Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Film vs. Fiction: Sense and Sensibility

As part of our ongoing discussion this week of the Jane Austen novel, Sense and Sensibility, I thought it would be fun to compare the novel and a film adaptation side-by-side.  There are several versions out there, but probably the most famous and well-known among popular audiences was Ang Lee-Emma Thompson's film adaptation in 1995--which is the one we are looking at today.

First, can we talk about how wide and varied Ang Lee's directing career has been?  He has directed everything from a film set in 1960s New York which follows the formation of Woodstock Music Festival (Taking Woodstock) to the harsh, vast open ranges of Wyoming, exploring the taboo love between two gay cowboys (Brokeback Mountain) to the high society of England's Regency period (Sense and Sensibility) and the enchanting world of Western China (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).  According to IMDB, he is set to direct and release an adaptation of the book Life of Pi sometime in 2012 as well.

Now, here are some basic statistics about the film and novel.

Written by: Jane Austen
Year first published: 1811
Native language: English
Where it was written: England
Number of first editions sold: 750 books

Directed by: Ang Lee
Screenplay written by: Emma Thompson
Year released: 1995
Native language: English
Where it was filmed: England
Box office success: $42,993,774 (US only)

Additional/Missing characters
  • Margaret Dashwood: youngest sister to Elinor and Marianne.  Has a much larger role in the film than in the novel.  In the film she is one of the first to befriend Edward, showing a softer side to him than is revealed in the novel.
  • Harry (Henry) Dashwood: Son of John and Fanny Dashwood.  Omitted from film.
  • Lady Middleton: Wife of Sir John Middleton.  Omitted from the film.  In the film he is a widower and lives at Barton Park with his mother-in-law Mrs. Jennings.
  • Anne Steele: Lucy's older sister.  Omitted from the film.
Missing Major Plot Points
  • Edward does not visit Barton Cottage until he proposes to Elinor in the film version (unlike in the novel where he visits and is melancholy which is later attributed from having left Lucy in Plymouth).  Upon their departure from Norland, Elinor does not see Edward again until the awkward scene when he calls on Elinor to find his current fiance and potential love interest in the same room.
  • Willoughby's explanation of himself to Elinor.  My jaw literally dropped when he came to Elinor to explain his side of the story as this appears nowhere in the film and I had no idea it was going to happen.  Ironically, although we better understand his motives and actions through the scene, it made me like him even less!
  • The viewer never learns that Marianne and Elinor remain neighbors at the close of the film as they do in the novel when Edward accepts the parsonage at Delaford (Marianne and Colonel Brandon's home).
Artistic Liberties
  • Ages of Elinor and Marianne.  In the film version, Emma Thompson plays a 27 year old Elinor (Elinor is 19 in the novel). Ang Lee allegedly insisted Thompson play Elinor, despite the fact she had hoped sisters Natasha and Joely Richardson would play the key roles, to better help modern audiences feel the desperation of Elinor in love (since at 27, she would have been facing spinsterhood).
  • In the novel, Elinor verifies that Lucy Steele is telling the truth about Edward by observing a small portrait of him that she carries with him.  In the film, she has an embroidered handkerchief with the letter F, a handkerchief Elinor also carries.
  • In the film, Edward tries to tell Elinor about Lucy the day they leave Norland but is interrupted by Fanny, who fears he might be trying to propose to Elinor.
  • Edward's Proposal to Elinor.  This is my favorite scene of the entire movie and I was a little disappointed that it appeared nowhere in the novel: "Elinor, I met Lucy when I was very young.  Had I had an active profession, I should never have felt such an idle and foolish inclination.  My behavior at Norland was very wrong but I convinced myself that you felt only friendship for me and that it was my heart alone that I was risking.  I've come here with no expectations only to profess now that I am liberty to do so, that my heart is and always will be, yours."
  • Lucy unloads her secret about Edward on Elinor almost upon meeting each other.  In the film, they are not on a walk but rather in a drawing room when the secret is shared.  Mrs. Jennings (who is as nosy in the film as she is in the novel) starts to suspect something due to their engrossed whispering and questions the girls.  Lucy quickly lies and says they were speaking of London and "all of its diversions."  At this point, Mrs. Jennings and Charlotte invite the girls to London.
  • In the film, Lucy Steele reveals to Fanny that she and Edward are engaged after Fanny befriends her and convinces her to tell her secret, promising she is "as silent as the grave."  The scene that follows is hilarious as Fanny upturns the table they are arranging flowers on and removes her by pinching her nose!
  • At the end of the film, the viewer sees Willoughby watching from his horse as Marianne and Colonel Brandon marry and the town celebrates, regret written all over his face.
 Fun Facts
  • Emma Thompson met her husband Greg Wise (Willoughby) on the set of the film.
  • Thompson spent four years writing the screenplay and at one point when her computer crashed, friend Hugh Laurie (of House fame) and Stephen Fly helped her recover a version of the screenplay.  They are thanked in the credits for their help.
  • Jane Austen originally published the novel in three volumes and titled it Elinor and Marianne under the pseudonym "A Lady."
  • Sense and Sensibility was Jane Austen's first full-length novel.
  • Austen paid for the book to be published and paid the publisher a commission on the sale, in an amount that was approximately a third of her yearly income!
Final Comment

After reading the novel and rewatching the film, I can really appreciate how artfully Emma Thompson used dialogue in the novel in her screenplay.  I believe that it was this use of dialogue that helped lend a truly "Austenian" voice and feel to the film.

Example (novel dialogue):

Fanny: "What brother on earth would do half so much for his sisters, even if REALLY his sisters! And as it is--only half blood!  But you have such a generous spirit!
John: "I would not wish to do any thing mean.  One had rather, on such occasions, do too much than too little.  No one, at least, can think I have not done enough for them: even themselves, they can hardly expect more."
Fanny:  "There is no knowing what THEY may expect but we are not to think of their expectations: the question is, what can you afford to do..."
John: "That is very true, and therefore, I do not know whether, upon the whole, it would not be more advisable to do something for their mother while she live, rather than for them--something of the annuity kind I mean..."
Fanny: "To be sure, it is better than parting with fifteen hundred pounds at once.  But, then, if Mrs. Dashwood should live fiften years we shall be completely taken in..."
John: "Fifteen years! My dear Fanny; her life cannot be worth half that purchase."
Fanny: "Certainly not; but if you observe, people always live for ever when there is an annuity to be paid them."

(film dialogue):
Fanny: Help them what do you mean help them.

John: Dearest i mean to give them 3000 pounds.  The interest will provide them with a little extra income.  Such a gift will certainly discharge my promise to my father.
Fanny: Without question.  More than amply.
John: One had rather on such occasions do too much than too little.  Of course, he did not stipulate a particular sum.
1500 then.  What do you say to 1500?
Fanny: What brother on earth would do half so much for his real sisters? Let alone half blood.
John: They can hardly expect more.
Fanny:  There's no knowing what they expect.  The question is, what can you afford?
John: A hundred pounds a year to their mother while she lives.  It is better than parting with the 1500 all at once.
Fanny: What if she should live longer than fifteen years?  You'd be completely taken in.  People always live forever when there is an annuity to be paid them.
John: Twenty pounds now and then will amply discharge my promise, you're quite right.
Fanny: Indeed!  Although to say I am convinced that your father had no idea of you giving them money...

This was a very long blog post but I so love Sense and Sensibility that I couldn't help myself!  Hopefully you don't mind!!

Have you seen the movie?  How does you think it compares to the book?  Or better yet, what is your favorite scene?


  1. Hugh Laurie has a small role in the film too - I wonder if that was a sort of "thanks" or nod to his role in producing the movie too. All very interesting!

  2. @ Kate: I had forgotten about that! Makes sense though :)

  3. when my hubby and I were in pre-engagement counseling, our counselor suggested that we watch "Sense and Sensibility" if (he) was looking for ideas about proposals. We never watched it until after we were married, and I remember thinking, "Now why would Dr.O have recommended this?" lol. never the less, we did enjoy the movie!

  4. @ Robyn: Haha, he should have just had you watch the last scene or so since the rest of the movie had very little to do with proposal ideas :) The movie is one of my favorites, as you can see!


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