What can a modern woman take away from these two film adaptations of centuries-old stories?
Appian Way/BBC Films
"Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?"
Was there a nerdy, overly-literate high school girl among us who did not identify with these words, spoken by Jane Eyre in the middle of the Charlotte Bronte novel that bears her name? Prone since my childhood to bouts of intense and indulgent self-pity, I've often implored myself to be "more like Jane." Long-suffering, insecure, and small, Jane Eyre is nevertheless quick-witted and independent and she makes the most of every situation. And in the end, she gets the boy.
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Cary Fukunaga's current cinematic take on this classic story focuses on Jane's relationship with the mercurial Rochester. There will be those that complain that Mia Wasikowska as Jane and Michael Fassbender as Rochester are too attractive for their roles. But it is only in certain moments that the viewer catches a glimpse Wasikowska's true beauty—her full lips and large eyes captured in the sun filtering though enormous windows. And Fassbender is all swaggering virility and swaying anger. He is dangerous, and that danger is handsome. Whether he is the hulking, barrel-chested Rochester of the novel seems beside the point.
It is a disadvantage to the film that we lose the majority of Jane's early years. For me, one of the best parts of "being more like Jane" is that Jane herself can so often not live up to her own strict moral code. One of the high points of the film comes when she is a girl of ten being taunted by an older male cousin. She leaps upon him flailing and kicking with all her might. It is this Jane that forms the many complexities with which so many readers have strongly identified. The character of Jane Eyre was revolutionary for her time because she was confident and dutiful without being didactic, and when she comes into her own as a woman it is through her distinct understanding of her life's experiences.
While the Jane of the film is quick with a clever retort, too often she comes across as the kind of smart alecky young woman we have come to accept as shorthand in popular culture for "tough"—think Juno by way of Angela Chase. When the audience-members at the movie theater laughed at Jane's one-liners and rapid-fire conversation with Rochester (as they did throughout the movie) I wanted to remind them all that the real Jane, my Jane, spoke this way because she believed in honesty and in her own intelligence, whereas this Jane seemed concerned with one-upmanship. To me, she is more Omar from The Wire than Veronica Mars. By the time Jane implores Rochester to see her worth despite her plainness and littleness in the film, I had nearly come to find her, dare I say it, a bit insufferable. I sunk low in my theater seat, uncomfortable. It felt a bit like having a falling out with a very good friend.
With this disappointment in mind, I somewhat reluctantly purchased my tickets for Red Riding Hood, another newest take on a classic tale. It was to be a female-centric film adaptation kind of weekend. Toggling from Fandango to my Gmail, I discovered a slew of emails from family and friends imploring me not to look at my Facebook page. (Note to all: never send an email saying "Don't read this email!") I logged in and saw that my ex-boyfriend had changed his status to "In a Relationship". It was a petty maneuver, and I felt like a child for being as profoundly hurt as I was. I wanted to throw up, but instead I decided I would Be Like Jane, albeit with a very modern boy problem, and forge dutifully ahead with my plans to see the movie.
Of the Red Riding Hood remake, I can say this: Amanda Seyfried is absolutely stunning. Truly. The movie is almost worth seeing just to see her cascade of blond ringlets fall ever so gently across her titular red shawl. I say "almost" because the movie itself feels much like a low-rent version of Twilight. Our heroine is in love with one Hollister model of a young woodcutter, but engaged to his blacksmithing Abercrombie counterpart. Will the two men join forces to save their beloved from the big bad wolf? Of course they will. Will you be able always to tell them apart from one another? Not often.
There are some worthy nods to the Perrault and Grimm tellings of this story. These are macabre moments that feel a bit out of whack but provide a nice wink and a nod to those who grew up with the story's more gruesome details: a body sewn full of rocks, a pot of stew containing grandmother meat. And of course there is Gary Oldman in a velvet wearing, scenery chewing role that made me giggle. Because who doesn't love Gary Oldman? But as for Red Riding Hood, whom I remember from the fairy tale as a brave child who outwits the adults and wolves around her, here she is little more than a lovely, doe-eyed victim.
I want to say that when I emerged from the theater I was the strong, independent Jane I have so often sought to be, instead of the victimized Red Riding Hood. But I wasn't. I dissolved into a series of tear-soaked humiliating phone calls to the people who had emailed me, and threatened the deletion of my Facebook account as if it were an action akin to cutting off a limb. I'd wanted badly to love the Jane Eyre movie and I hadn't. I'd wanted badly to be the kind of better person her character represents, but I wasn't. Instead I was Jane the child, kicking and scratching away at a bratty cousin. But such is the beauty of stories like Jane Eyre and Red Riding Hood. In spite of its faults, seeing Jane Eyre reminded me of the kind of woman I want to be, and Red Riding Hood—also a flawed film—showed me the opposite. These are stories that will continue to be retold, and each version will offer something new to think about, some different way to develop as a person into something that might, or might not, be great.