I must admit that I have been mystified by the continuing popularity of Jane Austen. I wouldn’t have thought that her novels would be read by anyone other than high school students and English majors . However , the fact that they are picturised so frequently is an indication that are still of interest to a large number of people. Pride and Prejudice , Sense and Sensibility , Persuasion , Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey and Emma have all been brought to the Big Screen or to TV , some of them more than once. In addition, the movie Clueless is based on Emma and there have been many TV productions about Jane Austen, her life and her work.
What accounts for her popularity ? She herself led a secluded life in the country in Regency Britain and her gentle romances would seem out-of-place in today’s fast-paced world. In an effort to answer this question for myself I decided to watch the two versions of Sense and Sensibility : the 1995 film with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman & Hugh Grant and the 2007 Masterpiece Theater production with Janet McAteer, Hattie Morahan, Jean Marsh and David Morrissey.
The plot of Sense and Sensibility , like that of all Jane Austen’s novels , is simple and uncomplicated. The movie begins with Henry Dashwood on his deathbed. By law , he is required to leave his entire estate to his son by his first wife , John Dashwood. With his dying breath , he urges John to provide for his stepmother and his three step sisters . John promises but soon reneges and John’s termagent wife , Fanny , makes life at Norland uncomfortable for the widow and her children. Unable to bear her slights, Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters (Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret) accept an invitation to stay with their distant relations, the Middletons, at Barton Park in Devonshire. Elinor is sad to leave , having become attached to Edward Ferrars, Fanny’s brother. However, once at Barton Park, Elinor and Marianne discover many new acquaintances, including the retired officer and bachelor Colonel Brandon, and the dashing John Willoughby, who comes to Marianne’s aid when she twists her ankle. Willoughby courts Marianne assiduously but then suddenly announces that he must leave for London on business, leaving Marianne lovesick and miserable. Meanwhile, Lucy Steele , a guest of the Middletons at Barton Park, drops a bombshell on Elinor , informing her that she (Lucy) has been secretly engaged to Edward Ferrars for the past four years. Elinor and Marianne suffer through some difficult times before everything is sorted out and they find their true loves and are wed.
I hadn’t thought that I’d actually like the movie (s) but I found myself getting drawn into the narrative . The uncomplicated plot makes for a leisurely exposition of events but the movie is not slow paced. The scenes of country life and later the scenery of the wild Devon Coast are engrossing as one gets to know the various characters. Elinor Dashwood , sensible , prudent , emotionally strong , is typical of Jane Austen’s heroines and a sharp contrast to the flighty , headstrong , impractical younger sister Marianne. Emma Thompson, who also wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for the 1995 production , is wonderful as Elinor , Kate Winslet is fetching as the artless Marianne and Alan Rickman admirable as Colonel Brandon . The sole disappointment is Hugh Grant , whom I’ve always liked , but who here appears a little too bewildered , too weak to be someone who the strong-willed Elinor could fall in love with . Taiwanese director Ang Lee has done a wonderful job bringing this movie to the screen despite the fact that the setting and the story are foreign to him . He has said however that the universality of Jane Austen ‘s themes and their parallels with his own culture made it easy for him to direct the movie.
The 2007 Masterpiece Theater Edition has its pluses and minuses . At three hours in length , it is significant longer the earlier version. As a result it is able to present some additional details that flesh out the story and make it richer and easier to follow. There are however two caveats to this observation . First, there is a very steamy scene at the beginning that is completely unnecessary and explains nothing . Secondly , Colonel Brandon is said to be only 35 which is far too young for him to have the history that he is supposed to have. The actors are less known to American audiences but I found that they grew on me as the movie unfolded.In particular , I liked Dan Stevens ,the actor who played Edward Ferrars ; he was a vast improvement on Hugh Grant. Overall , I liked the 1995 version mostly because of the sumptuous cinematography , the economy of Emma Thompson’s screenplay and her tour-de-force performance as Elinor. Hattie Morahan is good in the later version but Emma Thompson is sublime. Her reaction when she hears that her true love is free and wants to marry her is unforgettable . As for those who find fault with the screenplay , I am not one of those who feels that a movie has to be slavishly true to the novel. After all , when the action has to be condensed into two or two and a half hour movie , some details are bound to be left out .
There are many theories as to why Jane Austen continues to be read , why her novels keep being made into movies or TV shows , 200 years after they were written. One is that the themes she writes about are universal , as current today as they were two centuries ago.Social pressure, the generation gap and the unequal status of women are subjects that we can relate to even in modern times. Secondly , her characters are sensible, down to earth and recognizable. Some may call them ordinary or commonplace but their very ordinariness attracts us to them even as we identify with them and want them to succeed. A third reason is that there is a strong streak of optimism that runs through her novels . Here there are no wild doings , no death-defying chases, no high drama. No wonder that during World War I , soldiers read Jane Austen’s novels for the mental escape they provided from the horrors of war. One other reason , I think , was that her heroines were strong-willed and sensible , a rarity in the society of that day.
Having seen the two film versions of Sense and Sensibility has aroused in me a desire to read the novel , to determine what the differences are and to see if the movies faithfully capture the spirit of the original. I think they do but I want to find out for myself.