“Is Love a Fancy or a Feeling?”
When Emma Thompson was approached with the suggestion to write a screenplay based on Jane Austen‘s first novel Sense and Sensibility (1811), she was somewhat doubtful because, as she explains on the DVD’s commentary track, she felt that other Austen works, like the more expressive Emma and Persuasion or the sardonic Pride and Prejudice (already the subject of several adaptations) would have been more suitable. Four years and 14 screenplay drafts later (the first, a 300-page handwritten dramatization of the novel’s every scene), Sense and Sensibility made its grand entrance into movie theaters worldwide and mesmerized audiences and critics alike, resulting in an Oscar for Thompson‘s screenplay and six further nominations (Best Picture, Leading Actress – Thompson –, Supporting Actress – Kate Winslet –, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Score – for all of 20 minutes’ worth of composition – and Costume Design); and double honors as Best Picture and for Thompson‘s screenplay at the Golden Globes.
More than simple romances, Jane Austen‘s novels are delicately constructed pieces of social commentary, written from her rural Hampshire perspective. Substantially confined to life in her father’s parish, she was nevertheless well aware of early 19th century England’s society at large, and fiercely critical of the loss of morals and decorum she saw in its pre-industrial emergent city life. Moreover, experience and observation had made her acutely aware of the corsets forced onto women in fashion terms as much as by social norms, confining them to inactivity and complete dependency on their families’ and their (future) husbands’ money. And among this screenplay’s greatest strengths is the manner in which it maintains that underlying theme of Austen‘s writing and brings it to a contemporary audience’s attention. “You talk about feeling idle and useless: imagine how that is compounded when one has no hope and no choice of any occupation whatsoever,” Elinor Dashwood tells her almost-suitor Edward Ferrars in Emma Thompson‘s screenplay, and when he replies that “our circumstances are therefore precisely the same,” she corrects him: “Except that you will inherit your fortune – we cannot even earn ours.” Jane Austen may not ever have phrased things in exactly the same way, but the screenplay’s lines here perfectly encapsulate one of the great underlying themes of virtually all of her books.
Rescuing much from the first draft dramatization of Austen‘s novel and amplifying where necessary, Emma Thompson and director Ang Lee (“who most unexplainably seems to understand me better than I understand myself,” Thompson said in her mock-Austen Golden Globe speech) produced a movie scrupulously faithful to what is known about Austen‘s world and at the same time incredibly modern, thus emphasizing the novel’s timeless quality. Paintings were consulted for the movie’s production design, and indeed, almost every camera frame – both landscapes and interiors – has the feeling of a picture by a period painter. Thompson cleverly uses poetry where the novel does not contain dialogue; and again, she does so in a manner entirely faithful to Austen‘s subtleties – most prominently in the joint recital of Shakespeare‘s Sonnet 116 by Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby, where an ever so slight inaccuracy in his rendition of a sonnet that he claims to love foreshadows his lacking sincerity.
Sense and Sensibility revolves around Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, their quest for suitable husbands, and the sisters’ relationship with each other. Emma Thompson maintains that she did not write the screenplay with herself as Elinor in mind and would not have been accepted for that role but for the success of her previous films (Howards End, The Remains of the Day); yet, it is hard to imagine who could have better played sensible Elinor: “effectual, … [possessing] a coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen [and thus considerably younger than Thompson], to be the counselor of her mother.” (Austen.) And real-life 19-year-old Kate Winslet embodies sensitive, artistic Marianne: “eager in everything; [without] moderation … generous, amiable, interesting: … everything but prudent.” An early scene in which Marianne recites Hartley Coleridge’s Sonnet VII (“Is love a fancy or a feeling? No. It is immortal as immaculate truth”) succinctly symbolizes the sisters’ relationship and their personalities, as Marianne mocks Elinor’s seemingly cool response to Edward’s budding affection: “Is love a fancy or a feeling … or a Ferrars?” (Mostly taken from the novel, the scene is embellished by the screenplay’s sole inexactitude, as Coleridge’s sonnets were only published 22 years after Austen‘s book). Yet, when all her hope seems shattered, Elinor, in a rare outburst of emotion, rebukes her sister: “What do you know of my heart?” – only to instantly comfort her again when she sees that Marianne is equally distraught.
Indeed, the two sisters’ relationship is so crucial to the novel that in his 2012 deconstruction of Austen‘s writings, Bitch in a Bonnet, Robert Rodi argues that the real love story with which the book is concerned is not at all that involving the sisters and their respective suitors but, rather, that arising from the growing mutual appreciation of Elinor and Marianne. And as Emma Thompson‘s screenplay shows – in and of itself, but even more so, when amplified by the diary she kept while the movie was produced – there is yet another love story going on here; that involving the novel’s screen adaptation: Not in the sense of a self-involved project existing primarily for its own sake, but in Emma Thompson‘s appreciation of Austen‘s novel and her dedication to its screen adaptation; a dedication shared by everybody else involved with the project.
Thompson‘s Sense and Sensibility was released at the height of the mid-1990s’ Jane Austen revival. Of all the movies of that era, and alongside 1996’s Emma (which has “Hollywood” written all over it) and the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice (which, to more than just one generation of fans, established Colin Firth as the embodiment of Mr. Darcy once and for all), Emma Thompson‘s Sense and Sensibility has long become one of the keystone Austen adaptations and will continue to be one of those that moviegoers will likely turn to in years to come. And it is truly an experience not to be missed.
Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet, as Elinor and Marianne Dashwood
(Jane Austen Centre, Bath; photo mine)
Favorite Quotes From the Diaries:
[Golden Globe acceptance speech in the style of Jane Austen‘s letters:]
“Four A.M. Having just returned from an evening at the Golden Spheres, which despite the inconveniences of heat, noise and overcrowding, was not without its pleasures. Thankfully, there were no dogs and no children. The gowns were middling. There was a good deal of shouting and behavior verging on the profligate, however, people were very free with their compliments and I made several new acquaintances. Miss Lindsay Doran, of Mirage, wherever that might be, who is largely responsible for my presence here, an enchanting companion about whom too much good cannot be said. Mr. Ang Lee, of foreign extraction, who most unexpectedly apppeared to understand me better than I undersand myself. Mr. James Schamus, a copiously erudite gentleman, and Miss Kate Winslet, beautiful in both countenance and spirit. Mr. Pat Doyle, a composer and a Scot, who displayed the kind of wild behavior one has lernt to expect from that race. Mr. Mark Canton, an energetic person with a ready smile who, as I understand it, owes me a vast deal of money. Miss Lisa Henson – a lovely girl, and Mr. Gareth Wigan – a lovely boy. I attempted to converse with Mr. Sydney Pollack, but his charms and wisdom are so generally pleasing that it proved impossible to get within ten feet of him. The room was full of interesting activitiy until eleven P.M. when it emptied rather suddenly. The lateness of the hour is due therefore not to the dance, but to the waiting, in a long line for horseless vehicles of unconscionable size. The modern world has clearly done nothing for transport.
P.S. Managed to avoid the hoyden Emily Tomkins who has purloined my creation and added things of her own. Nefarious creature.”
“With gratitude and apologies to Miss Austen, thank you.”
“Very nice lady served us drinks in hotel and was followed in by a cat. We all crooned at it. Alan [Rickman] to cat (very low and meaning it): ‘Fuck off.’ The nice lady didn’t turn a hair. The cat looked slightly embarrassed but stayed.”
“Got up this morning and could not find my glasses. Finally had to seek assistance. Kate [Winslet] found them inside a flower arrangement.”
“Paparazzi arrived for Hugh [Grant]. We had to stand under a tree and smile for them.
Photographer: ‘Hugh, could you look less — um –‘
“I ask Laurie if it’s possible to get trained fish. Lindsay says this is how we know I’ve never produced a movie.”
“Up 5.15 a.m. thinking, packpackpack. I appear to have accumulated more things. How did this happen? I haven’t shopped. Think my bath oils have bred.”
“Jane reminds us that God is in his heaven, the monarch on his throne and the pelvis firmly beneath the ribcage. Apparently rock and roll liberated the pelvis and it hasn’t been the same since.”
“I seem finally to have stopped worrying about Elinor, and age. She seems now to be perfectly normal — about twenty-five, a witty control freak. I like her but I can see how she would drive you mad. She’s just the sort of person you’d want to get drunk, just to make her giggling and silly.”
“We’ve hired the calmest babies in the world to play the hysterical Thomas. One did finally start to cry but stopped every time Chris [Newman (assistant director)] yelled ‘Action’. … Babies smiled all afternoon. Buddhist babies. They didn’t cry once. We, however, were all in tears by 5 p.m.”
[On period costume posture coaching:]
“We all stand about like parboiled spaghetti being straightened out.”
“Quick dinner with … Ang [Lee] and his wife Jane who’s visiting with the children for a while. We talked about her work as a microbiologist and the behaviour of the epithingalingie under the influence of cholesterol. She’s fascinated by cholesterol. Says it’s very beautiful: bright yellow. She says Ang is wholly uninterested. He has no idea what she does.
I check this out for myself. ‘What does Jane do?’ I ask.
‘Science,’ he says vaguely.”
“[Over breakfast] We discussed the ‘novelisation’ question. This is where the studio pay someone to novelise my script and sell it as Sense and Sensibility. I’ve said if this happens I will hang myself. Revolting notion. Beyond revolting.
Lindsay [Doran] said that the executive she had discussed it with had said ‘as a human being I agree with you — but …’ I laughed until my porridge was cool enough to swallow.”
“Hugh Laurie (playing Mr. Palmer) felt the line ‘Don’t palm all your abuses [of language upon me]’ was possibly too rude. ‘It’s in the book,’ I said. He didn’t hit me.”
“Our first point of discussion is the hunt. (…) My idea is to start the film with an image of the vixen locked out of her lair which has been plugged up. Her terror as she’s pursued across the country. This is a big deal. It means training a fox from birth or dressing up a dog to look like a fox. Or hiring David Attenbrorough, who probably knows a few foxes well enough to ask a favour.”
“Sense and Sensibility signs litter Devon — arrows with S & S on. Whenever Ang [Lee] sees a B & B sign he thinks it’s for another movie.”
“Edward finds Elinor crying for her dead father, offers her his handkerchief and their love story commences. Ang [Lee] very anxious that we think about what we want to do. I’m very anxious not to do anything and certainly not to think about it.”
“Lindsay [Doran] goes round the table and introduces everyone — making it clear that I am present in the capacity of writer rather than actress, therefore no one has to be too nice to me.”
“Difficult for actors to extemporise in nineteenth-century English. Except for Robert Hardy and Elizabeth Spriggs, who speak that way anyway.”
“The fire alarm went off. Fire engines came racing; we all rushed out on the gravel drive, everyone thinking it was us. In fact, one of the elderly residents of Saltram had left a pan on the oven in her flat. Apparently this happens all the time. The tenant in question is appearing as an extra — playing one of the cooks.”
“Press conference [on the movie Carrington] yielded the usual crop of daftness. I’ve been asked if I related personally to Carrington’s tortured relationship with sex and replied that no, not really, I’d had a very pleasant time since I was fifteen. This elicited very disapproving copy from the Brits … No wonder people think we don’t have sex in England.”
“Shooting Willoughby carrying Marianne up the path. They did it four times. ‘Faster,’ said Ang [Lee]. They do it twice more. ‘Don’t pant so much,’ said Ang. Greg [Wise (playing Willoughby)], to his great credit, didn’t scream.”
“Shooting Willoughby carrying Marianne up the path. … Male strength — the desire to be cradled again? … I’d love someone to pick me up and carry me off. Frightening. Lindsay assures me I’d start to fidget after a while. She’s such a comfort.”