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Costume Drama of the Week: Sense and Sensibility

Thursday, September 9, 2010

My first exposure to Sense and Sensibility was in 1995 when I went with the other women in the singles group at church to see Emma Thompson’s Academy Award–winning film adaptation of the Jane Austen novel. It took me several years after that to actually be able to make it all the way through the book—and long road trips and books-on-tape really helped out a lot with my accomplishment of getting through it the first time.

Even as someone totally unfamiliar with the storyline, though I thought the conclusion of the Emma Thompson version was satisfying, I remember walking away with the feeling that “Helena” (which I thought Elinor’s name was, from the way Kate Winslet pronounced it) should have ended up with Alan Rickman—because, age-wise, they were much better suited for each other. But once I made it through the book, I came to realize how the 1995 version barely scratched the surface of the story. (But Emma Thompson did a much better job of translating such a long, involved story into two hours than the screenwriter of the 2005 adaptation of P&P did. But that’s a whole other blog post.)

So when I heard that a new miniseries version was planned, I started getting excited—especially once I learned that screenwriter Andrew Davies, the writer behind the 1995 version of P&P, had penned the script. Back in 2008, when it premiered, I blogged about it in pieces, but this will be the first time I’ve combined it all in one place—and I’ve revised it now that I’ve watched the miniseries a couple of times with some additional thoughts and comments.

Andrew Davies decided to spice up this adaptation by opening with a “seduction scene” at the beginning. This, more than any rumors that leaked about the adaptation, created a furor in the Janeite world. But the scene we’d all been warned about really didn’t show much of anything, nor did it reveal the identity of the seducer. Even though I know the story, it felt very disconnected from the main action at Norland with Mr. Dashwood’s death.

The first half hour of the movie didn’t seem much different than the Emma Thompson version—down to the scene (not from the book) of Margaret on the floor in the library. In fact, Andrew Davies seemed to have taken Emma Thompson’s lead on the character of Margaret—she is more closely related to Thompson’s version of the character than how the character appears in the book. Also, at times, several of the characters seemed to have taken their acting direction from the Emma Thompson version—especially the actress playing Fanny, who seemed to have studied her lines by repeated watchings of her predecessor in the role.

I liked the casting of David Morrissey as Colonel Brandon—though I had a hard time not seeing him as a young Liam Neeson. It was also nice to see Marianne smiling at him when he turned the pages of music for her instead of being quite so heartlessly cold to him the way Kate Winslet was in the theatrical version.

Another quibble: never, not once, in the book does anyone call Elinor “Ellie.”

Though I initially made some disparaging remarks about Hattie Morahan’s portrayal of Elinor, after just seeing the first part of the two-part movie, she really won me over in the second half of the movie. I’ll freely admit I was wrong to call her “so plain as to be nearly homely.” I can mark the change in my attitude toward her portrayal of Elinor from the scene when Lucy Steele reveals to Elinor that she (Lucy) has been secretly engaged to Edward for four years. I also quite enjoyed the symbolism of the scene following when Elinor escapes to a cave to mourn the loss of Edward—and even then cannot allow herself the weakness of tears. That may be one of my favorite parts of this new adaptation.

One of my least favorite parts of the new adaptation is the Palmers. Except for the fact that they must be introduced because Elinor and Marianne stay at their home when Marianne is so ill, I didn’t really see the point in having them in this film at all. Of course, I already knew that they would never be able to compare with how the characters were played in the 1995 Ang Lee/Emma Thompson version by the incomparable Imelda Staunton and Hugh Laurie. Aside from the fact that both of them are fabulous comic actors, the script they were given allowed them to pull in much of the humor that Jane Austen built through the absolute ridiculousness of those characters in the book.

I do like the Mrs. Jennings in the 2008 miniseries—probably because we get more of her character, and she’s not as over-the-top as the character in the 1995 version.

As I said before, this adaptation at times felt like merely an expansion of Emma Thompson’s script for the 1995 version, so I wasn’t really surprised to see almost the exact same interaction and dialogue between Marianne and Mrs. Jennings’s butler in London, the only difference being that he was amused rather than annoyed by her. 

Charity (Marianne) Wakefield’s hair bugged me continuously throughout the film (as did Elinor’s bangs, since that wasn’t the style)—even when they went to the assembly, Marianne’s hair looked unkempt. But at least Elinor’s was less severe, as if she’d taken time to try to style it rather than just pulling it back in a bun. In the 1995 version of the film, the assembly is crowded, just as described in the book—where there are so many people, they’re pressing around them from all sides. In the 2008 miniseries adaptation, the assembly was well attended, but not crowded. They were able to move around with ease, without having to squeeze through a mass of people. Marianne’s fainting, in the book, is attributed (by everyone but Elinor) to the “press” of the crowd and the heat generated by so many bodies so close together. Also, Col. Brandon was not at the assembly in the book. Also, in 1811, which is when the book was published, unmarried girls like Elinor and Marianne and the Steele sisters would have worn white to the assembly, not colored gowns. Colored gowns were worn by married women, matrons, and old-maids (like my Julia in Ransome’s Honor).

The casting of Dominic Cooper as Willoughby in the miniseries didn’t work for me. In the first half, he comes across as petulant and arrogant; in the second half, he comes across as nothing but sinister and creepy.  I understand why Andrew Davies was tempted to pull Brandon into the assembly scene, to give Marianne even more reason to soften to him because he was there to help her when Willoughby disappointed her, however it made the dueling scene confusing. I wonder how many people who’ve never read the book believe that they dueled over Marianne, not over Willoughby’s seduction of Eliza. In the book, the duel takes place off-page. We only learn about it when Brandon tells Elinor the whole story about his ward and Willoughby’s part in ruining her.

There also seemed to be quite a bit of confusion over who was related to whom and how. I was very disappointed in Andrew Davies in this aspect. Marianne calls Fanny “aunt,” when Fanny is her sister-in-law. Sir John Middleton calls Lucy and Anne Steele “our nieces” and then introduces them to Elinor and Marianne as “your cousins.” The Steeles were distant cousins of Lady Middleton, and would therefore not have been considered relations of Elinor and Marianne, since they were only (distantly) related to Lady Middleton by marriage. Then, the worst offense of all, someone refers to Edward as Elinor’s cousin. Edward and Elinor are not related at all, with the exception that Edward’s sister is married to Elinor’s half-brother.  Again, it concerns me that this would be quite confusing to those who aren’t familiar with the story as to how all of these people are connected with each other, since the screenwriter couldn’t even keep everyone straight with the right relationship titles.

The two best additions to this adaptation, which were left out of the 1995 version, were Mrs. Ferrars and Anne Steele. Both came across just as I’d imagined them in the book, and the scene when Anne lets slip the truth of Lucy and Edward’s engagement was priceless.

And the actress playing Lucy, though insipid instead of humorous, was actually pretty enough to believe that Edward would have fallen for her, unlike the one in the ’95 version.

The score for this adaptation was written by Martin Phipps, who created the music—including a heart-rending piece, “Northbound Train”—for the 2004 BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South, as well as the newest adaptation of Persuasion (unfortunately, none of these soundtracks are available commercially in the U.S.). There were a couple of times, especially in the second part, when, if I closed my eyes, I could have been watching N&S, because the theme and instrumentation of the music was so similar.

I did read somewhere that Charity Wakefield (Marianne) is an accomplished and professionally trained pianist and singer. They could have made much more use of this.

The resolution of the Marianne/Brandon relationship bugged me in this adaptation. First, why, if Brandon has his horse right there, would he walk back to the house carrying Marianne after she collapses in the rain? Second, the whole comparison between Brandon’s courting Marianne and his taming a horse and training a hawk was borderline offensive. Third, what I want to know is when someone is going to get the timeline of the relationships right. Edward and Elinor are married long before Marianne and Brandon’s relationship begins to mature to the point that they marry. Marianne is courted by Brandon for about a year as she, along with their mother and Margaret, visits Elinor and Edward at their vicarage at Delaford (i.e., Elinor and Edward are already married throughout Marianne and Brandon’s courtship).

What version(s) of S&S have you seen? What are your thoughts?

Tomorrow: a head-to-head throwdown between the actors/actresses in the major roles in the 1995 & 2008 versions.

19 Comments
  1. Thursday, September 9, 2010 5:20 am

    I admit to seeing both of these versions multiple times– a winter’s Sunday afternoon is not complete without a period piece playing while I make a huge pot of soup. I’ve come to love the newer version more and prefer the four lead characters (the two pairings). David Morrissey was a treat.
    I watched the behind the scenes interviews with Andrew Davis; his explanation of the falconry scenes was a bit sexist but I saw where he was taking it. He had me at hello.

    I can offer no alternatives or rebuttals at 6 AM, probably because I agree with your comparisons wholeheartedly. And I’m pleasantly surprised to find out I missed the relationships in the soundtracks with my beloved N & S, and me, the queen of soundtracks. (My Pandora radio station is full of them!)

    Thanks, Kaye! Another wonderful costume drama day . . . it’ll have to carry me until my next DVD date.
    Oh, what about “poor Edward”? My current WIP hero seems to be similar to both the character and the looks of this actor, only I’ve had to beef him up a bit because you know how hard it is to sell a beta hero even if they do make splendid husband material…

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    • Thursday, September 9, 2010 6:05 am

      It is quite interesting the dynamics in Jane choosing for her very Alpha female character (Elinor) a Beta male in Edward, and for her Beta female character (Marianne) a very Alpha male in Brandon (maybe that’s why I always thought Elinor and Brandon better suited for each other, just in the initial movie version?).

      Yes, Edward is far too much a passive hero for even a historical romance written today—which is odd, since so many women love this character so passionately.

      And I just realized this—last night at my book signing event, I once again told someone that Stand-In Groom was inspired by the movie The Wedding Planner because I couldn’t abide the fact that for the romance in that movie to work out, it meant an engaged couple had to be broken up. Yet look what happens in S&S and it doesn’t bother me. Well, it doesn’t bother me here, because it’s so very obvious that Edward and Lucy are all wrong for each other and that Edward made a mistake by asking her to marry him. And he tries to do the right thing by saying he’ll marry her, even after his mother disinherits him.

      To me, Edward’s honorable actions toward Lucy show that he does have Alpha tendencies when push comes to shove.

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      • Friday, September 10, 2010 7:24 am

        See, I would argue that in The Wedding Planner Matthew M.’s character and his fiancee were clearly wrong for each other too… 😉

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        • Friday, September 10, 2010 10:46 am

          Yes, but in TWP, they make Frannie sympathetic, whereas Lucy is totally unsympathetic in S&S. And there’s a huge difference between how Edward behaves toward Lucy and Elinor and how Steve acts toward Frannie and Mary in TWP—Edward does what’s honorable. Steve acts like a cad.

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        • Friday, September 10, 2010 11:00 am

          I read Steve as more a messed up human being, not a cad…but that’s just me.

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  2. Thursday, September 9, 2010 10:41 am

    I’ve only seen the 1995 version, and though I did read the book before I saw it, the movie had been out for 10 years or so before I did either one. I thought Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman would end up together as well, and I thought this all the way through the book until the very end, but ONLY because they were so good together in “Love Actually,” which I had seen shortly before reading/watching S&S! They just have good chemistry, what can I say? So glad I’m not the only one to have thought this!

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    • Friday, September 10, 2010 2:33 am

      I think that may have been the main reason why I thought they’d end up together, too, Emilie—they had chemistry with each other that Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant didn’t have and that Alan Rickman and Kate Winslet didn’t have, no matter how hard they tried.

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  3. Thursday, September 9, 2010 11:36 am

    I haven’t seen the 1995 version in years, and having not read the book (I know, I’m pathetic), I can’t compare them. I do need to see if the library has the miniseries….. I do know that I usually like Emma Thompson in anything I see her in, but now when I see Alan Rickman, all I see is Severus Snape!!!

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    • Friday, September 10, 2010 2:34 am

      Definitely get the miniseries. Even though it has a very similar feel to the 1995 version, it gives more depth to the story and the characters.

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  4. Elisabeth permalink
    Thursday, September 9, 2010 2:23 pm

    I like the 1995 version of S&S better, but the age difference between Brandon and Marianne also bothered me. Alan Rickman is a great actor, but at the beginning I didn’t like him very much because of his age and the way he sounded.

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    • Friday, September 10, 2010 2:34 am

      In the book, it’s an age difference of about 18 years. In the 1995 version, it was an age difference of about THIRTY years. Big difference!

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  5. Sylvia M. permalink
    Thursday, September 9, 2010 4:38 pm

    My favorite out of the three versions I have seen is the 1981 version. It’s the closest to the book with the exception of Margaret being absent. I still have yet to see the 1971 version.

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    • Friday, September 10, 2010 2:35 am

      I’m going to have to break down and watch that adaptation one of these days.

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  6. Thursday, September 9, 2010 6:11 pm

    I’m long overdue to rewatch both of these films. Each have their merits, and in many ways are so similar script-wise as you point out, that it’s hard for me to pick an overall favorite. My ideal Elinor is Hattie Morahan (loved her elegance & class!) and my ideal Marianne is Kate Winslet…too bad the timing didn’t allow them to play sisters in the same production.

    I’d forgotten about the Brandon/horse/hawk thing – that was so out of left field, wasn’t it? What on earth was Davies thinking with that one…one wonders!

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    • Friday, September 10, 2010 2:36 am

      Sometimes, the things Davies does to try to make these classics more relatable to modern audiences ends up confusing or consternating me (or just really ticking me off).

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      • Friday, September 10, 2010 7:25 am

        Agreed…he just seemed intent on stretching things, or pushing the envelope, more than normal for him with this series…which just seemed so weird!!

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      • Sylvia M. permalink
        Friday, September 10, 2010 9:23 am

        Amen! I haven’t re-watched Northanger Abbey because of some of those very reasons. OT Innocent seventeen year-old vicar’s daughters wouldn’t be thinking about the majority of those night and daydreams Catherine had. The gothic novels the book Catherine reads are about gruesome murders, skeletons in closets, and so on. Her friend, Isabella is a silly, airheaded flirt in the novel and wouldn’t go around sleeping with a man to whom she isn’t married. A love triangle between Henry, Catherine and John Thorpe? JOHN THORPE? Where was Davies’ brain? I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture. I’ll get down from my soap box now and get back on topic. 🙂

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        • Friday, September 10, 2010 10:49 am

          Hmmm . . . it’s been a while since I read N.A., but I thought I remembered it staying relatively true to the book. Sure, I knew the fantasies were divergences, but there wasn’t anything else that totally threw me. But, then again, I’ve only ever read that book once, and it didn’t do much to make me want to read it again. I thoroughly enjoyed that version of N.A. and thought it was the best new adaptation that was shown during the Complete Jane Austen season two years ago.

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  7. Debra E. Marvin permalink
    Friday, September 10, 2010 10:58 am

    In response to Sylvia, I didn’t think Catherine’s imagination was too far off the mark. I can’t recall the specific differences between the book and the screenplay, but innocent or not, a seventeen year old would have been subject to lots of influences from neighbors, servants, or a dotty aunt. One gothic novel could easily put her into overdrive IMO. Of course, I don’t disagree that the screenplays are targeting a market Jane Austen never dreamed of.

    Now you’ve enticed me to watch this one again, Sylvia!

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