Sense and Sensibility 1995, Part 2 of Movie Discussion – Rewriting Jane Austen’s Heroes

by Regina Jeffers

In December 1995, Columbia/Mirage Pictures released Sense and Sensibilityto U.S. theatres. Based on Emma Thompson’s (who won the 1996 Academy Award for Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium) screenplay, this adaptation goes a long way in creating heroes out of what are sometimes seen as bland characters. Last month, we took our first look at the changes made by Thompson. This month, we shall look at those specifically made for Edward and Colonel Brandon. By changing scenes from the novel to portray more sensitive and caring males, Thompson appeals to modern viewers by recasting the novel’s heroes. Let us begin with the “sculpting” of Edward Ferras.

First, Edward displays his paternal side with Margaret, who has just lost her father. In the Norland library, it is Edward who engages Elinor in a lively geography lesson to entice an emotional Margaret from her hiding place under the table. Next, we see Edward sword fighting with Margaret. This is another of Thompson’s fabricated scenes. It is used to demonstrate Edward’s playful nature, his self-effacing personality, and his potential as a loving father. Throughout the next few scenes, Edward makes numerous references to the time he has spent playing pirate with Margaret. His estimation grows before our eyes. We learn to like a man, who indulges children rather than ignoring them.
Additional dialogue and scenes are added by Thompson in which Edward makes an attempt to express his love and devotion to Elinor. In these created scenes he stumbles over his words when they are together in the barn, in the scene where Lucy is in the room with Elinor, and when Elinor speaks of Brandon’s offer of a living. Edward asks for forgiveness but never explains why Elinor should extend it. His lack of speech actually says more than elongated professions of his love. Edward’s emotional discomposure is easily interpreted by the viewer. However, neither the attempts nor Edward’s unexpressed words are found in the novel. Thompson has created an emotionally sensitive hero.
The atlas from the library scene keeps Edward in the audience’s mind even when he does not make the scheduled appearance at Barton Cottage. Therefore, it is disappointing to the viewer when the book arrives in the mail. However, this device helps Thompson tell the story. Elinor can question Edward’s previous attentions to her, and his absence can make Lucy’s story more believable. Thompson speaks of Edward’s betrayal through Lucy’s display of a handkerchief exactly like the one to which Elinor has attached her hopes. In the novel, Edward never gives Elinor any such gift, even in passing. Like the atlas, the handkerchief is a metonymic device to establish Elinor’s emotional turmoil. Remember that Elinor is supposed to represent “good sense.” Emotions attached to the handkerchief or any other gift are not found in the novel.

 

Likewise, Thompson allows Alan Rickman’s portrayal of Colonel Brandon to express true emotion. The viewer’s introduction to Brandon displays a man mesmerized by Marianne’s performance on the pianoforte. He loves the music and her voice; therefore, we know instantly that he feels passionately about her. In contrast, the novel refers to Brandon as “an absolute old bachelor.” He has spent the evening with the Dashwoods at the Middletons. In fact, the novel says that Brandon “heard her without being in raptures.” Austen’s words are quite different from the scene we know. Add the music scene from the film’s end where Brandon sends Marianne a pianoforte of her own, and we have physical signs of love. Ironically, in the novel, it is Willoughby who shares Marianne’s love of music.

 

Brandon mimics Willoughby’s pursuit of Marianne. Both men carry Marianne home in the rain. This is a way of transferring Willoughby’s natural, open wildness to Brandon. His tender administrations on Marianne’s behalf makes him a believable substitute for Willoughby.  As with Edward, objects keep Brandon in the viewer’s mind: a lawnbowling ball, a knife to cut the reeds, flowers, a book of verse, and a pianoforte. Willoughby gives wildflowers and Brandon hot house roses; Willoughby quotes Shakespeare, and Brandon reads from Spenser. Willoughby and Brandon are no longer polar opposites.

 

Brandon says, “For there is nothing lost, but may be found, if sought.” We seek a romantic hero and find him in this portrayal. Like Marianne, we are possessed by an emotionally sensitive man that we can love. Austen does not give us the same emotional enhancements. Modern audiences demand the “Cinderella” ending, and, in this film, we lose some of Austen’s cautionary tale of the pitfalls of too much or too little sense and sensibility. Emotional sensitivity becomes a substitute for social restraint. With Brandon’s heroic ride and plea for something to do “or I will run mad,” Thompson eliminates the need for Willoughby’s emotional rehabilitation.
Through the minor characters, we learn the local gossip and the developing drama. This device keeps these characters from “disappearing,” as they did in the novel. Characters who fade into the background on the written page help tell the story in the film. Of the two portrayals, I found Alan Rickman’s the superior one. His subtle manner of displaying Brandon’s feelings for Marianne shows how a mask of reticence can hide one’s true emotions. Hugh Grant’s portrayal, on the other hand, was reminiscent of his 1994′s Four Weddings and a Funeral. He still continued to stammer, but Grant does so with less charm this time around. By the film’s end, I wanted to see the classically awkward and a bit-self absorbed Edward with Marianne, and the passionate, long-suffering, and honorable Brandon with Elinor.
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