrong and with an effortless Yorkshire lilt (Anne Hathaway, take note), and her chemistry with Michael Fassbender’s deeply sexy Mr Rochester, who Cary sees as a true Byronic hero. Most definitely the perfect cure for seasonal malaise.
As the sun set on the moors in Haworth, I asked Cary how he came to the book and experienced it for the first time. ‘I was first introduced to Jane Eyre as a film, the 1943 version by Bob Stephens.’ He didn’t actually read the novel until two years before making the film, but loved it instantly: ‘I think it was incredible writing. I decided I would underline passages that I liked and I ended up underlining almost the entire book.’ Reading it was a physical experience; ‘Once you manage to master the book you know where things are, what you want, you flick around and find things… my copy is definitely dog-eared now.’ Jane herself was the central attraction: ‘she’s a rare heroine in literature.’
Thumbing through the book so thoroughly enabled Cary to really get to grips with some of its haunting imagery and to draw this out into the film. The idea of Rochester as a lion and Jane as a lamb was important: ‘that was definitely a theme that is a leitmotif in the film. There’s this famous Unicorn tapestry that we changed into a tapestry of a lion eating a lamb that’s in Rochester’s office.’ The book’s overtly religious concerns aren’t something Cary wanted to focus on, though: ‘I didn’t want this to be a film about God – even though it is an important part of what Charlotte wrote. I think there are a lot of other aspects of the story that are strictly ethical and moral and I just didn’t want to stuff it with that.’
During a brilliant ‘behind the scenes’ tour of the Parsonage, the Brontës’ home, we were shown some of Charlotte’s delicately sad paintings and tragic letters. It’s hard not to wonder whether being surrounded by stark moorland and an overflowing graveyard had an impact on her psyche, and the sometimes shockingly dark atmosphere of Jane Eyre. Cary and I discussed the concept of the gothic in the novel, and how this comes through strongly in the film. ‘It’s an early idea of gothic. In the scene with Richard Mason, you have references to religion and to the apostles and to mortality. Gothic to me is always somehow related with death.’ Cary points out that Charlotte was literally surrounded by death her whole life. ‘Charlotte grew up in a cemetery. She understood who she was after that.’
What of the novel’s other characters, and the structure they lend to the film? Judi Dench is a cracking Mrs Fairfax, Thornfield’s housekeeper who narrates some of the crucial action, and Jamie Bell gives a fresh take on the austere and often-marginalised St John Rivers. Here his presence is pivotal and frames the entire film, a careful decision on Cary’s part: ‘one of the most important parts of doing it that way was to meet St John Rivers earlier on in the story, because for me an essential part of Jane’s character is her decision between Rivers and Rochester … that choice that she makes in the film defines who she is. By putting her choice at the beginning we could then pepper his story across the film without really slowing its last act. What you really want to find out is if she ends up going back to Rochester or not.’
This probably won’t be the last Jane Eyre, either: ‘For the same reason that Shakespeare’s put on every year. The Classics are re-told because as long as they’re relevant to our experience they will be re-told.’ It is the actual timely moment that the film inhabits that defines it, he says: ‘all of us who came together for that particular moment in time to make this film, their image is forever locked there. Mia will always be 19 years old in this film.’ And there’s something daring about committing that moment to time. ‘You never know where a film’s going to go – that’s the exciting and scary thing about making a film: it ends up being immortal as well as the book.’
Editorial Co-ordinator, Penguin Classics