Sense and Sensibility Movie Discussion

As part of JASNA’s salute to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility in 2011, this will be a two-part look of the 1995 film adaptation. Next month, we will examine the “making” of Edward Ferras and Colonel Brandon. This month, however, I wanted to explore the many non-Austen “creations” added to this film. I do not do so as criticism, but more out of the awareness that, for many people, film adaptations are all they know of the story line. This piece will also point out how Emma Thompson, as the screenwriter, added “bits” to introduce the modern audience to the dire situation in which women of Austen’s time often found themselves.

Prior to the 1995 production, there were three other film versions of Sense and Sensibility. On June 4, 1950, Philco Television Playhouse produced a one-hour adaptation starring Madge Evans as Elinor and Cloris Leachman as Marianne. In 1971, Ciaran Madden (Marianne), Robin Ellis (Edward), and Joanna David (Elinor) were seen in four 50-minute episodes on the BBC (January 3, 10, 17, 24). That screen play was written by Denis Constanduros, who used much of it again for the 1981 version, which was seen on the BBC in seven 30-minute episodes from February 1 through March 14, 1981. This version, starring Irene Richards as Elinor and Tracey Childs as Marianne, had one advantage over the 1971 adaptation. It was shot on location rather than on studio sets.

*One of the most obvious “twists” to the original Austen is the way that the film creates “sensitive” male characters. This is not a new phenomenon. Film adaptations of Austen’s males often project qualities on the characters, which are not found in the text. For example, Colonel Brandon is excessively attentive to his adoptive daughter Eliza. He also expresses his compassion in dealing with Marianne’s impulsive nature and with the Dashwoods’ situation.
Edward is seen as being a sensitive male. He refuses Margaret’s room; he plays games with Margaret.
*The film also highlights a greater disparity between the male characters from the novels. We have repeatedly seen the strong, dependable male (Darcy, Wentworth, etc.) vs. the sociable, but very unreliable male (Wickham, Mr. Elliot, etc.). Brandon and Willoughby continue that cinematic storytelling. In fact, Brandon is actually given some of qualities that Austen bestowed upon Willoughby. In the novel, Willoughby comes to Cleveland while Marianne is ill. He eloquently expresses his regrets to Elinor. We never see this in the film, which allows Alan Rickman’s Brandon to become a more acceptable mate for Marianne, especially to a modern audience who might otherwise object to the differences in their ages.
*By the way, did you notice that Willoughby rides a white horse, and Brandon rides a black one? What happened to the tried and true signals for viewers to know a man’s personality by the horse he rides?
In the novel’s end, Marianne appears subdued and malleable. Whereas, the film maintains the concept of “equality” in Brandon’s and Marianne’s relationship.
*Brandon does the same thing as Willoughby – just not as well. This helps with the transfer of the audience’s affections to Colonel Brandon. For example, Willoughby carries Marianne to Barton Cottage; Brandon carries her to Cleveland. Both men give her flowers, but Willoughby has chosen wild flowers to those which are cultivated. Willoughby recites poetry to Marianne. Brandon reads to her from “The Faerie Queene.” In the novel, Willoughby shares Marianne’s interest in music; Brandon possesses that quality in the film.
*The role of Margaret is expanded greatly from Austen’s description of the child as a “good-humored, well-disposed girl.” Margaret Dashwood is given the “freedoms” that her sisters can never have. She speaks her mind. She chooses a future of her own (a pirate). Margaret is the device by which Edward is revealed to the viewer. Her character is also the source of much of the film’s humor.
*The happiness of the wedding scene reminded me of Emma Thompson’s ex-husband’s staging of the ending of Much Ado About Nothing. The coins tossed into the air are much like the procession and flower petals of the Shakespeare remake.
*The characters of Lady Middleton and her children are omitted from the film, as well as Lucy’s sister Nancy. The latter plays a pivotal role in the novel because it is she who “spills the beans” about Lucy’s engagement to Edward. Of course, Lucy whispering that secret to Fanny in the film leads to a most hilarious scene, so maybe Nancy was not necessary.
*Instead of visiting Barton Cottage (per the novel), Edward sends Margaret the atlas and an apologetic letter.
*In the novel, Lucy and Robert’s marriage comes as a complete surprise, but the movie previews their joining when Robert shows his preference for her at the London ball.
*The movie omits the scene from the novel where Marianne says that Elinor cannot understand the anguish of losing someone because Elinor has Edward’s love.
*Brandon sends Marianne a pianoforte. In the book, she already has one.
*In the novel, Edward never hints of his engagement, but, in the film, he tries to tell Elinor in the scene taking place in the stable.
*Explanatory scenes are required for a modern audience; therefore, we see Elinor telling Margaret why John and Fanny now own Norland. We see the promise that John made to Henry Dashwood to “do something” for his sisters. We see John and Fanny “reduce” what the Dashwoods should receive. Austen would have no need to tell her readers these central facts. Elinor tells Edward, “Except you will inherit your fortune. We cannot even earn ours.” That line is a reminder to modern viewers of a woman’s fate. Unfortunately, it is lessened by Edward’s reference to playing pirate with Margaret. “Piracy is our only option.”
*Probably the most glaring change to Austen’s novel is Marianne’s walk in the rain to view Combe Magna, which was supposedly 30 miles from Cleveland. In the book, Marianne becomes ill despite her refusing to go out in the rain.
*Hugh Laurie’s character of Mr. Palmer is also greatly expanded. His dry humor reminds one of his current character of “House,” but Laurie is well known for other comedic stints. Mr. Palmer, of the film, is not just the censorious man we meet in the book. The film shows him as kind and considerate. He carries Marianne upstairs after Brandon brings her to Cleveland. He is upset that he must leave the Dashwoods to fend for themselves during Marianne’s illness. The film also displays how mismatched the Palmers are in marriage.

Austen’s film adaptations tend to focus on contemporary post feminist ideas. Period dramas, as a genre, invite the viewers to take on the rich features of the novel. Yet, no film can reproduce the nuances and exquisite details of the text. For 135 minutes, Sense and Sensibility allows us to explore Jane Austen’s first novel in a visual format. Does it have its strengths? Absolutely! Are there weaknesses? Profoundly so. Tell me what you think, Austen addicts. I will check in periodically to respond to your comments.

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