Jane Eyre has lived many lives since she first captured readers' hearts with her classic tale of romance and babysitting in 1847. On film, she's been portrayed by the likes of Joan Fontaine, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Samantha Morton, and Mia Wasikowska. On stage, she's done pliés and performed musical farce. In recent book-length retellings, Charlotte Brontë's governess has been re-envisioned as a technology manager; a vampire slayer; a chauffeur; a college dropout; and a Korean-American au pair. Not bad for a girl who, in Brontë's original novel, describes herself as "poor, obscure, plain and little."
The new graphic novel Jane, a colorful adaptation of Brontë's novel written by Crazy Ex Girlfriend co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna and illustrated by Ramón K. Pérez, depicts the titular character as a penniless art student in New York. Released on Wednesday, the modern re-telling sees Jane move from a remote New England fishing town to New York City, enroll at an art school, and take a job as a nanny to the daughter of one of the richest men in the city, Mr. Rochester, to support her studies. What follows will be roughly familiar to anyone who's ever read Brontë's source material: Though she is instructed never to go to the third floor of Rochester's apartment, strange events that take place in the house eventually lead her there, to discover his dark secret. What actually ensues, however, is a modern cinematic twist on the Gothic tale, involving masked robbers, an IV drip, and a far more fleshed-out version of Richard Mason than one would find in the original book.
The Jane Eyre story has previously been criticized in feminist circles as an example of how female characters in the Victorian era were treated with little nuance, appearing either as angels or villains. But penned by McKenna, also the screenwriter behind the women-centered romances Morning Glory, 27 Dresses, and The Laws of Attraction, the story's central women are transformed into complex, often confounding characters. With angular, expressive illustrations by Pérez, who won an Eisner Award in 2012, the vivid interior life that distinguishes Jane in the book finds expression in close-up and reaction panels.
Pacific Standard spoke with McKenna about how she updated Jane for the modern world, how she navigated the age gap between Jane and Rochester, and why Jane is still so popular in 2017.
Tell me a little bit about how this book got started for you.
I always loved the story of Jane Eyre, it was a big touchstone for me in my early teenhood. I wanted to do some sort of homage to it but I never quite figured out what it could be. And then I adapted a graphic novel [Rust] for Archaia a few years ago, and it just hit me that this would be a wonderful way to adapt sections of it. Because [my version] isn't all of the Jane Eyre story, it's really just the Rochester section—that found a new spin on this character that I loved.
Jane Eyre is, in many ways, a story about the restrictions placed on women in the 19th century. What was it about the story that inspired you to adapt it for the modern day?
I think the essence of Jane Eyre is that she is good, moral, and pure in an impure world. That's the most important thing about the character that I clung to throughout the story. [In terms of what I adapted,] I was compelled by the haves and have-nots of being in the big city, and Jane who doesn't have a lot of money, and wants to be an artist. She comes to the city and has to live within her means but nonetheless develops a relationship with one of the wealthiest men in the city. There's a lot of obvious wish fulfillment there, but also just the social realities that we're dealing with, as opposed to the social realities that the  Jane is dealing with.
So you were interested in a story about Jane bringing the 1 percent down to Earth?
Exactly. Bringing her moral perspective to the 1 percent.
Jane Eyre has obviously has been adapted into so many books, films, and plays, but very rarely into graphic novels. What is it about this format that made it the right medium for your story?
There's a quietness and a strength to Jane as a character, and the Gothic environment of the book, that works really well visually. Ramón [K. Pérez, the illustrator] took full advantage of all that. There's so much that happens in the silences, and in the discrepancies of scale and color and rhythm of the art. That's something that you can't do in any other form, really: It has the visual storytelling of a movie, but it's teased out and constructed for you in a really specific way. You can linger on the images. I think it lends itself very well to romance.
You avoid the "madwoman in the attic" trope in this adaptation by turning the Bertha character into a wife who's fatally wounded. Was that a conscious decision on your part to update the story for readers who are a bit more feminist-minded?
Rochester has very complicated negative feelings about his wife [in the book]. I was more attracted to the idea that he had had this perfect love, and that it was looming over him and Jane more than anything else. Whether his wife is there or not there, the idea that he has a continuing emotional attachment to her is an important part of the story. That's why there are all these portraits [of her] in the apartment. So it's a little bit different in that respect: It's more of an active [love] triangle in a way. Jane knows that he's in love with this woman always.
Excerpts From Jane
Were there there other ways in which you felt you needed to update Jane Eyre's take on particular characters for readers?
Jane is less of a victim of her financial circumstances because she can get a job that allows her a lot of freedom and autonomy. Jane [in 1847] was a governess that was stuck in Rochester's house—obviously, then women had less mobility. So I wanted to make sure that this version felt contemporary, and that she felt like a real girl in our era that had tumbled into a Gothic, more removed environment. There's a real contrast between her apartment and her art-school friends and the world that she lives in with Rochester, which is a sort of shady, dark apartment.
You're obviously no stranger to writing romances, but a lot of the women in titles you've worked on are women with romantic interests that are in many ways their equals. How did you navigate the age and knowledge gap between Jane and Rochester?
Right from the beginning we consider her his equal because she considers herself [his equal]. She knows that she's a country mouse, but she also knows what she believes in and what she stands for. Very early on Jane stands up for Adèle [Rochester's child] because she believes in doing the right thing, and that emboldens her to say what she wants and how she feels.
I think that one of the charms of the Jane Eyre story is that, no matter what anyone else perceives about these power imbalances, these two people know that Jane's opinions hold as much weight [as Rochester's]. That's one of the great secret of their relationship.
You also mentioned that Jane woos Rochester because she's a moral example for him. What are the values that she represents in your version of the story that you felt were important for 2017?
He's someone who's lost hope in the world: When he lost his wife, he lost his hope. As much that as anything else, she's bringing her hope and optimism. His depression, frankly, has caused him to not be a very good parent. I think [her arrival] is a call to treat Adele properly and to make sure she has a proper childhood. That's the thing that most brings Jane out of her shell. That is a more contemporary attitude than in the Brontë sisters' era, when children were seen as having less agency and less of a point of view. So it seems more contemporary that her relationship with the child would be very important to her.
I briefly glanced at Wikipedia before this, and there has been a fair number of recent spinoffs and re-tellings of Jane Eyre in books. Why do you think this story continues to resonate so profoundly still?
I think it's the original text of the distant, remote, chilly man with a heart of gold, along with Mr. Darcy [in Pride & Prejudice]. There are stories that are more about finding your better or other half, which is what Wuthering Heights is, but this is more about finding an "other" and being pulled in by the other. So it's a little bit more of a Beauty and the Beast story, and it's always been tremendously compelling for that reason.
Also, the fact that Rochester sees Jane for who she is. She's not as beautiful and glamorous as the other women that he's around, but he sees through that to her intrinsic values. And also she sees his unacknowledged pain—she pulls a thorn from his paw, [in a way]. It's a great, compelling fantasy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.