Sense and Sensibility: 1995 Movie Adaptation

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’.)

The 1995 movie version of Sense and Sensibility is an enjoyable film. It manages to be quite good, despite several odd elements.

In the movie, Elinor tells Margaret that “houses go from father to son … not from father to daughter”. The only reason that Norland went to their brother John is because their uncle entailed it to him. Otherwise Henry Dashwood would have been able to leave it to his wife and daughters, which he probably would have done since his son John already had a fortune left to him by his mother. There are plenty of women with property in the book. Mrs. Ferrars’s fortune is completely at her disposal, and she was able easily to cut Edward out of her will. She could have just as easily cut Robert out as well and left everything to Fanny (as Elinor suspected she might do after Robert married against Mrs. Ferrars’s wishes). Mrs. Smith (called Lady Allen in the movie) owns Allenham, which she plans on leaving to Willoughby. When he displeases her, however, she disinherits him. Even Mrs. Jennings has some money left her by her husband, and the elder Eliza Williams had such a large fortune that her guardian coerced her into marrying his elder son to get possession of it. The conversation between Elinor and Edward in the film, where she tells him that he will inherit his fortune, while she can’t even earn hers, is something of a continuation of this theme. Of course, Edward’s mother ends up disinheriting him (he does have two thousand pounds of his own, however), while, in the book at least, Elinor has a fortune of one thousand pounds from her uncle.

The other big oddity I noticed, was how poor the Dashwoods are made. In the movie they can’t afford beef or sugar. In the book they were poor, but not paupers. They couldn’t afford to keep a horse (with the subsequent expenses of another servant, a horse for the servant, &c.) and Mrs. Dashwood sold her carriage. However, in the book she actually considered building on to their cottage! If they were starving, or even having to go without beef and sugar, she would never have even thought about such an expense as building.

Another strange change that was made was dropping Willoughby’s visit to Cleveland to explain himself. This in itself isn’t so strange, as what they chose to put in instead. In the movie Colonel Brandon tells Elinor that he has learned from Lady Allen (i.e. Mrs. Smith) that Willoughby did mean to propose to Marianne. This is rather odd, as, in the first place, Willoughby never told Lady Allen that he was planning on proposing to Marianne. In the second place, if Lady Allen had known about Willoughby’s behaviour to Marianne, she would probably have let him marry her (in the book she forgives him and reinstates him as her heir because of his marriage to a woman of character). And, finally, what was Lady Allen doing telling Colonel Brandon about all of this anyway?

There are other changes. Marianne’s illness is made much more serious in the film than it was in the book — probably for dramatic effect. In the book, the doctor never thinks that Marianne is in any danger of dying. In a dramatic addition, Colonel Brandon is shown carrying an almost unconscious Marianne in the rain over a great distance into the house at Cleveland. Artistic license, I guess. Another interesting addition in this movie is a scene where Edward attempts to tell Elinor about his engagement — a scene which never takes place in the book. As is common in adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels, scenes have been added in an attempt to bring the heroes more to the front.

Of course, there are many deletions from the novel, to fit the movie into such a short time slot. A number of characters are dropped. Young Harry Dashwood, Lady Middleton and her children, and Anne Steele are all excluded, as is any reference to Colonel Brandon’s older brother. (That latter deletion changes Colonel Brandon’s back story a great deal as Eliza is made penniless to explain why he could not marry her.)

Quite a few scenes from the book are also edited, or simply dropped. Some of the ruder doings of Willoughby and Marianne, for example, are dropped (e.g. going to visit Allenham alone with Mrs. Smith/Lady Allen in the house). They are made self-absorbed enough, however, that those particular deletions are hardly noticeable.

On the positive side, this is a beautiful movie with some great acting. All of the actors were superb. As has been stated many times, Emma Thompson was much too old to play the part of nineteen year old Elinor Dashwood, but she does such a good job acting her, that it is not difficult to overlook this. Kate Winslet completely epitomized Marianne Dashwood. She is beautiful, charming, sweet, passionate, inconsiderate, honest, impulsive, pathetic, and everything else that Marianne is. The comic characters (e.g. Sir John Middleton, Mrs. Jennings, and Mr. and Mrs. Palmer) were fantastic. The men (Edward Ferrars, Colonel Brandon, and John Willoughby) were good, especially Greg Wise as Willoughby. Imogen Stubbs as Lucy Steele was perfect. I can’t think of a single character who was miscast. There have been complaints about Hugh Grant as Edward Ferrars, but I thought he did a fine job. Edward is supposed to be an awkward, reticent man.

The “chapter 2” scenes at the beginning, where Fanny Dashwood talks her husband out of helping his sisters, were done brilliantly. Mr. Palmer was wonderfully droll in his scenes. This movie is funny, as Jane Austen meant the story to be.

In The Sense and Sensibility Screenplay & Diaries (New York: Newmarket Press, 1996), Emma Thompson, who wrote the screenplay of the film, stated, “In nearly all the weepy scenes I’ve tried to get one good joke. Less indulgent.” (p. 266). This is quite effective, balancing humour and pathos beautifully. An example of this is the scene where a heartbroken Marianne reads Willoughby’s letter to Elinor. Mrs. Jennings comes in and suggests olives as something that might cheer her up. Mrs. Jennings’s bumbling good-nature keeps the scene from wallowing in tears too much, without lessening the effectiveness of Marianne’s sorrow.

This movie is visually very beautiful. The costumes, the houses, the scenery — all are lovely. Several of the costumes are very pretty indeed, and the scenery in particular is gorgeous.

Bad content is minimal in this film. There are several low cut gowns, a mention of a young woman being “passed from man to man”, and of another young woman having a child out of wedlock. Marianne’s illness may be frightening for small children. A woman pinches another woman’s nose and chases her from the house, and Sir John calls a pointer bitch, a pointer bitch.

I probably spent as much time on the points I disliked in this film as on the parts that I approved, but taking everything into account, I do like this movie — and it is the only version of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ that I have seen that I can say that about.


This is a review of Sense and Sensibility, 1995 movie version, adapted by Emma Thompson.

2 comments on “Sense and Sensibility: 1995 Movie Adaptation

  1. ElspethR says:

    This is an interesting review but I’ve got some queries. There seems to be the assumption that the film needs to be compared against the book, and you’ve listed its variances, but not analysed the plot and story arc for itself, almost implying that movies are lesser, liberty-taking media, as so often said, especially about history and classic books. Forgive if I have picked that up wrongly.

    I understand that the entail which makes the Dashwoods poor is about the fact that John and Fanny are half relations – that the late senior Mr D had another wife, and it’s the first family who inherit.

    The statement re the doctor never saying that Marianne might die in the book isn’t true – there are many references, explicit, to Marianne’s expected demise. I’ve just read it. Also, the doctor’s not the only person with opinion – his forecasts were not as accurate as the family’s and the narrator considers him overoptimistic.

    I agree about the poverty – it is exaggerated, and Emma Thompson says so in the DVD commentary. I think it’s created by people who’ve not been poor, for you can go further on less and I’d advise a smaller cottage and no servants if they really couldn’t eat properly.

    Not sure what you mean by “bad content” – I thought you referred to quality, but it seems [to] reference [things such as low cut gowns]. Forgive if I’ve misunderstood. You also put the mention of a child out of wedlock in this category.

    I think the film’s omission of the final Willoughby and Elinor scene is rather strange. It’s a difficult book to adapt, I think, and Emma T’s had to be creative to put it on the screen. She was asked because, although versed in Austen, she’d not be over reverent, in that she’d make changes and open it to an international audience, not a preciously English one (so the DVD commentary tells me).

    Rather than turn this comment into a post into its own right, I will continue my thoughts on my own blog. I am going to be more critical than you have been, but as a movie, not in its intrinsic faithfulness to Austen’s text.

    • Miss Sneyd says:

      I’m sorry it took me so long to get your comment up — I’ve been very busy the last few days. I will try to address the subjects you brought up without going beyond the scope of this blog.

      I do think that a film adaptation should be compared against the book, because it is just that: an adaptation. If the film had a different title and did not claim to be based on the book, then no comparison would be necessary. Alterations are inherent when changing from the medium of book to that of film. These changes make for interesting discussion. The statement of a change is not necessarily a criticism.

      I enjoy watching movies, especially adaptations of classic literature. Part of my enjoyment comes from comparing them to their sources. Some changes are for the better, while other are for the worse. Which are which must be a matter of opinion and my reviews reflect my opinions.

      This blog is about Jane Austen and her writings. If the movie was not to be compared to the novel, it would have no place on this blog. I generally make the assumption that those reading my blog are already familiar with the plots of Jane Austen’s stories — it saves me the trouble of analyzing the plot every time I write about a particular novel.

      John Dashwood inherits the estate because his great-uncle Dashwood chose to give it to him and his son after being delighted by the latter during a visit. John’s father Henry Dashwood had only a life interest in it. Unfortunately, Henry did not live long enough after inheriting to save much money from the estate and therefore had little to leave to his wife and daughters. Had Uncle Dashwood left the estate to the sole discretion of Henry, he would probably have left it to his second wife and daughters, as his son already had a fortune from his mother and by his marriage.

      The doctor is certainly not the only person with an opinion. Mrs. Jennings “determined very early in the seizure that Marianne would never get over it”. As I said, however, I don’t believe the doctor ever gives it as his opinion that Marianne will die.

      When the doctor first comes, he expects that “a very few days would restore [Marianne] to health” (ch. 43). Even at the worst, “though acknowledging a very unexpected and unpleasant alteration in his patient” and being “disappointed in his hopes” of the effectiveness of his first medications, “he had still something more to try, some more fresh application, of whose success he was as confident as the last, and his visit concluded with encouraging assurances”. The next time he sees her, he declares her “entirely out of danger.”

      Since what people choose to watch or show to others varies greatly, my listing of “bad content” is simply meant to describe anything that might come into consideration if this movie were to be shown to young children — either as a subject that might come up for discussion or something that might prevent it being appropriate for them. I think there is very little in this particular movie that could be considered problematic for any audience. And I certainly do not mean to say that a child born out of wedlock is bad content. What I remarked on was “mention of a … woman having a child out of wedlock” — it is the actions of the man and woman involved that I was referring to, not the child.

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