Derivative Works

You know, I should get into a much longer discussion about derivative works sometime. Because I happen to love them. But today we're talking about one specific derivative work -- Jane, by April Lindner.

I read it over the weekend. For those not in the know, this is a recent debut novel that takes Jane Eyre, and throws it into the twenty-first century. Example: Mr. Rochester becomes a rock star. Literally. (Those of you who have not read Jane Eyre, please be aware that there will be spoilers (of Jane Eyre, not the recent Jane).)

Honestly... I wasn't thrilled. But the problems lay not so much in the actual telling of the story -- the craft was there. I think the problem is that Jane Eyre is just really difficult to translate into the twenty-first century. Think female autonomy. Sure, we've all read the stories about how women still aren't equal, how we only make 80 cents to every man's dollar. But it pales in comparison to the reality of the time. The reality of limitation, and the trap of a world where a woman's working options were few. Jane Eyre strives above all else for independence, fighting against a system that believes inherently that women are weak-minded. The twenty-first century? Well, the struggle just doesn't quite translate.

Same for the (SPOILER!) crazy wife in the attic. In Jane Eyre, one can believe that whatever else Rochester was, he was truly trying to care for his wife in the best way he knew how. In a world (see above) where women were devalued and treated like feeble-minded children, the only place for Bertha, alternative to the proverbial attic at Thornfield, would have been a mental institution far worse than those that exist today. So Rochester -- was he doing the correct thing, keeping his wife locked up in the attic? Well... A little, yeah. If you consider that the only real alternative would have been a nightmarish institution she would likely never have left alive.

Truth is, though, this doesn't work today. Nico Rathburn, our Rochester counterpart, argues pretty much the same thing. That he's keeping his beloved crazy first wife locked in the attic (and presumed dead, if you want to get right down to it) because he can't stand the idea of locking her in a mental institution. Sure, there are bad places out there. But any decent institution nowadays (and let's remember that Rathburn is a rock star, so he can afford the best of the best) has got nothing on the ones you could find two hundred years ago.

I could go on (and on), but I'll stop here. Let me be clear: This is not a critique of Jane. Rather, this is a (very brief, and incomplete) eye shed on the difficulty of modernizing Jane Eyre. Some stories lend themselves to the touch-ups, the cell phones, the world of today. Some don't. The power of Jane Eyre is in the power of woman, in particular our heroine. It's the portrayal of the world as a beast sitting on the belief that women are inferior, unimportant, and useless, that makes Jane's story that much more potent.

But all that coming-into-your-power, independent thinking and choices -- sorry, but it doesn't translate in the world of today. Jane is a diverting book, to be sure. But stripped of the context that made Jane Eyre's story so powerful, it's a story about a girl who falls in love with a rock star, and not much more.