An admirable attempt that succeeds much more than it fails:
Jane Eyre (dir. Zeffirelli, 1996)
Zeffirelli's Jane Eyre is definitely the most beautiful adaptation of the novel yet, both romantically and cinematographically. It takes the story of Jane and Rochester and focuses on the fact that they're two souls whose only true comforts are each other and amplifies it to the extreme. Zeffirelli and William Hurt turns Rochester into a much gentler character than the novel, and Charlotte Gainsbourg's Jane is much more guarded and naive than the novel suggests. I don't agree that this approach is the appropriate one, but it seems to work for the film. I was invested in these different interpretations of the characters and their romance, even if I think that emotionally it veers too off-course of the portrayal of it in the novel.
Speaking of going off-couse, the film does take some liberties with the way that certain elements of the plot unfold. From Jane's relationship to Helen Burns to her first meeting of St. John things are shifted and altered. I think that these changes work very well in the film and make the story work better cinematically. I give kudos to screenwriter Hugh Whitemore who cleverly makes these changes, and on his first and only film credit nonetheless (his other credits are Television-related). What I love most about adaptations is seeing how they translate story and characters across media, and I think this adaptation does a particularly sly job of transferring the story and it's themes from page to screen. The themes stay, the character's developments stay, and yet the minor changes to the plot work magnificently.
Hurt and Gainsbourg. The best thing I can say about their performances is that they made me believe it, which hasn't happened yet in my Jane Eyre viewings. I do believe that is as much to Zeffirelli's credit as it is theirs, however, as the pacing of the film and the shots really enhance the relationship. Hurt, as I said in the Rochester Hot-o-meter post, is just too gentle and sincere of a Rochester to make his darkness and pain come to life. He just seems like he's a tad annoyed at times, but you never feel as though his personality is abrasive. Thereby nearly destroying what makes him 'Rochester'. Gainsbourg's Jane is gorgeous, but in a very unconventional and stripped-down way, so it actually works in the context of the film. She plays up Jane's timidity and reserved nature, which works well since young Jane (a fantastic Anna Paquin) is so vocal in her dissent of unfairness. It seems a natural progression for her character, and leaves us with a Jane that we feel we've seen grow. It's a great way to give the audience a great relationship with Jane.
My only big problem is the tone of the film, which is very romantic, and doesn't seem to serve the story well. The film works--I'm not trying to argue it doesn't--but I find that this change in tone knocks it down a few pegs.
Luckily, it's gorgeous to stare at.