Unlocking Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre: An Interview with Screenwriter Moira Buffini

In adapting Jane Eyre from novel to screen, Moira Buffini solved a problem that has plagued dramatists and screenwriters for ages.

Adapting Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre for the screen is no easy task––and not simply because  screenwriter Moira Buffini had to condense a 700+ page novel into an hour and half. Starting in 1910, there have been over 30 film and television adaptations, as well as a score of theatrical ones. But when Buffini took on the task for BBC Films and Ruby Films, she solved the one problem that had baffled nearly all her predecessors. The last quarter of the book, in which Jane is whisked away from Rochester’s romantic embrace and placed in the domestic calm of the Rivers home, has nearly always been lost (or muted) in adaptations. “The genius of Moira,” as producer Alison Owen points out, “was that instead of abbreviating or losing that part all together…she put it right at the beginning, and made the early sections flashbacks.” The overall effect not only keeps the novel’s integrity, but also lets the viewer, as Owen adds, “get the emotional punch of being in real time at the end of the movie.“ Indeed it was this imaginative screenwriting that captured director Cary Fukunaga’s imagination: “When I read the script, I was blown away by it.  It’s a really beautifully written script and had a structure that works for contemporary storytelling.”

We caught up with the playwright and screenwriter Moira Buffini in London to ask her about her approach to adapting Jane Eyre, her fear of disappointing Bronte fans, and her thrill when Judi Dench said “yes” to playing Mrs. Fairfax.

When did you first encounter Brontë’s novel Charlotte?

I think I was about 15. I was a school kid, and I couldn’t put it down. I literally could put it down. Although I found it a difficult read in terms of its rich language, and some of its ideas, which I knew were going just right over my head, I had never read such a passionate book. I still don’t think that I have read such a passionate book as Jane Eyre. It had a profound effect on me, not just because it’s a dark and brilliant love story, but because of what it says about society, about wealth and poverty, about women and men.

How did you get involved in this film version?

I heard through a friend that BBC Films and Ruby Films were thinking of doing Jane Eyre. I said, “Oh my God! I’ve got to write that.” I immediately called my agent, and said, “please, please, please get me a meeting. I’ve got to write it.” I chased the job; I really chased the job. But if there was one adaptation I was gong to do, this was it.

There lots of different takes on the book. How did you view Jane Eyre?

Jane Eyre is a very active book––and a very dark one. The genre is not really romance; it is actually gothic thriller. Jane is a vulnerable young woman in this creepy old house. While Mrs. Fairfax is a lovely old lady, and her charge is a lost little French girl, there is an undertone that something about this house is not quite right. And then you meet Mr. Rochester. Jane describes him as quite capricious––one minute he is in a wonderful, ebullient mood, and the next, he doesn’t want to speak to any one, is abrupt, downright rude and quite horrible. And yet she begins to fall for him. The set up is the same as that for “Beauty and the Beast.” There is a mystery in this house, and Rochester is a man with mysteries in his past. His behavior is difficult to fathom. Jane can’t discover his motives. Is he telling her the truth? Is he playing with her? Does he love her? These are really difficult questions, questions that have puzzled readers since it was published.

How did you approach adapting the novel?

I desperately wanted to do it. And then I got the job, and a panic overcame me.  How do you take on this enormous text? It is the favorite book of so may people––and I am one of those people. So I wrote the version that I would want to see. To do so, I had to give myself equal status to the novelist. I said, “Charlotte Bronte, I am really going to mess around with your novel in order to turn it into a totally different form.” When you adapt a novel, you have to distill it, because you can’t put all 700 pages into it. So the hardest part is figuring out what to leave out.

You also changed the structure of the story. What did you do?

The beginning of the film happens about two thirds of the way through the book. We open the film with Jane leaving Thornfield Hall and then we see in retrospect how she came to that point. We go back into her childhood, and then work forward from there: going to the Lowood school, getting the job at Thornfield, meeting Rochester, etc. The reason for this––and it is a problem with all adaptations of Jane Eyre––is that in the last third of the book, Jane passes a year with St. Johns Rivers and his sisters Diana and Mary, who are brand new characters. It is very important that she spends that year because she does a lot of growing up and changing during it. And at the end she loves Rochester no less than the day she left Thornfield. She tries and tries to win her independence from this love, to win her freedom back from this love, but she can’t. 

Why is this change in structure so important?

In a film, when you have 15 minutes to go and you start introducing brand new characters, it is very difficult to make it work. I knew that when I wrote the first draft. I realized then that the whole structure had to change. So I decided to put Jane’s time with the Rivers at the top of the film. They find Jane very mysterious, which just sort of adds to that feeling of people with secrets and mysterious pasts. It was a very handy way of condensing 700 and some pages. Now Jane looks back at her past selectively, rather than narrating it all as she does in the book. We have distilled her relationship with Helen Burns and Mrs. Reed into scenes that, I hope, are emotionally powerful but economical in terms of film time.

How did you deal with all the previous adaptations of Jane Eyre?

I made myself not watch them. I feared I would’ve sunk under the weight of other people’s ideas. So instead, to get a sense of what came before, I watched the odd chunk on YouTube. I watched a ten-minute section of the 80s version with Timothy Dalton. And then there was the one from the 90s with Charlotte Gainsborough, and I watched a 10-minute chunk of that. But Cary Fukunaga and I both loved the Orson Welles version of Jane Eyre from 1944. That one was so beautiful and the language was so rich, I found it very inspirational. In doing my version, I tried to keep Charlotte Bronte’s language without updating it. Her 19th century language is unusual on the ear. But why not have it?  It is just beautiful. And Cary really liked that. We both tried to be very true to the original language.

What was your favorite part to write?

My favorite scene is Jane and Rochester by the fireside. Even though it was very challenging to write, I love the way those two fall in love through language. They just talk each other into love. Also I really like Mrs. Fairfax [played by Judi Dench in the film]. In many adaptations she is written as a peripheral character, but I think that she is very, very important.  Jane has had no mother, so Mrs. Fairfax is the closest she gets to that. She is a warm presence in this dark house.

How was it working with the film’s director Cary Fukunaga?

We had been working on the screenplay for 18 months, 2 years, when Cary came on board. And he was such good news. He did know the book. I thought this was a quite a good thing. All of us on the producing and writing side knew and loved this book since childhood, whereas the first thing Cary read was the screenplay. He brought a very different energy. But once he read it, he went back did all his homework.

How did you connect on who should play these characters?

We started discussing our dream cast and Cary really got it. If you cast Jane Eyre right, it works. If you miss it, and there is no chemistry between Jane and Rochester, no matter how beautifully written the adaptation is, the film won’t work. When we got Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender, we could not have been more fortunate. I remember seeing the first scene we shot with them, the scene by the fire side when he is questioning her––“where do you come from? What is your tale of woe?”––and I just knew that it was really going to work between the two of them.  They just brought each other alive. The actors played off each with such intensity and such playfulness. It was great fun to watch.

And what about Judi Dench?

I’d written the part of Mrs. Fairfax with Judi Dench in mind and sort of fantasized about her playing her. I knew that she would be perfect since she is from York, so she would play the Northern gentility as second nature. We offered the part to her. The day that she accepted, there was much rejoicing.

Jane Eyre continues to be what of the most enduring novel of all time. What makes it so significant?

The amazing thing about Jane Eyre is that whatever fortune throws at her––her parents die before she is one; she is brought up in this house unloved; she is sent to this terrible school; her one friend, Helen Burns, is taken away from her––she keeps fighting. Jane Eyre is indomitable. She refused to accept her lot, either as a woman or as a member of the dependent classes. She is always looking for something greater. This is why we still love her. So many of us accept our lot, but Jane says why must the horizon be forever our limit, why can’t a woman’s life be more like a man’s. So much has happened since Charlotte Bronte wrote that book, but I think that Jane Eyre still speaks to us all. Not just as women. There is some thing so human about her struggle to find love. And something so strong about how she is able to sustain herself with nothing. When you read this book when you are down––whether you are young, old, man, woman––it is a book that will sustain you and give you hope.