So I watched the 2007 Sense and Sensibility yesterday, and as always thoroughly enjoyed it. Both those movies, the 1995 version and this one, are fabulous pieces of film-making, and really do justice to the book.
It was interesting to draw the comparisons between the details of the book and the two movies. In some ways, the films bear a closer resemblance to each other than to the written work; Andrew Davies purposely took pieces of Emma Thompson’s version and inserted them into his screenplay. The very last scene in his movie is a direct nod to the older version: Hattie Morahan’s Elinor laughing at Dan Stevens’ Edward as he is chasing chickens around the yard of their parsonage is the illustration of the line from Movie 1 when Hugh Grant’s Edward tells Emma Thompson’s Elinor that he would like to be a clergyman: “A quiet country parish is my ideal – keep chickens, give very short sermons…” The chickens, alas, are nowhere to be found in the novel.
Another scene not to be found in the novel is Edward being kind and big-brotherly to little Margaret (who, in the book, is a young teen, not a little girl, and plays an almost negligible role. One wonders what she’s doing in the story at all; dropping her wouldn’t change anything. The movies make her more important.). Both movies use this relationship to show clearly that Edward is a good guy; it’s a convenient shorthand for the long expository paragraphs in the novel that explain in detail just what makes him a desirable match for Elinor. The other strong parallels are the character of Fanny Dashwood (down to the dorky plastered-on-ringlets hairdo and the exact inflection the actresses give to her lines of dialogue), and the role of Colonel Brandon in rescuing Marianne when she collapses in the rainy fields of Cleveland (after a harrowing recital of “Sonnet 116” or a reminiscent dance in the grass, respectively). In the book, she neither passes out in the rain, nor does Colonel Brandon carry her into the house, echoing Willoughby’s earlier feat of strength and manliness. She just prosaically catches a cold because she wouldn’t change her shoes and stockings after walking in the wet grass, and the cold turns into pneumonia (or, as it were, a “raging fever” with “putrid tendencies”). Again, the movie scenes employ a visual shorthand, showing how Marianne tortures herself with memories of Willoughby and brings on her own illness, and how Colonel Brandon is not only deeply concerned about her, but actively involved in looking after her.
And those changes are necessary in order for 21st-century viewers to understand what 19th-century readers got from the book. Today’s viewers would not comprehend that catching a cold could, actually, be fatal – but more, that unbridled emotion like Marianne’s could make a person sick. We need bigger guns, need to see the dramatic collapse. And we want the drama, and the fairytale ending.
But it’s easy to forget that for Austen and her readers, these stories were reality, not fairytales. The flowing white gowns were everyday wear, the polite language normal talk (well, in Austen’s class, anyway). True, Austen never mentions political or broader societal issues of her day – not a word, for instance, about the Napoleonic Wars which were raging at the time – but perhaps they would not have been issues for the girls through whose eyes the stories are told. The problems which confront her heroines are more personal, and they were all-too-real for young ladies of Austen’s class. We might smile at Mrs Bennet’s obsession with husband-hunting for her girls, but to a 19th-century lady, it was literally a question of her whole future, if not her survival. We look for emotional satisfaction in a relationship – the endless media-fuelled search for one’s “soul mate” – but for them, the question was far more prosaic – “Can he provide?” The question of material comfort was never forgotten, in spite of all the concern about love. There is very little fairytale about this (except perhaps in the fact that in Austen, all deaths take place off-screen and all endings are happy).
I wonder what today’s equivalent to Austen’s stories would be. Two hundred years from now, are there going to be movies made of Barbara Kingsolver’s books, and people will consider them the epitome of romantic, because it’s all so nostalgic and sweet?