Saturday, January 29, 2011
Remembering why I love literature
While I am not entirely comfortable with this confession, I must admit I spend much more time these days watching stories on film than I do reading them. I like to say that much of that has to do with the season of my life—a stay-at-home mom who’s a part-time freelancer and volunteers at school, runs a household and is getting that household prepared to move across town into a new home. However, I know other women in my season who consume novels every week, so perhaps I really have no excuse. Anyway, every once in a while I run across a film that reminds why I spent my academic career immersed in the scent and texture of paper-bound literature—and Masterpiece’s Jane Eyre (2006) is one of those creations.
This is one of the best film adaptations I’ve seen of this novel. Granted, it’s been awhile since I’ve read it, but I thought it captured not only the spirit of the novel but also its heroine as I remember. And as I watched this classic story unfold, I was riveted—and reminded that while I find great value in the theological, psychological, social and political sciences, it is stories like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre that most deeply reveal what it means to be human, why we do what we do and the power of love and redemption. In other words, it reminded me why I fell in love with good stories to begin with.
The film captured well the themes of the novel—especially the power both of being loved and loving others in our own transformation. As in the novel, Rochester is a damaged and suffering man transformed by Jane’s love—a love that is rooted in something deeper than passion or romantic love. And Jane, who suffers greatly, goes from plain to beautiful. I have a sense of dissonance when I see an adaptation that portrays the lead as gorgeous in a role that is straightforwardly described as “plain” in the novel. In this film, however, Ruth Wilson allows the character to be physically plain—but also, before our eyes, transform both inwardly and outwardly into beauty.
And that is directly connected to the God-talk in the novel, in particular the difference between living a life formed by the practice of divine love and forgiveness versus one formed by pure passion or commitment to religion, morality, convention or tradition (the latter of which take up way too much space in the Christian culture today—which makes the novel feel like it is ahead of its time, though I suppose these are struggles we humans have struggled with since that moment in the Garden). Jane’s love is rooted in putting the best interests of another ahead of her own—not in a doormat kind of way, but in a love rooted in something stronger and deeper. This allows her to forgive her aunt’s villainous and inexcusable behavior. And in Rochester’s case, to stay with him even though he is already married would harm not only Jane but Rochester himself. Jane’s decision is a devastating one (and powerfully portrayed in this film), but also one that reflects a love rooted in something deeper than mere passion, morality, religion or tradition; it reflects Love itself.
The film moved me anew as I watched Jane’s choice to love in spite of her suffering, and how that transforms her both inside and out. Even though most of the people who experience Jane’s love do not see the enormity of potential her love provides them, nonetheless Jane herself is changed by her choice to love. And all of that was a profound reminder of how the power of our choice to love in spite of our circumstances witnesses to the inverted nature of God’s kingdom in which, as Donald Kraybill puts it in The Upside Down Kingdom, “the values of service and compassion replace dominance and command” and “greatness isn’t measured by how much power we exercise over others” but “by our willingness to serve.” Power, says Kraybill, isn’t used for self-gain or glory but “to serve and empower others.” Indeed, love is the power that changes everything.
For what it’s worth, after watching this film, I pulled an old copy of the novel off the shelf; it is sitting beside me even now. So, perhaps one of the best things about this film is that it reawakened a longing for the original story—just as that story reawakens a longing for the Author of Love himself.