Sense and Sensibility: Screenplay & Diaries

This is one of my reviews for the ‘Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge 2011’ hosted by Laurel Ann of Austenprose. (Here is my introductory post: ‘By a Lady’.)

This is a review of The Sense and Sensibility Screenplay & Diaries by Emma Thompson (New York: Newmarket Press, 1996). Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay for the 1995 movie adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility. She also acted the part of Elinor Dashwood in the movie. While filming the movie, Emma Thompson kept a diary of her experiences. This diary, along with the screenplay of the movie, make up the basis of this book. Also included in the book are an introduction by the movie’s producer Lindsay Doran, Emma Thompson’s speech upon accepting her award for best screenplay at the annual Golden Globe Awards on January 21, 1996, a prize-winning letter written in character by Imogen Stubbs (the actress who played Lucy Steele), and a list of the filming locations and the full cast and crew. This book is liberally illustrated with 91 photos, 36 of which are in full color — mostly stills from the film, along with a few “behind the scenes” photos.

The introduction by Lindsay Doran was engaging. She wrote of her introduction to Jane Austen, and her long-standing desire to make a film of her favorite of the novels, Sense and Sensibility. Emma Thompson’s humorous acceptance speech was written from Jane Austen’s point of view — “how she would react to an evening like this.” (p. 1). It ends,

P.S. Managed to avoid the hoyden Emily Tomkins who has purloined my creation and added things of her own. Nefarious creature.

“With gratitude and apologies to Miss Austen, thank you.”

The letter written by Imogen Stubbs was one of the best parts of this book. It was hilarious! Imogen Stubbs captured Lucy’s personality magnificently. “We’re asked to do homework for Ang,” Emma Thompson wrote. “This is also unusual. He wants character studies and sets a list of questions, mostly addressing background and ‘inner life’. Inner life is very important to him. Some actors react well to this, some don’t. But we all do it. Imogen Stubbs (Lucy Steele) wins prize for best effort in the form of a letter to Elinor from Lucy some years after their respective marriages.” (pp. 211-212). Imogen Stubbs’s letter certainly deserved the prize it got.

I enjoyed reading what the screenplay was before filming. It was interesting to notice how some parts ended being left out, while other bits were added in. There were some parts that I was glad they left out, such as the conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Henry Dashwood at the beginning:


Elinor will try to look after you all, but make sure she finds a good husband. The men are such noodles hereabouts, little wonder none has pleased her.

They smile at each other. MRS DASHWOOD is just managing to conceal her fear and grief.


But Marianne is sure to find her storybook hero. ….


Margaret will go to sea and become a pirate so we need not concern ourselves with her. (pp. 27, 29)

It was too neat an introduction to the sisters right at the beginning. Another omission I approved is that of most of baby Thomas Palmer’s crying. His crying is amusing in the movie, but there is much more of it in the screenplay. Also, though it would have been amusing to watch, I think it was a good idea for them to delete this part of the last scene (Colonel Brandon and Marianne’s wedding): “According to the custom of the time, BRANDON throws a large handful of sixpences into the crowd …. One hits FANNY in the eye. She reels and falls over backwards into a gorse bush.” (p. 202). Yes, that was actually in the script!

There were some things in the screenplay that I wish they’d left in. They ended up leaving out quite a few of Mrs. Palmer’s lines.

[After Willoughby arrives at Barton Park for the picnic] CHARLOTTE nudges ELINOR. “I know Mr Willoughby extremely well — not that I ever spoke to him but I have seen him for ever in town. Your sister is monstrous lucky to get him. Mamma says Colonel Brandon is in love with her as well, which is a very great compliment for he hardly ever falls in love with anyone.” (p. 109)

Some of that can be heard in the background, but is not distinct. Also:


The carriage stands outside the PALMER residence, a resplendent affair with a great deal of land. BRANDON is helping MARIANNE and ELINOR out of the carriage.


I am resolved never to mention Mr Willoughby’s name again, and furthermore I shall tell everyone I meet what a good-for-nothing he is. (p. 173)

I’ve very much enjoyed Imelda Staunton’s acting (she was also in 1996 ‘Twelfth Night’ as Maria, 1999 ‘David Copperfield’ as Mrs. Micawber, and 2007-2009 ‘Cranford’ as Miss Octavia Pole) and I would have loved to see her say some of these lines. They are actually from the book, too!

There is a funny scene that ended up being edited. After Lucy tells Fanny Dashwood about her engagement to Edward, there is a scene where “FANNY is trying to drag LUCY out of the house. ROBERT and JOHN are trying to reason with her. FANNY loses her grip and falls backwards. LUCY flings herself into ROBERT‘s arms. ROBERT falls over.” (p. 164). That would have been fun to watch!

I thought that Kate Winslet did an excellent job of portraying Marianne in the movie, and I think that she could have done justice to this scene, much of which was taken right from the book:


If his [Willoughby’s] present regrets are half as painful as mine, he will suffer enough.


Do you compare your conduct with his?


No. I compare it with what it ought to have been. I compare it with yours.


Our situations were very different.


My illness has made me consider the past. I saw in my own behaviour nothing but imprudence — and worse. I was insolent and unjust to everyone —

ELINOR tries to stem the flow but MARIANNE continues.


— but you — you I wronged above all. Only I knew your heart and its sorrows but even then I was never a grain more compassionate. I brought my illness upon myself — I wanted to destroy myself. And had I succeeded, what misery should I have caused you?

ELINOR embraces her. They stand with their arms round one another in silence for a moment. Then MARIANNE breaks away and speaks with great good humour and energy.


I shall mend my ways! I shall no longer worry others nor torture myself. I am determined to enter on a course of serious study — Colonel Brandon has promised me the run of his library and I shall read at least six hours a day. By the end of the year I expect to have improved my learning a very great deal. (pp. 189-190)

There were other deletions. For example, When Colonel Brandon tells Elinor about how Willoughby seduced and abandoned his ward, there is mention of the duel (p. 155). There were also a series of scenes showing Colonel Brandon seeking and finding young Eliza (p. 115), sandwiched between the scene where Willoughby asks Marianne for a private interview on the morrow, and the scene where Margaret speculates in church whether or not he will kneel down when he proposes. Then there were additional scenes of Marianne pining for Willoughby after he leaves her at Barton — staring into space, spouting poetry, &c.

I also noticed that some conversation was added. For example, Willoughby and Marianne’s exchange, “I’m honoured that so fair and virtuous a lady should compromise her honour by seeing me to the gate unaccompanied.” “That is exactly what Elinor would say.” “And she would be right.” — is not in the screenplay.

Emma Thompson’s diaries were an interesting look at the process of making the film. However, they were pretty liberally sprinkled with vulgarity, along with plenty of bad language. Emma Thompson is not much like Elinor Dashwood — she lacks her refinement and delicacy. Besides those two things, however, there was much to interest. Emma Thompson wrote, “As each role gets cast, the fact of the shoot becomes increasingly concrete. I rewrite scenes with the actors in my head. At the end of March I go away for two weeks, try to forget about the script and think about Elinor. This diary begins on the first day of rehearsals.” (p. 211). It spans the time from Friday 7 April to Sunday 9 July.

The diary includes intriguing vignettes of Emma Thompson’s fellow actors and of the film crew. She wrote of the actor who played Sir John Middleton, “Robert Hardy brings the nineteenth century with him, he’s born out of his time. Courteous, intelligent and witty in tweed.” (pp. 240-241). Of the actor who plays Colonel Brandon, she wrote, “Sometimes Alan reminds me of the owl in Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin. If you took too many liberties with him I’m sure he’d have your tail off in a trice.” (p. 241).

Then there were accounts of many amusing episodes along the way.

Wild a.m. trying to work out the blocking. Kate [Marianne] and Greg [Willoughby] sopping wet and brave. Set up a shot that was designed only to go to a certain point in the scene but as Ang [the director] didn’t cut we just carried on. At the end of the scene Phil said the lens was too pushed to contain anything but Ang said he’d just been watching the story — and he hadn’t cut simply because he’d been enjoying himself. ‘Try not to get into the habit,’ said Linds, worrying about film stock and costs. (pp. 236-237)

And then:

Greg has to drive in a carriage with two horses, make them stop on a pre-arranged mark, hold them steady while acting and getting Kate into her seat and then move them off as if he did such things every day of his life. …. Greg and Kate in the high-flyer were a wonderful sight — genuinely transported with excitement. Probably because it’s quite dangerous. (p. 238)

The director, Ang Lee, sent notes to the actors on their performances: “Kate tells me her first note from Ang was, ‘You’ll get better.’ I shrieked.” (p. 238). During one shoot, “I [Emma Thompson] played the scene tired and out of it. Ang likes it.” (p. 238). In getting ready to film one scene, the crew had flattened down the grass. It had to be fluffed up before they could shoot (p. 238). Of another occasion, Emma Thompson records, “The lawn is covered in daisies, which indicate the wrong season. Chris Newman asks all the members of the public who are watching to pick them off. Wonderful image as they all kneel obligingly and get to work.” (p. 255). Another interesting episode:

We’re working on the second scene between Willoughby and Marianne where they read the sonnet together. Difficult to give poetry reading a sexy hue in this day and age but what else can he do? Give her a massage? Must avoid twee. Oh, please don’t let any of it be twee, I’ll die. I’ll be assassinated by the Jane Austen Society (who rang James’s company in New York to complain about the casting of Hugh Grant as Edward — too good-looking apparently). (p. 244)

I think they managed to make it romantic enough. Emma Thompson wrote about why they had to change some things from the way they were written in the screenplay.

9.30 a.m. Still not shooting. Late start again. They [those in charge of Montacute, the house where they filmed the Cleveland scenes] refused to let us use the breakfast room yesterday so we re-set the scene of waiting for Dr Harris’s diagnosis in a great hall, which changed the nature of the scene entirely. Quite good really, because it’s tenser. It’s perhaps better for suspense that the Palmers are more nervous than I’ve suggested in the script. (p. 252)

The director was really into symbolism (see p. 208). Here is an example of what he liked:

Ang is thrilled with all of the topiary in the gardens [at Montacute, the location for Cleveland]. He had Marianne walking by this extraordinary wiggly hedge. Apparently it snowed one year and the snow froze the hedge. When the thaw came, they cut away the dead bits and continued to grow the hedge — in the shape of a wild snowdrift. It looks like a brain. ‘Sensibility,’ said Ang, pointing to it triumphantly. ‘And sense,’ he continued, pointing in the other direction towards a very neat line of carefully trimmed flowerpot-shaped bushes. (p. 253)

I found it interesting that Emma Thompson was worried about the wedding at the end appearing to be a double wedding.

Finished wedding. Happiness. Two cameras, ours and a steadicam (which is strapped to the body of the operator and offers more mobility), to cover the procession — much like a pantomime walk-down, actually — of Marianne and Brandon out of the church, followed by Mrs Dashwood, Margaret, Elinor and Edward (who are supposed to be already married but I can’t help feeling that it will look like a double wedding. Depressing thought — too neat) . . . Mrs Jennings and Sir John, the Palmers, John and Fanny. It’s Alan’s first day and his last appearance in the movie. Rather confusing. (pp. 230-231)

When I first watched the movie as a child, I thought that it was indeed a double wedding. It wasn’t until I was older and had read the book, that I realized that that probably wasn’t how it was intended to look.

The second to last entry, Friday 7 July, pp. 279-280:

Last day of shoot. ….

I just grinned from ear to ear all evening. All within Elinor’s breast was strong, silent satisfaction (it’s in the book).


Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from The Sense and Sensibility Screenplay & Diaries by Emma Thompson (New York: Newmarket Press, 1996).

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