Friday, April 17, 2015

Jane Eyre Watch-a-thon: The Autobiography of Jane Eyre

I bet you were surprised to see this! Those of you who've been following my blog for a long time know that I love to review book to movie adaptations and I did that here for Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. The problem was my life got so busy that I never got the chance to finish my Jane Eyre Watch-a-thon. In fact, I only had two more adaptions left to review before it was completed. Since I hate to leave a project unfinished here I am!! I set aside some of my time during my spring break to watch another adaption for review and for your enjoyment.

A little bit of housekeeping before I continue on with the review. As I was looking back at all the Watch-a-thon posts I did, I realized how obnoxious it was to have to dig through my archive to find the next review in the series. In order to fix that, I put links at the bottom of my Watch-a-thon posts that direct you to the previous and the next posts. This bit of formatting is really helpful for the Jane Eyre Watch-a-thon because those posts are scattered all over. Now that I got that out of the way, my next installment in the Jane Eyre Watch-a-thon is...

The Autobiography of Jane Eyre  

In the same vein as The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, The Autobiography of Jane Eyre is a webseries on YouTube that provides a modernized take on the classic novel, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. The story is told in a series of vlogs created by Jane, who uses these videos as sort of a digital diary. They provide her with a sense of security during this significant transition in her life. In this version, Jane graduated from college with a nursing degree, but discovered that it wasn't the field of work she really wanted to get into. Instead, she finds an ad on Craigslist asking for a live in tutor for a young girl and Jane is chosen for the job. She ends up caring for the intellectually precocious Adele, the daughter of the slightly mysterious Mr. Rochester, the CEO of the company, Thornfield Exports, which sells aluminum.

Here is a link to the webseries' informational page, which includes the cast and production team's information:  

Before I start discussing my opinions about the series, I just have to let you know this post will be full of spoilers. If you haven't watched the series and would like to, please stop reading and do so now. I'll even be awesome enough to insert the first episode below.

Now that I've given the requisite spoiler warning, it's time to have an honest talk about the series. It first premiered sometime after The Lizzie Bennet Diaries ended, when people began to realize that there was now a place on YouTube for creators to adapt classic stories. This particular series ran from 2013-2014, which in retrospect was kind of a long release schedule. I distinctly remember while watching The Lizzie Bennet Diaries that I would love it if Pemberley Digital adapted Jane Eyre, but somebody else got to the idea first. Like the first webseries, I made sure to religiously watch the episodes as they came out, but I always had lukewarm feelings about the videos. They were nice, but not quite what I'd imagined or hoped for. I still wonder to this day whether Jane Eyre would have gotten a better webseries adaption had Pemberley Digital latched onto the idea first. I'm getting ahead of myself here.

In order to avoid predictability, and to admittedly be a bit lazier in my organization, I've decided not to separate everything into a pro/con list. I'll reveal my opinions as they unfolded during my re-watching session.
What I feel like every time I binge watch a series online
The first opinion that manifested when I started the first episode of The Autobiography of Jane Eyre was the fact that Jane in her vlog gives an overt nod to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which I really didn't appreciate. I get that the series should acknowledge the ways in which it was inspired by Lizzie Bennet, but that is something the production company should have done on their website and tumblr, not within the video. Granted Lizzie and Jane technically exist in our world today and could feasibly be considered real life peers. I just think it takes away some of the legitimacy from Jane's story. That's just me being picky and I don't think it bothered anyone else.

Another facet of this webseries is the fact that it was more of a low budget production. Much of the money used to fund it was gained from an indiegogo campaign and that aspect of the series gives it some distinct advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage is that the production has a truer vlog format that feels authentic. Jane actually takes the camera with her on trips away from Rochester's home, as opposed to the continued formal setting of Lizzie's vlogs. (I apologize for all the Lizzie Bennet Diaries comparisons). The format also makes the series seem more confessional in nature, which I think greatly reflects the actual narration in Bronte's work. The problem with the format/budget is the sound quality is often quite terrible and you have to turn on closed captions just to get the whole conversation. Not to mention the weather effects layered onto the original audio overpower it. 

Continuing on the discussion of the format of the webseries, you do miss the visual representation of all of Jane's childhood, which is a significant portion of the novel. I do think they did a pretty good job of addressing Jane's past despite that lack. Peppered throughout the vlog, Jane makes references to her past: her time with the Reeds, school, and Helen. Episode 8 is when viewers are first given a nice glimpse into Jane's childhood when she discusses her friendship with Helen. She meets Helen at school and they become fast friends. They bond over reading, particularly The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, the bullying they face at school, and a passion for photography. While the vlog does appropriately address the roles religion plays in each of their lives, Helen does play a primary influence in the construction of Jane's morals. Helen in this version dies from cancer at a young age, leaving Jane without a true friend. The bulk of Jane's background is told in Episode 32 in a "Draw My Life" video, which nicely ties in with the video trends in the YouTube community. I just wished this video had been scheduled earlier in the series in order for viewers to get a better conception of her whole character sooner. 

Another problem I ran into, particularly when I sat down to marathon the series, was the pacing of the videos. With such a limited time span per video and for the whole series in general I felt like the episodes needed more action or information built into them. I found that you could easily skip a number of episodes and it wouldn't impact your understanding of Jane's narrative. Additionally, each episode should make you want to watch the next and often the content of the videos plodded along so slowly that I had to take breaks. 

Additionally, I'm not quite sure if the transmedia portion of The Autobiography of Jane Eyre was as successful as it could have been. All of the characters had Twitter accounts that you could use to interact with them and Jane had a tumblr and instagram account. All did create the nice effect of making it seem like the characters were actually real people, but I don't think the accounts were as active as they could have been. I also felt like the Thornfield Exports YouTube channel was underutilized. I almost wish they had stuck with the Twitter accounts and focused their efforts on that, making it important for viewers to follow characters on social media in order to find out more about the story. 

Now before I talk about the relative success of the modernization, I'd like to take a break from the formal aspects of the series and talk about the characters.

As a whole, I really enjoyed Alysson Hall's portrayal of Jane Eyre. She perfectly captured the insecurities that typify Jane's character and the struggles she encounters working for Mr. Rochester. Her performance really is dynamic, with one exception. Often I felt like Alysson lacked some of the ability to portray authentic emotions, at least near the beginning of the vlog (Alysson seems to get more comfortable and capable as the series goes on). Rather than express Jane's emotion through her face, Alysson would frequently take long pauses in the delivery of her dialogue, which got kind of infuriating because it ruined the pacing of the episode, making an ideally 4 minute long video into a 6 minute video. 

That being said Alysson and Adam J. Wright, the actor that plays Rochester, do have really great chemistry on camera, which is important in any adaption of Jane Eyre. Not to mention there were some fantastic episodes that focus on Jane's self-introspection. My favorite has to be Episode 46, right after Rochester reveals his feelings to her and proposes. While the episode partly focuses on the poem, Having a Coke with You, which I detest by the way...sorry, it deals with Jane's reservations about marriage. While she admits she does love Rochester, she's hesitant about the idea of marriage at such a young age, not to mention they haven't been romantically involved for any length of time. After that, the series deals with Jane's reservations about the way Rochester treats her now. She hates all of the expensive gifts that he buys her and she wishes he would just treat her like the normal person he fell in love with, not like a princess or a possession. Alysson's Jane feels truer to the novel's representation than many of the other Janes presented in films trying to stick to the source material.

 I also found that Adam J. Wright's portrayal was a nice modernization of the Byronic Hero characteristics intrinsic to Mr. Rochester. He achieves a balance between a surly and rude attitude while injecting great moments of humor and tenderness. As I said before, he and Jane are believable as a couple. Their conversations have some enjoyable back and forth wit combat, which is something I always look forward to in a good Jane Eyre adaption. As much as I would like to, I can't overlook the fact that he is a little too young to be playing Mr. Rochester, but then again I don't think it would be appropriate to have a much older Rochester in a modern adaption. I guess that's something about the series I won't be able to reconcile. The only glaring limit I can find with his portrayal is the culminating episode where Jane finds out about his wife. While Wright's delivery is full of emotion and his words are captivating, you can definitely tell he is reading from a script, which is distracting. Instead of frequently engaging with Jane or the camera, he's too busy looking in his lap. I don't know how much I can blame him for that because the video is almost 30 minutes long and he has the majority of the dialogue. Memorizing all those lines for a one shot video with few jumpcuts has to be a monumental challenge. There is one more glaring problem with Rochester, but I'll get to that in a second when I talk about the success of the modernization. (fans of the series probably already know what I'm going to talk about).

In this adaption, Mrs. Fairfax and Grace Poole are collapsed into this incarnation of Grace Poole, played by Patricia Trinh. She is the CFO of Thornfield Exports and manages to balance taking care of Rochester's company as well as his home life. I often wonder why they chose to stick with the Grace Poole persona rather than Mrs. Fairfax. Her housekeeper character would have lended itself well to this modernization, not to mention the fact that other adaptions often hint at the fact that Fairfax knows about the existence of Rochester's first wife. This is just me being picky again and there really isn't anything off-putting about her performance.

Adele's character is also a little more dynamic, but not without its faults. The series addresses the fact that Adele hates that Rochester is always away and the intense loneliness that she feels as a result. This series chooses to emphasize her intelligence, which leads to endless moments of Adele just spouting random facts rather than engaging in meaningful dialogue.

Mrs. Reed's death and Jane's cousins, here called Johanna and Liz, are also included, which helps to round out Jane's character. Her time spend there gives her some closure to her past. While a nice portrayal of the sister's distaste for one another, I just couldn't stand all of the bickering in the episodes with them and I was glad when the series finally moved on. 

Jane, Mary, Simon, and Diana celebrating all the holidays Jane missed
 In comparison to the rest of adaptions I've reviewed so far, the best part of The Autobiography of Jane Eyre has to be the time Jane spends with Diana, Mary, and Simon-James Rivers, While other adaptions tend to cut down her life with the Rivers, this series fleshes out the characters, making them so likable that you almost wish Jane would forget Rochester and stay with them, even Simon to an extent. As far as their backgrounds are concerned, Diana is an anthropologist, Mary is a dance teacher, and Simon is a doctor currently working on his residency, but wants to work overseas in impoverished countries. All of them unabashedly care for Jane's well-being and are ridiculously supportive. While I love the majority of this section, my favorite part has to be when Jane shows Mary her vlogs during the time she was employed at Rochester's. It's so great because Mary's reactions perfectly reflect those in the fandom at each respective moment. 

Susanna making fun of the gifts Rochester buys Jane (including the tiara she's wearing)

If I'm going to be honest, my favorite part of the series has to be Susanna, the maid in the Rochester home. I'm not quite sure how I feel about that fact that my favorite character in the series isn't actually a character in the original novel. I can't tell if that's my own problem or a problem in the way the series portrayed its characters. Anyway, Susanna is the hilarious, bitingly sarcastic character, who cleans up after everyone and knows the majority of their secrets (there is an extra video on the The Autobiography of Jane Eyre's Production YouTube channel that features Susanna revealing some of those secrets and I love it so much). Initially, she keeps her distance from the inhabitants of the house by pretending not to speak english, but then she becomes Jane's outspoken voice of reason. She warns Jane not to get involved with Rochester and points out how his excessive gift giving is problematic. The series would have been so much duller without her.

Now it's time to discuss the modernization of the story. This is probably where I find the most faults with the series. The characters are fleshed out nicely, they have believable back-stories, but some of the most important scenes in the novel really don't lend themselves well to modernization. In reality, Jane Eyre is such a difficult story to remove from its time period that I do have to give the creators credit for the work they accomplished. The first scene that really wasn't successful for me had to be when Rochester and Jane first meet on the road. In the book, Rochester's horse slips on a patch of ice and he falls off, injuring his leg in the process. Here Jane is in the middle of the road and Rochester almost hits her speeding in his car. For whatever reason, Rochester's abrupt stop is said to injure his leg, which is really kind of hard to believe. If anything, Jane should have been injured. Maybe it would have worked better had Rochester been riding a motorcycle? 

There are also bits in the series where some of the original text is incorporated in the dialogue, which I don't mind. The only gripe I have is that Jane calls Mr. Rochester "Sir" and every time is more awkward than the last. When Jane gets ready to leave to see the dying Mrs. Reed, I also find it really hard to believe that Jane hasn't been paid the whole time she's been there. Such a situation is plausible in the novel, but in modern society even babysitters, tutors, and nannies get regularly paid. Even within the confines of the story, Grace doesn't seem like the type of person that would neglect to pay Jane's wages. 

But none of that really matters. I bet you all are wondering how the series dealt with the madwoman in the attic aka Rochester's first wife, Bertha. Well...again it wasn't wholly believable, but a valiant try nevertheless. In this version, Rochester's wife, Beth, is suffering from mental illness and drug addiction. Rather than keep her hospitalized, he decides to build a ward in the house for her where she can be constantly taken care of by doctors and nurses. He loves her too much to abandon her to her negligent family, but at the same time he loves Jane. It's not too bad a concept, but it still doesn't feel like an explanation that would be believable in the modern world. Beth ends up dying from a drug overdose and Rochester's injuries are sustained in a car accident after Beth's family, who are shareholders in Thornfield Exports, take apart the company.

If you consider all of that, The Autobiography of Jane Eyre isn't such a bad modernization, but sadly the ending spoiled the series for many in the fandom. Another significant part of Jane Eyre is the reunion scene between Jane and Rochester at the end. The reunion scene sets the tone for the ending of the story and that particular scene can often make or break an adaption. In this webseries, there was some sort of disagreement between the creators and the actor that plays Rochester. He ended up leaving the production before finishing the ending. As a result, the viewers are denied that pivotal scene. Another actor stands in for Rochester, but we only see his body. He doesn't speak and we never see his face. Instead, in the reunion scene, Jane leaves the camera in the other room and the audio is blurred out, so the audience can see the backs of the actors, but can't hear any of their conversation. There is such a build-up to this moment and then you just feel disappointed and let down. Not to mention I wish the production team had been a bit more vocal about the problem. So many fans in the comments were angrily wondering what happened and unless you checked the production's tumblr, you had no idea. I honestly can feel let down all I want to, but this ending couldn't have been helped or foreseen. I sometimes wonder what it would have been like if they had just let the new actor completely stand in for Rochester. 

Oh well, at least the production doesn't end on a low note. The last episode provides clips of Jane's new life, with dialogue overlaid about her state of mind, She reflects on her growth as a person over the past year and the love, friends, and fulfillment she's found. The vlog concludes with Jane stating, "Dear viewer, I made a home." A fitting and touching statement to end this journey of self-exploration because at the heart of it all, Jane Eyre isn't about her romance with Mr. Rochester, it's about a woman finding her identity and her place within this complicated society.

Now that was one long review! I hope you enjoyed it and I'd love to know your thoughts if you've watched the series as well. I only have one more adaption left to cover in my Jane Eyre Watch-a-thon and I honestly can't wait to review it for you. I'll give you a hint: It may very well be my favorite Jane Eyre adaption.  
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