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Sense and Sensibility: Jane Austen v. Emma Thompson

Last night my wife and I watched the 1995 film adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel, Sense and Sensibility.  Emma Thompson’s screenplay won her an Oscar.  Sense and Sensibility is the third Jane Austen novel that I have read (My wife has read them all.), and, while good, literarily, and especially stylistically, it comes in a distant second to Pride and Prejudice.

To prefer Pride and Prejudice to Sense and Sensibility is no surprise, but I would like to make the bold and daring assertion that the movie version of the latter is better than the novel. Now before all the “Austenolaters” burn me at the stake, let me state my case (I am assuming that the readers of this essay will have read the novel or seen the movie and are thus familiar with the plot.).

In self-defense, I rarely prefer movie adaptations to the novels upon which they are based.  For example, earlier this year, after reading Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, my wife and I watched David Lean’s fine 1946 film adaptation.  While Lean’s production contains wonderful black-and-white cinematography and outstanding performances by the lovely Jean Simmons as the snooty young Estella and Finlay Currie as Magwitch, it pales in comparison to Dickens’ classic tale.  As with many admirable film versions of novels, I say, “Yes, quite good.  Now, go read the book.”

So why do I prefer the movie version of Sense and Sensibility?  I have three reasons.  The first is the beautiful and sensitive musical score by Patrick Doyle.  Doyle composed songs based upon the poems “Weepe No More Sad Fountaines” by John Dowland (1563-1626) and “The Dreame” by Ben Jonson (1572-1637).  The songs express the maturing character of Marianne.  Of course, Jane Austen could not have included music in a novel, but Doyle’s score does show how film can add to the art of the written word. By the way, do not stop listening once the credits start rolling at the end of the film.  Jane Eaglen’s rendition of “The Dreame,” is gorgeous.

Secondly, the novel’s dialogue and plot at times can be unnecessarily protracted.  Chapter 44, in which Willoughby pleads with Elinor to forgive him for how he mistreated her sister Marianne, is intended, I suppose, to win our sympathy for him.  I am afraid that it just made him seem like a sniveling weakling seeking to justify himself.  I thought that it would never end.  Also, when Edward informs the Dashwoods that he is not married and Elinor’s emotions break loose, she runs out of the room and he returns to town, leaving the family in “perplexity,” and, one might add, the readers as well.

Emma Thompson’s screenplay handles these events more effectively than Jane Austen’s novel in part because of Thompson’s narrative efficiency.  As is to be expected in a film, Thompson eliminates several characters in the novel.  However, their attitudes and contributions to the plot reside mostly in reinforcing the opposition to Elinor and Marianne that other characters have, so we really don’t miss them.

Furthermore, the downfall and subsequent partial redemption of Willoughby, Austin’s main antagonist, is carried off better in the film. Instead of a lengthy confession by Willoughby of his love for Marianne in spite of his failings, the movie, which has him looking down sadly from a distance at Marianne’s marriage to Colonel Brandon and then riding off, conveys his sense of loss to us with a poignancy that makes us feel more sympathy for him than does the novel.

The ultimate failure of Willoughby to be happy leads to my third reason for preferring the movie.  In addition to the film’s narrative economy, its nature as a visual medium strengthens the effect of Austen’s story.  Of course, it is no fault of Jane Austen that at times a picture is actually worth a thousand words, especially when the picture is painted so superbly by the acting of Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson.  Without speaking, the look of sorrow on Kate Winslet’s face lets us know that she realizes that she has been selfishly wallowing in her own emotional distress and ignoring Elinor’s heartbreak.  It prepares us for the deepening of her character and for the softening of her attitude towards Colonel Brandon during her convalescence, once again revealed to us by the fragility and tenderness of her facial expression as she listens to him reading poetry to her.

In the same vein, Emma Thompson’s portrayal of Elinor’s emotional outburst upon discovering that all her hopes have been unexpectedly realized powerfully moves the viewer, who has been longing to see this admirable character find happiness.  Her and our overwhelming joy moves quickly and seamlessly in the movie to the happy exuberance of Marianne’s wedding to Colonel Brandon.

Thompson’s acting also opens us up to a possible critique of Elinor’s character that I believe was intentional in Austen’s novel.  The title Sense and Sensibility is meant to describe respectively the characters of Elinor and Marianne.  Elinor is characterized by sense, meaning that she is reasonable and practices self-restraint.  Marianne’s sensibility (we might use the word “sensitivity” today) means that she expresses her emotions openly and forcefully and is often directed by them.  Given that the novel received its final form early in the nineteenth century, one could even hazard a guess that Elinor represents the fading Enlightenment Neoclassical ideal of the life of reason and Marianne Romanticism’s ideal of the life of passion.

I do not think that Austen meant for us to choose either sense or sensibility but rather that she intended for us to see the limitations of both and the need for balance.  I’m not so sure that she was fully successful, if this was her purpose.  The movie’s powerful portrayal of Elinor’s outburst of passion helps us appreciate the limitations of reason more than the novel does, but one must admit that in both the weight of the plot seems to fall on the need for Marianne’s maturation.  One suspects that Miss Austen’s keen objective eye for examining individual character and social norms led her to favor sense over sensibility, even though she had enough sense to realize the importance of sensibility.

All of this to say that Austn’s Sense and Sensibility, even more than Pride and Prejudice, raises profound questions about us humans, our character and our psychological health.  This is not to say that one should ignore the validity of interpretations that recognize her critique of nineteenth-century English society and its place for women.  Nevertheless, to focus exclusively or even principally on this particular social critique is to rob the story of a theme that is at the same time universal and intensely personal, as well as to fail to appreciate the depth of Jane Austen’s social critique.

Briefly put, we humans are neither reason’s calculating machines nor emotion’s instinct-driven animals.   We are both, and Jane Austen was insightful enough to see that and that both are essentially good and necessary for happiness.  In other words, as much as Marianne needed to have sense moderate her sensibility, Elinor needed to allow sensibility more freedom to operate.

However, Elinor’s need to give her emotions more free rein could not be met simply by her individual decision.  The genius of Jane Austen was to perceive not only the importance of the balance of sense and sensibility for individual health but also for the well-being of society.

How is such a balance to be achieved?  It seems to me that Jane Austen’s primary answer was that the institution of marriage was crucial both for society and for the individual.  Her critique of her contemporaries cuts both ways.  On the one hand, she clearly abhorred the uncontrolled emotions that led to extramarital sexual relations and the consequent damage to women and children in particular.  On the other hand, both her humorous and also her sharper satire, express her strong disapproval of viewing marriage as merely a business arrangement.  Willoughby’s decision to marry for money did not make him happy because humans are more than their material needs and desires.  And without a doubt a society was fundamentally flawed in which a woman as fine as Elinor was not considered a suitable mate simply because she didn’t have an adequate dowry.

But Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility speaks not just to an English culture long past but also to contemporary America.  We tend to promote the notion of human fulfillment through material wealth or sexual pleasure.  Such a view of human happiness is not only skewered but destructive of marriage as well. On the one hand, some voices call for marriage to be avoided as a limitation on career pursuits or sexual freedom.  On the other hand, marriages fail because of neglecting spouse and children in the vain pursuit of material wealth or because of sexual infidelity.

So read Austen’s novel, and please watch Thompson’s wonderful film, but above all pay attention to what a great novelist is telling us through her stories.


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