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Emma Thompson’s Screenplay for Sense and Sensibility: The Best Austen Adaptation?

This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen. Click HERE for a list of the other posts for Week 3: The Crafts.

I can already hear cries of “blasphemy!” just because the title of this post. (I did put a question mark at the end!)

I would venture to guess if you polled Jane Austen fans, the most popular adaptation of her work would far and away turn out to be the 1995 six-part BBC TV mini-series of Pride & Prejudice, starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. It is certainly the adaptation that kicked off the now-20 year long resurgence of Austen’s work.

As lovely as that series is, and as perfectly cast as it is, it doesn’t quite do it for me as far as capturing the Jane Austen novels I love so dearly. I know when people hear Austen’s name, they think first and foremost that she wrote romances. I, on the other hand, would argue she did not write romances at all. She actually satirized the romances of her day. Her stories are survival stories, where marriage is the only respectable way for most of her heroines to escape poverty. Even in her novel Emma, that features a heroine who is wealthy and of the highest rank in her small sphere, there are two secondary characters–Harriet Smith and Jane Fairfax–for whom marriage is a vital matter of economic survival and respectability.

That’s not to say the love stories in her books aren’t fully realized and genuinely emotional. That they are AND satiric is a big part of her genius, and one reason she remains to this day one of the most popular authors in the English language.

Which brings me to the 1995 film version of Sense and Sensibility, adapted for the screen by Emma Thompson and directed by Ang Lee. The film won a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published (among several other awards for the screenplay).

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Of all her novels, Sense and Sensibility is the most melancholic, telling the story of the three Dashwood sisters left in vastly reduced circumstances after their father’s death. Interestingly, it was one of Austen’s first works, written while she was still quite young, though it was published much later. I say “interestingly” because much of the novel reflects certain aspects about Austen’s later life. She and her sister Cassandra, who was also unmarried, had to depend on their brothers to keep them from sliding into poverty after their father’s death.

The heroines of the story, Elinor (Thompson) and Marianne (Kate Winslet), live out the fate Mrs. Bennett fears for her daughters in Pride and Prejudice. With no dowries and very little income, they are turned out of their home (inherited by an elder half-brother). Both women fall in love, but both romances seem doomed–all because of a lack of money.

Elinor falls in love with her sister-in-law’s brother Edward, but they are soon separated when the Dashwoods move to a modest cottage in Devonshire. Marianne catches the eye of a mature but kind man named Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman). She has no interest in him at all, falling instead for the dashing young John Willoughby (Greg Wise). A young woman named Lucy Steel (Imogen Stubbs) joins their social circle, and confides to Elinor of a long-standing engagement with Edward. Sworn to secrecy by Lucy, Elinor cannot even share this devastating news with Marianne.

Marianne is jilted by Willoughby. Colonel Brandon tells Elinor that Willoughby was cut off from his inheritance by his aunt because he impregnated Brandon’s young ward and refused to marry her. Willoughby marries a woman with a large income to make up for his lost inheritance.

Marianne becomes deathly ill, but recovers. Ashamed that she was not as guarded with her feelings as her sister, she becomes more open to the attentions of Colonel Brandon. Edward and Lucy’s secret engagement is revealed. Edward’s mother threatens to disinherit him, too. An honorable man, he refuses to jilt Lucy even though he truly loves Elinor. His mother settles all her money on his younger brother.

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Elinor is ecstatic to hear the news that Lucy Steel threw over Edward in favor of his now-rich brother, freeing him from his engagement. They marry and settle in Devonshire. Marianne marries Brandon. As they leave the church, Willoughby watches the revelry from afar.

Actress Emma Thompson would seem an odd choice as screenwriter of such a project, and, in fact, she was very surprised to be offered the job by producer Lindsay Doran. Doran saw a comedy sketch television show that Thompson wrote and starred in and thought she was perfect to capture the satirical vibe of Austen’s work.

I have seen the specific sketch that caught Doran’s attention. A Victorian mother has a sex talk with her daughter–after she is married. It’s hilarious and slightly smutty and Doran is kind of a genius for thinking that Thompson was suited to do an adaptation of Austen’s work based on it.

Thompson spent five years working on the screenplay in between acting jobs. She originally intended to have another actress play Elinor (she was in her mid-30s by then and Elinor was supposed to be 19) but was persuaded to take the part. Several actor friends of hers who helped her workshop the screenplay–including Hugh Grant (Edward Ferrars)–ended up being cast in the movie. Thompson was in a unique position for a screenwriter, as she was on set as both actress and screenwriter during filming (she made several revisions on set).

There are, without doubt, several substantial changes from book to screenplay. Some characters were dropped, and several were retooled–particularly the main male characters, with an eye to making them more appealing to a modern audience.

In the book, the male characters also spend a great deal of time off the canvas, with the women waiting to hear from them. This works fine in a novel–not so much in a movie. One of the challenges Thompson faced was finding ways to keep them onscreen for a greater part of the story, which she manages to do without it feeling awkward or tacked on.

By making Elinor older, the film puts her in even a more precarious position as far as marriage (by her early 20s, a woman was already considered a spinster). It also helped to make even more believable the differences in how Elinor and Marianne handle their love problems, as Elinor is more mature.

But where the screenplay goes entirely right, in my view, is how it focuses on the relationship between the two sisters. This is really the main love story, the relationship of two sisters who have such different temperaments yet love each other dearly. While Thompson never fails to keep up the satirical tone of Austen’s story (even when Edward proposes, the scene is funny as well as emotional), there is nothing remotely cynical about the relationship between the sisters.

While there’s no doubt both heroines have found good men to love them, Thompson reminds us that this wouldn’t have happened without money. Brandon throws gold coins in the air for the children attending the wedding to catch. The camera lingers on the coins in the air. At first, I thought it was Ang Lee who perhaps created this scene, but it is in the screenplay. (There is also one funny bit in the screenplay that didn’t make it into the film–one of the gold coins hits Elinor and Marianne’s selfish sister-in-law Fanny in the eye. A little over the top, but it made me giggle when I read it.)

The focus on the coins is a perfect visual summation of the story.

While the 1995 film doesn’t literally lift the story from page to screen, it does capture that perfect balance of emotion and satire that I love so much about Austen’s novels. For this reason, to date it remains my favorite of all the adaptations of her work.

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8 thoughts on “Emma Thompson’s Screenplay for Sense and Sensibility: The Best Austen Adaptation?

  1. I agree with everything you have written here. Thompson did a good job of showing what readers in Austen’s time would have taken for granted, for instance, how an entail works, and that marriage was a matter of life and death for women in that time and class.

    I have to say, I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s work, including her juvenilia, and I’ve seen the vast majority of the adaptations. This version of S & S is tied for my all-time favorite. The other is, yes, the 1995 P & P. Great post, thanks for participating in the blogathon!

    1. I think she also deliberately made the Dashwoods initially more well off than in the book, so modern audiences could understand the direness of their circumstances after the father died. Just a fantastic job all around.

      Thank you, and thanks for co-hosting this great blogathon!

  2. I always feel that the conversation between the sister’s weak brother and his heartless wife about how much to give the sisters after their father’s death is one of the cleverest and funniest passages in literature…

    1. YES, I agree, and the movie handles it brilliantly. There’s one point where Fanny and John are talking about it and a woman leaning out of a window and beating a carpet rains dirt down on them. SO funny.

  3. As an Austen obsessive, I have seen this movie countless times. I prefer it over the TV series (for one, who has time to re-watch an entire series?!) and that’s mainly because of the wonderfully drawn relationship between the sisters, which is real and charming but never at the expense of Austen’s original novel. Sometimes I do feel sorry for Marianne, Brandon’s love is real, but he just seems such a… bore?

  4. I just saw this movie for the first time a few days ago (Netflix was about to take it down so I was forced to watch it). I really enjoyed it, mostly because I could identify with Thompson’s character. I have not read this particular book yet. I read “Pride and Prejudice” and started “Emma” but never finished it because she got on my nerves too much (I know a girl that acts like her too – breaking guys hearts because she can’t choose/doesn’t really like any of them). I have yet to watch the BBC series. I watched the Knightley version of “P. & P.” and will forever regret my decision to do so 😉 What got me interested in reading or watching Austen was “Becoming Jane,” which I love! Hathaway was perfect for the part (in my opinion).

    Great post!!
    ~ Phyl

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