Margaret (center), more prominent in the film than in the book
A while back I wrote about how Patricia Rozema’s film of Mansfield Park sells Jane Austen short.Today I accuse Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995)of doing the same.
When the film came out, I remember hearing an interview with Lee (maybe on National Public Radio) about how his affinity with Jane Austen came from his having grown up in formal Taiwanese society. This gave me great hopes for the film because Sense and Sensibility reflects Austen’s conservatism and can be challenging for audiences living after the Romantic revolution.
Austen saw, in romanticism, the danger of narcissism.It’s all very well to celebrate individuality and the free expression of our feelings, but in so doing we risk undervaluing the importance of social rules and rituals. These rules and rituals, as Austen saw them, exist to protect us from our dark tendencies.
In the book, these dark tendencies show up in Willoughby, who ruins one woman and comes very close to ruining Marianne.Willoughby and Marianne make fun of society’s suffocating conventions, and Austen tempts us to sympathize with their mockery by making us wade through boring chitchat.(She does the same in Emma, only moreso, by making us endure the long rambling monologues of Miss Bates.)
Austen isn’t saying that we shouldn’t judge the fools and knaves of her society.By all means, see them for what they are.But there are rules of propriety that help protect us against the knaves and help us get along with the fools.It’s not always pretty but it’s better than the alternative.If one is a young and pretty unmarried woman, the alternative can be a blasted life.
Elinor is a model for putting up with the fools and the knaves.Lee, however, isn’t willing to show the extent to which she buys into the social conventions.I sometimes think his film should be called Sensibility and Sensibility because Emma Thompson’s Elinor is more romantic than Austen’s.
Now, I know that, in Austen’s work, there is a way in which the two heroines switch places by the end of the book: the sensible Elinor gets the romantic marriage (albeit with a very sensible man) and passionate Marianne gets the sensible marriage (with a man who, although romantic, is also 15 years older).So yes, each has something to learn from the other.
But Austen is far more critical of romanticism than the director is—which leads me to wonder whether contemporary Taiwan itself is less formal and more expressive than Austen’s society. The difference between Austen and Lee becomes apparent in how each handles kids.
Austen is tough on children.Rather than seeing them as “best philosophers” (to quote Wordsworth, the quintessential Romantic poet), she sees them as little brats who need to grow up. Little sister Margaret in the book is unpromising and is barely mentioned.
The Margaret in the movie, on the other hand, is portrayed sympathetically and is, indeed, an important character.Lee uses her to soften up Edward’s character. Without their relationship, he would come across as a cold fish (which is how Marianne in the book sees him).
As I wrote recently, Austen was writing in the midst of a sexual revolution, triggered by romanticism and also by the licentious behavior of the Prince Regent.She saw how the new cult of sensibility got used to excuse selfish behavior, and as a result promising young men like Willoughby lost sight of what was important and became twisted. It’s a bit like what happened in the 1960’s when calls for “sexual freedom” played into the hands of sexual predators (a woman could be castigated for saying “no”). Austen describes a similar distortion occurring with the Crawfords and the Bertrams in Mansfield Park.
Jane Austen is no prude and understands how onerous social rules and rituals can be. As I said, she gets us to experience just how suffocating they are. But she is even more concerned about the damage that can be inflicted by narcissism and self-indulgence. It is tragic but necessary that Marianne choose sense over sensibility. Elinor understands the tragedy when she feels “a pang for Willoughby.” With more self restraint he could have been a good husband–certainly a more age-appropriate husband–for her sister.
Either Lee didn’t understand Austen or he couldn’t make a Hollywood movie that acknowledged her conservatism in a way that our own narcissistic society would accept. Whatever the case, his movie doesn’t do full justice to the hard decisions that must be made. Instead, we have a happily-ever-after romantic melodrama. Austen deserves more than this.
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Best Answer: Do you mean the Emma Thompson version (which is the one with Hugh Grant and Kate Winslet) of Sense and Sensibility?
If so, there are some differences though the movie keeps to the spirit of the book.
-The movie doesn't include Lady Middleton, Sir John Middleton's wife, or their children. The movie has Mrs. Jennings living with her son-in-law (John Middleton) & you are left to presume the wife is dead. In the book, Lady Middleton is very much alive and plays a big part, as do the children.
-The movie does not include Anne Steele, Lucy Steele's sister. This is an important omission, because it is Anne that betrays the secret engagement of Lucy and Edward to Fanny Dashwood.
-The movie didn't show the scene where Elinor and Marianne dine with their half brother, John Dashwood, and his wife as well as others, including Mrs. Ferrars (Edward's mother). Lucy and Anne Steele are also there and, to show that the Miss Dashwoods are not in favor with her (because she believes Edward to be partial to Elinor and wants Elinor to know that she disapproves), Mrs. Ferrars treats the Miss Steeles very well while slighting the Miss Dashwoods. Lucy Steele takes this to mean that her secret engagement to Edward will face less obstacles than she thinks where his family is concerned. The next day she visits Elinor to gloat over how much the Dashwoods and Mrs. Ferrars like her.
-The movie does not show Mr. Willoughby going to the Palmer's house when he hears in London that Marianne is, supposedly, dying. In the book he goes there to gain forgiveness and to show that, though he behaved like a scoundrel, he truly had valued Marianne. It was only the money (and her lack thereof) that caused him to treat her so badly. Of course, you know that had he married her and been without a suitable income, the money would then have had more value for him than Marianne. He was a rogue at heart, but didn't want Marianne or her family thinking so badly about him.
You are right that the girls are older than Jane Austen has them in the book - Elinor is 19 and Marianne 16 when the book begins. (I think modern audiences would have had trouble believing it right that a man who is supposed to be in his mid thirties would fall in love with a girl young enough to be his daughter. In those days it wouldn't have been unusual for a girl in her teens to marry a man nearly 40 or even older.)
If you mean the new Masterpiece Theatre version, the very setting is changed, they show things that aren't shown in the book (like Willoughby's seduction of Colonel Brandon's ward and the duel between Willoughby and Brandon), and it felt too compressed. I didn't enjoy this version nearly as much as the 1995 version or the earlier BBC version.
If you mean the 1981 BBC version, it was very close to the story.
I hope this helps.
ck1 · 10 years ago