Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility: A Fresh Comparison

Winning an Oscar for Best Writing, Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility is critically acclaimed for its adaptation of the classic Jane Austen novel. While not an exact replica of the original literature, the movie’s interpretation is widely considered to effectively enhance the book. A closer look at two specific scenes displays how the film’s differences can add a deeper, visual understanding of the story, particularly within the theme of sensibility.

Willoughby and his horse
Willoughby and his horse

As the general story goes, Marianne is out walking with her younger sister Margaret when it begins to rain. Marianne falls down and cannot get back up, but fortunately Willoughby is nearby and comes to her aid. The book portrays this scene with Willoughby rescuing Marianne on foot while he had been out hunting with his dogs. However, the movie depicts this scene with Willoughby riding up on a white stallion to rescue the younger Dashwood. The script actually reads “astride sits an Adonis in hunting gear” (Stovel). This dramatic rescue is one of the movie’s vivid representation of Marianne’s thematic sensibility. Additionally, Margaret is almost “trampled” when the horse rears up, which seems to foreshadow how Willoughby later tramples Marianne’s heart with his betrayal.

The movie’s portrayal of Willoughby and his horse is also reminiscent of the “Queen Mab” reference in the novel. Queen Mab is a horse that Willoughby wished to give to Marianne. She had to decline however, because Elinor emphasized how their family could not afford the upkeep of a horse. The horse’s name is an allusion to the imaginary “fairies’ midwife” from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, who rides her chariot across lovers’ brains to produce tantalizing dreams. Yet, these dreams, according to Mercutio, are “begot of nothing but fantasy” and are “more inconstant than the wind” (Act I, Scene iv). In light of this evidence, the horse Queen Mab could represent Marianne’s relationship with Willoughby–a perfect fantasy that Marianne will never have. Overall, Emma Thompson takes ‘reading between the lines’ to the next level to find the most effective way to present the theme of sensibility in this scene. Even though the horse may seem like an insignificant interpretation of the book’s original scene, its presence is a skillful portrayal of a precise adaptation.

Towards the end of the story, there is a second rescue scene. After the Dashwood sisters arrive in Cleveland with the Palmers, Marianne steals away for a long walk. Once again, she gets caught in the rain, but this does not stop her from walking all the way to Willoughby’s estate to mourn the loss of her lover. Her tears mix with the deluge of water as she cries out the Shakespearean love sonnet that she and Willoughby had bonded over when they first met:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
–William Shakespeare

Colonel Brandon must rescue Marianne, who’s senseless with sorrow, and carry her back to the Palmers’s residence, where she is deathly ill for several days. In contrast, the book portrays these events much more simply—in her melancholy, Marianne takes several, long walks in the evening and, as a result, she catches a violent cold. There is no grief-stricken call out to Willoughby in the rain or dramatic rescue by Brandon.

Marianne in the rain
Marianne in the rain

The film’s structure of this scene achieves several things. One, it effectively sums up Marianne’s suffering over Willoughby in one scene, where in the book, Marianne’s distress seems to last much longer. Two, it emphasizes Marianne’s thematic sensibility with the melodramatic tone of the scene. Three, it labels Colonel Brandon as Marianne’s rescuer. This label is not in the book, but it adds meaning to the movie in two ways. In general, it draws visual romantic attention to Colonel Brandon’s unwavering love for Marianne. On a deeper understanding, Brandon’s rescue could be a metaphor for “sense” rescuing “sensibility.” The entire story’s structure places importance on “sense”–whether its Marianne and Willoughby, whose relationship of sensibility fails miserably, or Elinor, who maintains an air of conservative authority throughout the book. In yet another scene, viewers can see how the film visually interprets the book’s theme of sensibility.

Whether it was love at first sight with the gallant, rescuer Willoughby or Brandon’s rescue from Marianne’s almost suicidal grief, both scenes in the 1995 film visually embraced the dramatic qualities–such as emotion, spontaneity, rapturous devotion–that define the concept of “sensibility.” Thus, the movie depicts both scenes better than the book. Not only were the scenes in the movie more exciting and dramatic, but also the emphasis of sensibility lent deeper meaning to the scenes and the overall story. It’s difficult for a movie to do justice by its book–especially for adaptations of classic literature–but this film proves itself a worthy interpretation.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Sense & Sensibility. London: Thomas Egerton, Military Library, 1811. Print.

Sense & Sensibility. Dir. Ang Lee. Perf. Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman. Columbia Pictures, 1995. Film.

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Norton’s Anthology. Chicago: Hampton Publishers, 2004. 55-104. Print.

Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 116: Let Me Not To The Marriage Of True Minds.” Poetry X. Ed. Jough Dempsey. 16 Jun 2003. 26 Feb. 2014

Stovel, Nora. “From Page to Screen: Emma Thompson’s Film Adaptation of Sense & Sensibility.” Jane Austen Society of North America V.32, No. 1 (Winter 2011): n. pag. Web 11 February 2014

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  1. Elizabeth

    As much as I enjoyed this version of S&S, I cannot even pretend that Emma’s relatively advanced age wasn’t noticeable — especially since Kate Winslet was age-appropriate for Marianne. The only good thing about Emma’s age is that the rest of the cast was also considerably older than the book’s characters, so it was less noticeable.

    But one of the reasons I just love P&P05 and S&S08 is the fact that the actors are closer in age to the books’ characters.

  2. It’s BASED on somebody else’s work of fiction.

    Of course things have to be changed and altered when you try to fit a book into a two-hour movie. However, when you take much creative freedom with a source-material that already have a fanbase and a standing in literature such as Jane Austen’s work, you are bound to get strong opinions. People who feel that Emma Thompson took something that wasn’t hers and not just made her own interpretation of it. She deliberately altered it to be the way she obviously wished it had been from the beginning.

    Yes, the movie is Emma Thompson’s screenplay but the characters, the title and the story wasn’t created by her, they were created by Jane Austen. So they’re not separate beings but the movie is a imitation of the book.

    • I disagree with this. Making a movie adaptation is a delicate balancing act. There is no way to include every single thing that happens in a book, so the adapter has to make choices about what to include in the film.

      Take the character of Willoughby, for example. This adaptation greatly shortens what we know about him from the book, but Emma Thompson’s choices were meant o reveal his character in a shorter time. I think she succeeded–his character is admirably displayed. I actually hate the greater sympathy the book has for him.

      Or cutting out Mrs. Middleton and the kids–they didn’t add anything to the central plot and weren’t needed in a movie.

      Movies take the source material and run with it–some are successful and some are not. I think this one was. But based on what you said, a movie like “Clueless” would not be allowed.

    • As you say, the problem with trying to judge this film – or ANY film adapted from another source – on its merits is that it is inextricably, inevitably linked to the source material. Why else would Emma Thompson have decided to call it Sense and Sensibility? And because Thompson, Ang Lee, and the rest of the filmmakers DID base it (very loosely) on Austen’s novel, it is only natural that Austen fans will complain about the changes that were made to the story. Thompson and Lee’s vision is utterly inconsistent with Jane Austen’s.

    • Jake Clayton

      I guess that’s why it was an “adaptation”. Many books have this same thing happen when they are “adapted” for screen or TV. If one is a purist and want the exact thing, word for word, I think the very much older (often b/w) movies would suit better. People who enjoy the book are good readers and so might not enjoy the changes. I love to watch the movie first, then read the book and I find I can picture the characters just as they were played, even if the story is a bit different. I have no success with thinking up a character’s looks from reading in a book, most times. This was well-casted, I think, in spite of the original ages. Most good actors and actresses don’t look their age anyway.

  3. Oliphanter

    I liked the film from the start, but I really started to love it at that little moment when Edward helps Elinor slip her shawl back after it had fallen. It was such a little thing, but his thoughtfulness was so sweet it encapsulated his entire character. And Emma’s Elinor was brilliant in how she portrayed a very sensible woman who still had a passionate heart. I get a little misty when she chides Marianne for not realizing that she could have a broken heart, too. (And, I also love her little squeak when she realizes Edward is still available–I know a lot of people have made fun of that, but to me it seemed so genuine)

  4. I would have to agree with your idea of “sense rescuing sensibility” in Thompsons version of this popular Austin story. What better way to Americanize/modernize the montra “stay calm and carry on” then through turning this frustrating cultural act of repression on its head. It is also rather interesting, as you mentioned, that the rescuers are the ones who really need rescueing-when they “stay calm” the sensibility they save is two fold, allowing both to “carry on”.

    • PerkAlert

      Thank you! You make a great point with the “keep calm and carry on” montra. I hadn’t thought of it like that before!

  5. Felicia Bonanno

    Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility has long been one of my favorite movies, and although I’ve read the book, I never really considered that the differences in the film provided a better interpretation of the story line than the novel. I love your interpretations of it, especially Willoughby’s riding in on a white steed rather than appearing on foot to Marianne’s rescue. I never would have seen the foreshadowing. I’m going to go re-watch the film, now, with this fresh new outlook in the front of my mind.

    • PerkAlert

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed my analysis. You should definitely read the book though! I watched the movie before reading the book, but it wasn’t nearly as good as the second time I watched it after reading the book. It gives certain scenes a whole new layer of meaning. 🙂

  6. SanjuanitaSands

    I’ve read the book, and have seen (and loved) more than one film based on it. That being said, I truly enjoyed this version too. I thought all the actors did wonderful jobs with their characters. They effectively drew me into their world, and into their situations and trials.

    It was also a feast for the eyes IMO. Gorgeous landscapes, settings, and beautiful costumes. I never tire of watching this film. If I see it on, I’ll watch it, and I also own it on Blu Ray. Beautiful story, with a beautiful ending that never fails to leave me feeling warm and happy. I can’t ask for much more than that from a form of entertainment.

    I can only imagine how challenging it must be to compact such a well-loved novel into a two hour film, but I throughly enjoyed the end results in this instance.

    • Almost all of the actors were far too old for their characters. Emma Thompson was 36 at the time, even though she was supposedly playing a 27 year old – which is wrong anyway, as Jane Austen describes Elinor as being only 19 years old! Hugh Grant was a year younger than Thompson, which meant that he was over a decade too old to play Edward. Alan Rickman was almost 50, which is 15 years older than Brandon is described as in the novel! There are many more examples of this sort of thing that I could give, but another major problem is that many of the characters in S&S 1995 have barely anything in common with their counterparts in the novel. They seem to have had personality transplants.

      The landscapes are lovely, but beautiful settings and cinematography can be found in practically all of the more recent Austen adaptations, so they are nothing special, IMO. Although some of the costumes in S&S 1995 are attractive, there are many more of them that are inaccurate to the period and rather unflattering to the actors and actresses. The makeup and hairstyles are truly horrible; Thompson in particular has distractingly thick, caked-on makeup, and both she and Winslet have what look like awful, frizzy 1990s perms. It is also interesting that they both have BRIGHT reddish-blonde hair, yet their eyebrows are very dark. Somehow, I never thought that Elinor and Marianne would have dyed their hair (*sarcasm*).

      The original story, as Austen wrote it, is very beautiful, but what Thompson did to it in S&S 1995 is certainly NOT so wonderful.

      And how is the film’s ending “beautiful”? Thompson’s cold, bitter, “control freak” Elinor marries Grant’s foolish, awkward, immature Edward. Are we to imagine that they will actually be genuinely happy? Well, Thompson’s Elinor now has someone over whom she can exert control (as she frequently tried to do to Winslet’s Marianne), and Grant’s Edward, being the stammering man-child that he is, will be “mothered” for the rest of his life, I suppose. Even worse is Winslet’s Marianne marrying boring, stiff old Rickman’s Brandon; she is irreparably broken and has resigned herself to a dull, passionless existence with a man whom she does not love. I cannot help but feel sorry for her.

      • I certainly hope you’re happier now than when you wrote this, lol.

  7. I liked this versions of S&S. Emma Thompson did a wonderful job both in adapting it and acting in it. Yes, she was a bit too old for the part, but she had the heft it needed as an actress and it worked for me.

  8. This is a thoughtful, thorough and insightful comparison, not just of how a movie differs from a book, but of how a film can amplify a particular aspect of the story to more clearly highlight an underlying theme.

  9. I have always loved the novel. I’m eager to watch the movie – sometimes I like film adaptations as they can provide a fresh interpretation but I am often let down by the differences.

  10. Stephanie

    I love this movie and your clever commentary.
    I haven’t read the book yet, however, and should probably do that!

  11. Tali Avishay

    Brandons’s rescue of Marianne differs diametrically from Willoughby’s – Willoughby is shown dramatically sweeping her up and striding with her folded in his arms, while Brandon staggers in with an unconscious Marianne with her head hanging down – a great representation of the contrast between the young, impetuous but untrustworthy Willoughby and the older, not dashing but dependible Brandon. The scene later when he begs Elinor to let him help consolidates our recognition of his true feeling.

    I would like to point out one huge difference between the book and the movie, which in my opinion merited the Oscar on it’s own – the character of Margaret and the relationship between her and Edward. In the book, Margaret is a silly child and Edward is a stick. Quite frankly, it is hard to understand how even a rational woman like Elinor could fall in love with him. In the movie, Margaret, while sometimes socially immature, is definitely a character – a tomboy, vivid, interested in history and geography. Edward’s championship of her and interactions with her make him a much more likeable and rounded character, and make it more believable that Elinor would care for him.

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