Monday, 23 June 2014

The Autobiography of Jane Eyre (2013-14)

In 2012 Hank Green and Bernie Su created a modern-day vlog adaptation of Pride and Prejudice called The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. It became an internet phenomenon and even managed to win an Emmy Award. The following year the web series The Autobiography of Jane Eyre was launched. This web series was co-created by Nessa Aref and Alysson Hall, two students at the University of Victoria. Aref and Hall were so impressed by The Lizzie Bennet Diaries that it inspired them to make a modern-day vlog adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Alysson Hall would also play the role of Jane Eyre herself.

In The Autobiography of Jane Eyre, Jane is a 21 year old Nursing graduate who is about to embark on a second degree in Child Development. However, because Jane is feeling restless and bored she decides to embark on a new career. She starts a vlog and applies for a position as a live-in home-school tutor at a mansion called Thornfield, which is just outside of Vancouver. Jane's application is accepted. Her pupil is a highly intelligent young girl called Adele who is the daughter of a wealthy businessman called Edward Rochester. Jane is at Thornfield for several weeks until she finally meets Rochester. The two of them have a frosty first meeting but they're both intrigued by one another and a friendship grows between them. Rochester discovers Jane's vlog and appears in her videos. Jane's friendship for Rochester grows into love and she discovers that he feels the same way for her. They become engaged but, before their marriage can take place, Rochester's PA Grace Poole confesses to Jane that Rochester has a terrible secret. Although Jane forgives Rochester she believes that he needs to grow as a person if a relationship between them can have any chance of working. She leaves Thornfield but is then mugged and injured at a bus station. Jane is helped by a doctor called Simon Rivers and his two sisters Diana and Mary. They take Jane into their home and Jane is then able to find work at a community centre. Simon then invites Jane to accompany him on a trip to India but makes a surprising offer alongside it. Should Jane accept? Or should she find out what's become of Rochester? I've embedded the second video in the web series below so that you can get an idea of the tone of the series:

I'm a massive fan of both Jane Eyre and the Brontes but I was still extremely sceptical of this web series adaptation. Unlike Pride and PrejudiceJane Eyre didn't exactly strike me as being a particularly easy book to modernise. But in many respects this web series proved me wrong. I had my issues with the AOJE and I don't think that it ever managed to hit the heights of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries but it was still very enjoyable for the most part and it was far better than I thought it was going to be. One of the very best aspects of the AOJE is - oddly enough! - its low budget. The production values of the AOJE are clearly lower than that of the LBD. This did take a bit of getting used to but funnily enough it actually worked in its favour. The lower production values do make the AOJE a more realistic and believable vlog. At times Jane's camera even "glitches" on purpose because the creators wanted to give the viewers a sense of Thornfield's hidden darkness. We also get a greater variety of locations in this web series because Jane occasionally films her videos outdoors. We get to see Jane's outside world and some lovely Canadian scenery.

The AOJE isn't the most faithful adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's book e.g. it takes place in modern-day Canada, the Grace Poole and Mrs Fairfax characters are combined, and Adele is definitely Rochester's daughter. Nevertheless it's still a very faithful adaptation and the writers do a superb job at fitting the story into the modern day. Because of its vlog format the writers aren't able to show us Jane's childhood years but they still find very nice ways of incorporating Jane's past into the story. Jane tells her viewers that she was brought up by her aunt until she managed to win a scholarship to a private boarding school called Brocklehurst. Helen Burns (who died of cancer in this version) and Miss Temple are mentioned in her videos. We get to see the Reeds when Jane goes back to Gateshead. At one point Jane even shows her viewers the Red Room. St. John/Simon Rivers' love Rosamund Oliver ("Rose") is also in this web series.

Alysson Hall is great in the role of Jane. Hall's Jane is passionate, funny, sweet and extremely likeable. Jane isn't as reserved in this web series as she is in the book but this makes sense when you consider that the series is taking place in the modern-day and that Jane is now a vlogger. Jane is still an introvert though and initially she's slightly awkward in front of the camera. The acting in this web series is certainly very good but it's Hall who gives the stand-out performance. At times she even reminded me of a young Claire Danes. I didn't enjoy Adam J. Wright's Rochester as much as I did Hall's Jane but he's still very good in the role. He captures Rochester's sense of humour really well and it's very clear that he loves Jane. He also has tattoos which I loved. I can easily imagine a modern-day Rochester having tattoos! And as a A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones fan I got a huge kick out of Rochester and Jane discussing the books in a couple of the episodes. Other characters that I felt were done especially well in this series were the Reeds and Rose Oliver. Simon Rivers is sweeter in this web series than St. John is in the book - in fact he's downright adorable at times! - but they still show enough of the character's less attractive qualities for viewers to understand why he and Jane wouldn't be a good match. Diana and Mary Rivers are more fleshed out in this web series than they are in the book, which I really liked, and there's also an original character called Suzanne. She works as a maid at Thornfield and her character is very funny and sassy.

All of the other Jane Eyre adaptations that I've seen have had their faults and the AOJE is no exception. For all its virtues I didn't enjoy this web series as much as the book, some of the other JE adaptations, and the LBD. The AOJE doesn't always flow well for me. There are episodes that don't do enough to move the story forward and feel like filler: it isn't as tightly-written and plotted as the LBD. I also had a problem with Jane occasionally filming people without their consent. Fair enough it's possible to accidentally record people when you forget to turn the camera off but that doesn't mean you should put the videos on the internet. I wish that the location for Thornfield had been more gothic-looking too. From what we see of the house it looks very modern. The gothic atmosphere of Thornfield is one of the big reasons why I love Jane Eyre so much and I really wish that they could have found a cooler location for it - but then I suppose that big gothic houses might be something of a rarity in British Columbia. It also really bothered me that Jane and Rochester were planning to have a "symbolic wedding". In the book Jane refused to become Rochester's mistress and, by having a symbolic wedding, isn't that what Jane's becoming in this version? :S I know that times are different now but the Jane of the book had stronger principles than that.

Finally, the ending for this web series really rubbed me up the wrong way. It feels incredibly rushed and I found it very underwhelming. The ending for this web series isn't the one that the writers had initially planned but apparently Adam J. Wright left the series due to "differences" and they decided to go with something else. So we never get to see Rochester again unless you count one episode before that having a glimpse of his back (and I don't!) Yes the ending is prettily-filmed, features a great song (Amarante's "Lover's Song"), and there's a hint that Anna Karenina will be their next adaptation - but it's so disappointing! Why couldn't we have had some scenes with Jane and a recast Rochester? Yes that would have still been disappointing but then recasting often happens in TV shows and I'm sure that most viewers would have been able to suspend their disbelief for it to work. Some viewers have defended the ending by saying that "Jane Eyre is more than just a love-story and that it's really more about Jane's growth as a person". Well I completely agree with that but then that's exactly how I see Pride and Prejudice. That book is also more than a love-story and is also more about Elizabeth's growth as a person. That was partly why I was completely fine about the LBD not showing Darcy until its 60th episode, and also because Darcy still had a very strong presence in the story because of all of the "costume theatre". And the LBD tied up the Elizabeth-Darcy romance in a much more satisfactory manner than the AOJE does with Jane and Rochester. It's a shame. The AOJE has a great deal of merit and it's well worth a watch. The writers clearly love the book and their version is an enjoyable take on the story. I don't want this review to be too harsh. However it also feels like a missed opportunity. I like the AOJE but I don't love it.

Rating: 4/5


samara said...

Good review. Yes, I would like to have had a few more episodes in the wrap up of this project.

For me, the strongest part of the series was when Jane was with the Rivers. Though some episodes there are more character than plot driven, the plot they do adapt is done really well!

Hannah said...

Thanks :)

I can see why you enjoyed the Rivers section so much. In most JE adaptations the Rivers section feels like a tacked-on extra to me but those scenes never felt like that in this version.