Sense & Sensibility – The Adaptations (AKA The Bodies Pile Up Everywhere!)

No, no literal bodies. Sorry. The only actual death belongs to poor Mr. Dashwood at the beginning and, one assumes, a very dear wish amongst a fair number of characters that Mrs. Ferrars will not be long in following.

A great many people engage with Jane Austen via Hollywood. I mean, how many of us have at some time or other said, I don’t need to read that; I’ve seen the movie? As an avid reader and enjoyer of film adaptations, I certainly have myself.

When it comes to Sense & Sensibility, the prevailing adaptation remains the Emma Thompson/Kate Winslet/Ang Lee film from 1995. The main detraction regarding this adaptation is that Emma Thompson as a 19 year old Elinor is just plain outlandish. However, the movie carefully avoids any mention of age, so it’s only the readerly die-hards who would know the novel begins when Elinor is 19, Marianne 16, and their mother 40 – none of which can be supported by the actors who portray these characters on screen.

But here’s what really gets me about adaptations – all the bodies piling up off the pages. An adaptation writer sits in the crux of two necessary truths – characters equal conflict VS. audiences can and will only keep track of a few characters. And therefore, difficult decisions must be made about who gets the ax.

So for this post, I’m going to focus specifically on the Ang Lee adaptation of 1995 and which characters get cut and how that impacts the narrative, both positively and negatively.

The first head to roll is that of poor dear spoilt Baby Ferrars. That’s right, the entire reason the Dashwood girls are disinherited does not make an appearance on the page at all, neither in the form of the uncle, nor the child to whom said uncle bequeaths the entire estate. Well, that’s ok because it’s easy to supply any old vague reason for disinheritance – it’s historically accurate! Still, the loss of Baby Ferrars results in a few other losses regarding character motivation and ability to garner sympathy from readers: justification for Mrs. John Dashwood’s stinginess and an opportunity for the viewer to commiserate with her. In the novel, Mrs. John Dashwood dissuades her husband from giving three thousand pounds to his sister through the following indirect dialogue:

“To take three thousand pounds from their dear little boy, would be impoverishing him to the most dreadful degree. She begged him to think again on the subject. How could he answer it to himself to rob his child, and his only child too, of so large a sum?”

Note: There’s something telling to the detail that Baby Dashwood is his father’s only child. After all, they are young and the child is young, so why such a distinct reason? Why the certainty that this child will remain an only child? That is, why not argue that there could be many more Dashwoods ere long to be provided for and therefore, John Dashwood must preserve as much fortune as possible since they can’t know how many children they might end up with?? Telling indeed. I believe this is Austen’s sly way of conveying the kind of wife Mrs. John Dashwood intends to be/has become- not a full one. She has done her duty by producing one heir and whatever may have previously occurred in the Dashwood bedroom, I’m guessing she intends to have no more of it. Alternately, it’s possible that Mrs. Dashwood suffered some kind of injury during the birth of this child which means she will bear no more; however, there’s simply something so robust about Mrs. Dashwood that belies an illness. No, I sense Austen is demonstrating just how powerful Mrs. John Dashwood is within this marriage, and one of the (very few) ways in which women held power in a marriage was in the bedroom. Apart from that, child-bearing was a dangerous business, a fact Austen frequently noted as she attended the various lyings-in of her sisters-in-law. And again, one imagines that a healthy portion of Mrs. Dashwood’s concerns would be for her own longevity and well-being.

So what we lose here is a legitimate (albeit still stingy) reason to deny this help to his sisters, but we also lose the opportunity to sympathize with Mrs. John Dashwood. Child actors are notoriously difficult to deal with and it’s no surprise to see them cut from film adaptations, but I sense that Thompson as the writer of this script wanted to amplify the stinginess of the Dashwoods by removing plausible reasons for not helping their sisters. Without children, clearly rich already between the two of them, both Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood present as even more terrible than they were already in Austen’s original.

That’s one body explained.

There are two more – two more groups anyway.

The first is the lack of a Lady Middleton or her children in the film version. Again, it’s always good to scooch children off screen. But Lady Middleton is a surprising loss. In the novel, Lady Middleton is important for the role she, along with all the adult females, play as to demonstrating the various “types” of Regency woman. There’s the Rich Ladies who care for social status and yearly income and will mercilessly cut anyone from their social circle who doesn’t fit – Mrs. John Dashwood and Mrs. Ferrars for certain. There are the ridiculous women who flit and flutter and say nothing of consequence, which does nothing to abate the rate at which they continue to speak – Mrs. Jennings and her daughter Mrs. Palmer. There are the silly husband-hunting butterflies who speak of nothing but clothes and men – Anne Steele (another casualty). There are women who are so constrained by their views on proper manners and etiquette that they are frequently offended and give offense – Lady Middleton.

So in losing this character, we lose only the reflection of this typecast Regency woman. So too in the loss of Anne Steele.

In terms of conflict and plot, we lose more – the near revelation of Edward and Lucy’s engagement, which seems always on the tip of Anne’s lips, and the opportunities for Elinor and Lucy to speak privately of Edward, provided for by Lady Middleton and her fears that poor little Annamaria’s paper filligree basket won’t be finished.

Ultimately, when one balances the length of a film with the amount of characters it can reasonable sustain, these characters feel like appropriate losses to the film version.

However, there is one final omission that feels like it has robbed the film of something important: the visit to Mrs. Ferrars’ home. In the novel, Elinor, Marianne, Lucy Stelle and Lady Middleton are invited to Mrs. John Dashwood’s home. In attendance is Mrs. Ferrars, the puppeteer holding – or so she thinks – all the strings.

In particular, what matters in this scene is the way in which both Mrs. John Dashwood and Mrs. Ferrars give all their attention to Lucy Steele as a way of demonstrating their disapproval of Elinor. “She could not but smile to see the graciousness of both mother and daughter toward the very person – for Lucy was particularly distinguished – whom of all others, had they known as much as she did, they would have been most anxious to mortify.”

Ultimately, the loss of Mrs. Ferrars on screen amplifies her mystery to the viewer, but we also lose the opportunity to see just how small, unkind, unjust, and prejudiced this particular type of person might have been.

Interestingly, little sister Margaret plays a larger role in the film than the book, offering multiple opportunities to demonstrate Hugh Grant’s brilliance as the stammering, comical Edward – i.e. the sword-fighting lesson. Indeed, much of the comic relief in the film is the result of Margaret’s outspokenness, herself still learning all the things a “proper lady” ought not speak out loud.

Ultimately, a screenwriter cannot translate every scene or plot point into the film. Note Miss Morton, the potential bride for Edward – not present. So too a number of other vague references to acquaintances. In the end, Emma Thompson has written and Ang Lee directed a superb adaptation that ultimately carries through the emotional truths of Austen’s novel.

Next, I will be watching the more recent BBC mini-series and will follow-up briefly with observations on that adaptation. Shortly, I will conclude my reading of S&S, and have yet to determine which final exploration I will make, though I think it might be worthwhile to explore the courting customs of the Regency Era and how those create much of the conflict of this piece as the characters navigate their attractions, commitments, and the ever-present question of whether they are or are not, actually, engaged.

Please share your thoughts or corrections to the Comments field. I will respond to them all!

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