Columnist Susan Wozniak: Austen adaptation still gets me

Susan Wozniak

Susan Wozniak


Published: 02-22-2024 8:01 PM

Whether a book is a classic, like “Sense and Sensibility,” or a recent publication deserving of the rave reviews that put it on the lists of book clubs throughout America, readers really, really want to see the movie version as soon as possible. However, the resultant film could range from wonderful to an enormous disappointment.

That is not the case with Emma Thompson’s 1995 adaptation of “Sense and Sensibility.” The surprises come from what she left out and how the film still works.

“Sense and Sensibility” is Jane Austen’s first published book. If you haven’t read it, its heroines are the Dashwood sisters, forced to leave home with their mother and younger sister upon the death of the head of the family. Along the way, the oldest girl, Elinor, and Marianne, next in age, make new friends and fall in love. Twice, my emotions caused me to stop reading … but, just for the evening.

The men the sisters sighed over have secrets. Edward, the object of Elinor’s affections, has a minor secret, while Willoughby, Marianne’s flamboyant love, has serious problems and a shocking history. When Marianne confronts her boyfriend over his engagement to a wealthy woman, he responds with a letter denying that he led her on. This was my first stop. The message of the letter will be familiar to every woman who has had an untrustworthy boyfriend.

Later, Willoughby appears unbidden. Elinor answers the door and says she does not want to talk to him. He persists, forcing his way in, begging for a half-hour. His words run on for several pages. Elinor can hardly speak. When she does, she asks why he came to the house instead of sending a letter.

Why indeed? Was he truly sorry or was he relying on charm? I thought the latter and put the book down and crawled under the covers.

When Emma wrote the screenplay, she eliminated those scenes. While Jane had to use description and invention to make her characters live, the accomplished actress Emma relied on the teamwork that is behind every film: the cast, the director and the script. Facial expressions often say more than words, and the excellent cast was able to relay the feelings of the characters with a glance or a change of tone.

One scene relates, perhaps, to Willoughby’s character. He is sitting with the Dashwood family, demonstrating his artistic, sensitive side. He quotes one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, then produces a minuscule book of the sonnets which he swears he always keeps safe in his pocket, while the camera wheels in for his close-up.

Elinor’s Edward, when still in his teens, became secretly engaged to a girl. Lucy, the hidden fiancée, confides in Elinor, raising the question of whether Lucy guessed Elinor’s feelings for Edward or if she overheard conversations about Elinor. Neither Jane nor Emma answer that question: Jane because marriage and money is what she satirizes; Emma because she presents Lucy as Jane did, without judgment. Furthermore, Lucy’s role in the story is too important to change her or, worse, to eliminate her.

Recognizing which characters are important and why is the first thing that an adapter needs to know. Emma left Jane’s characters intact, although she opened space for both the youngest Dashwood daughter as well as for the son-in-law of their friend, Mrs. Jennings. The girl’s presence reminds viewers that this is a family story, while the son-in-law’s increased input allows Emma to introduce some welcome comedy.

Generally, a few minor characters may be dropped, because the roles they played were small and because films are expected to run between 90 to 120 minutes, while books with more than 350 pages are read any time, anywhere by their readers. If the readers are women, they might accompany the reader into a bubble bath.

Susan Wozniak has been a caseworker, a college professor and journalist. She is a mother and grandmother.