This was written for my Literature and Film Class in the Fall of 2013.
Its kinda long, but also kinda interesting- the movie was fantastic if you would want to check it out! Nothing quite like old horror films....Enjoy!
|Not yo mama's Jane|
Jane Eyre Revisited
Charlotte Bronte’s classic Victorian novel Jane Eyre uses a first person narrative to illustrate the life of the title character as she moves from her wretched childhood dependent on relatives, to her time spent at Lowood getting an education and then also teaching at the charity school for the poor. The majority of the novel, however, focuses on her adult life as a governess, school teacher, and finally wife to her former employer all while provocatively exploring alternatives to long-held beliefs about the role of women, marriage, and the benevolent sexism that ran rampant in 19th century English society. Jacques Tourney’s 1943 film, I Walked With a Zombie, is thematically very similar to Jane Eyre, with specific parallels between then two immediately evident. The film originally places our protagonist as the narrator and focus of the story, but she is later shuffled to the background as our attention is shifted from her job and later love story to the circumstances surrounding the mysterious illness of her employer’s wife. Betsy, our heroine, is not even an active player in the final scene, but functions only as a bystander as the wife she is brought to St. Sebastian to treat is lifelessly carried past. By minimizing the impact of heterosexual love on the direction of the plot, being set in an exotic location, and the presence of a supernatural voodoo culture coexisting with normal society, I Walked With a Zombie reimagines Jane Eyre not simply as another adaptation of the novel, but as a modernized reworking of the classic tale that borrows specific elements from the Jane Eyre template while simultaneously introducing an independent storyline.
Jane Eyre has been adapted time and again as a tale of a morally upstanding young heroine, determined to rely on her own devices as she navigates her way through the world. The heroine grapples through out each retelling with her demand for autonomy and the masculine pressures she encounters along her journey. Zombie, however, does not strike one as fitting so neatly into this categorical grouping of ideas. In Zombie, Betsy is not shown as coming from a long life of misfortune and heartache like our young Jane, nor is she shown as a woman striving to prove to herself or to others that she is capable of self-sufficiency. In fact, Zombie minimizes the question of gender ideals, however misogynist or female suppressing they may be, in exchange for the eeriness of the sugarcane fields at night and the spook factor of voodoo rituals. Although the heroine indeed does fall in love with her employer, reminiscent of Mr. Rochester and Thornhill, the meat of Zombie is focused more so on the illness and treatment of Mrs. Holland than the love affair of Betsy and Paul.
Both mediums explore the darker side of marriage. Film and novel both work to challenge the notion that someday a handsome prince will come to provide the happily ever after that women are culturally trained to expect, if not demand. Being married is not equivalent to being happy, as the wives unfortunately both find out. Jane Eyre places Bertha Mason locked in an attic because of her “insanity” which is taken at face value from Mr. Rochester and his account of their marriage. It is left to the reader to question her sanity before her rejection of her marriage vows: is she being punished for her promiscuity and for not conforming to the feminine ideal? In I Walked with a Zombie, Jessica Holland is infected by an island fever that “burned parts of her spinal column,” as we’re told by her doctor. The fever leaves her in a zombie-like state of consciousness, her trance never lifting to hint at her past self. She interestingly falls ill the very day after she lets her husband know she is leaving him for his brother, Wesley, and he forbids her to go. Both film and novel use mental illness to punish the ill-behaving wives, while the husbands are both left to romantically do as he pleases, despite playing leading roles in the unhappy marriages.
The angle that Zombie takes through minimizing heterosexual relationships and focusing on the supernatural can be interpreted as simply a more exciting version of the overplayed, stereotypical love story; zombies being, of course, the minor, but entertaining, twist. Jane Eyre uses romance with Mr. Rochester as a major influence on the life trajectory of the protagonist, to the point that we find Jane basing her work and place of residence on him and his actions. The film, however, seems to glaze over the attractive between Betsy and Paul, although when viewing, the scene that Betsy decides she loves Paul and declares she must make Jessica better for him came as a little too much of a surprise; the two seemed to interact only on a professional level until this point. Instead of an influential piece of the plot like in the novel, the romantic side-story is a minor detail in relation to the importance of the circumstances regarding Jessica. The film is seemingly divided into two separate pieces: the first aimed to cater to Betsy, her narration, and her viewpoint; a secondary shifting happens when a broader view of the servants, the local culture, and the bigger picture regarding Jessica’s character. Once Betsy and Jessica go to the houmfort, where the servants gather to practice their magic, the sound of drums permeate the island air and are glaringly present until the film’s end, clearing marking the separation point and reminding the viewer where attention should be directed.
Although there are prevailing similarities in themes in both the novel and the movie adaptation, the basic stories are separated very distinctly by the setting: Zombie’s tropical island setting of St. Sebastian with its mysterious Voodoo culture, versus Jane Eyre’s strikingly contrasted upper-class British countryside (main) setting of Thornhill. The society driven novel dictates that Jane frame herself to Rochester’s expectations: she is to be in his company when he demands, despite her paid job is only that of Adele’s governess; she is to marry him in secret and to move far away because that is his wish; and finally to run away from her job, from her home, and from his misery because he puts her in a position where she feels she cannot stay. Also, when Jane comes back to him, she is put in a different kind of oppression as she is now both nurse and servant to Rochester. Next, the primal, native driven film begins as a straight-forward narrative, until diverging markedly from expectations after Nurse Betsy brings Jessica to the houmfort. The film’s awareness noticeable shifts here from Betsy, to something greater in importance than simply herself. It is while Betsy talks to Mrs. Rand-who is posing as a voodoo doctor-that one of the natives wielding a sword cuts Jessica; that she did not bleed and that Mrs. Rand frequents the houmfort both work to add tension to the story and continue the climbing motion toward the film’s climax. The sugarcane fields, the drumbeats and chanting, and finally the bones and relics the women pass on their journey to the houmfort all function to continue to add mystery to the film.
Jane Eyre has certain supernatural elements, but not nearly to the degree of Zombie. References to Jane as being of “elf-like,” the scene in the red-room where Mr. Reed died, the voice of Rochester that Jane hears on the wind during her marriage talk with St. John, and finally the allusions to Bertha being “devilishly similar to a vampire” all put the novel in the realm of the supernatural, as well as work to stay true to a Gothic heritage. I Walked with a Zombie showcases a religion left over from the days of the trans-Atlantic Slave trade. The film takes the mental illness of Jessica, supposedly left from a fever, and has Mrs. Rand confess she used Voodoo magic (only when possessed, mind you) to curse Jessica and punish her for shattering the matriarchal family’s peace. Although far fetched in the logical world, the film is believable in its treatment of Voodoo as a legitimate practice or belief system: the servants make a Voodoo Doll of Jessica that controls her movements and bring her to them. Ironically, the slave past of the servants and their unconventional beliefs intersect here with the Holland family that brought their African ancestors to St. Sebastian in the first place: Wesley takes an arrow out of the old slave ship figure-head which he uses to stab Jessica to death with; whether the Jessica Voodoo Doll which bears her likeness being simultaneously stabbed with a needle in the haomfort ceremony is related to Jessica’s actual death is open to interpretation.
Where Jane Eyre is an autobiographical novel that explores romance and the sacrifices women make to conform to the expectations of a patriarchal society, I Walked with a Zombie is a horror flick meant to thrill the viewer and expose he/she to an alternative culture filled with mysticism and magic. Perhaps for the sake of time, the film did not attempt to delve into the complicated themes of class and gender equality; when judged simply as a means of entertainment, rather than a work striving for literary merit, I Walked With a Zombie was thoroughly enjoyable.