When at a loss for reading material, I peruse my bookshelves in the little back bedroom and pluck one from among them. I try it out for a day or two (as bedtime reading), and if it doesn't work for me, I return it and choose another. Last night I started reading Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.
Sense and Sensibility is one of those books that's been superseded by the movie for about 95% of readers. I read the novel in college, and probably once since then, but for the most part, when I think of Austen's story, I think of Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, and Robert Hardy. I mean ... what's not to love about those beautiful people?
Last night I read only nine pages before I was so sleepy I had to put it down. Just in those few pages though, I realized that much in the novel is missing from the movie. How could it be otherwise? Even with the best actors/directors/producers/locations, Austen is such a master of detail in character development and social situations that it's impossible to portray it all on the screen. Here are two examples:
1) Marianne and her mother. Austen tells us outright that the two ladies are emotionally identical. Austen states, "The resemblance between her and her mother was strikingly great." The resemblance lies in Marianne's lack of moderation; she does everything to emotional excess. "Elinor saw, with concern, the excess of her sister's sensibility, but by Mrs. Dashwood it was valued and cherished." Do you ever really get that in the movie, from the mother? "They encouraged each other now in the violence of their affliction. The agony of grief which overpowered them at first, was voluntarily renewed, was sought for, was created again and again. They gave themselves up wholly to their sorrow, seeking increase of wretchedness in every reflection that could afford it, and resolved against ever admitting consolation in future" (7).
This is an aspect of Marianne's relationship with her mother that is never developed in the movie. In fact, I could never discern any emotional bond between them at all. Marianne seems utterly self-absorbed. Mrs. Dashwood's character is poorly presented in the movie, in my opinion. She should be a woman with stronger personality, a woman who, when you see her on the screen, you think, "Ah -- I know where the daughter gets her zippy personality from!" The movie fails in that utterly, and I think it's the poorer for it. Do we ever see Marianne and her mother huddled together, egging each other on in their misery, trying to keep grief alive in mutual compact? No, the mother still wears black when she turns her attention to Elinor's hopeful romance, and Marianne is focused more on hatred for Fanny than for any grief for her father -- dolorous piano-playing aside.
To show that the mother's character is incorrectly portrayed, read this passage: "A continuance in a place (Norland) where every thing reminded her of former delight, was exactly what suited her mind." (Really? Do you ever get that from the actress in the movie -- that she's secretly glad to stay at Norland because it keeps her grief alive?) "In seasons of cheerfulness, no temper could be more cheerful than hers, or possess, in a greater degree, that sanguine expectation of happiness which is happiness itself." (The movie version of Mrs. Dashwood could never be described as sanguine or cheerful. She seems gray, bland, and grumpy.) "But in sorrow she must be equally carried away by her fancy, and as far beyond consolation as in pleasure she was beyond alloy" (8). Clearly, the actress either found herself unequal to this task or was not given opportunity to flesh out her character as needed.
2) Fanny Dashwood's arrival at Norland. Austen tells us that "No sooner was his father's funeral over, than Mrs. John Dashwood, without sending any notice of her intention to her mother-in-law, arrived with her child and their attendants." Further, she says, "Mrs. John Dashwood now installed herself mistress of Norland; and her mother and sisters-in-law were degraded to the condition of visitors." In the movie, there is some attempt to portray this swift, disturbing upheaval of ownership, but the directors never seem to communicate it to the extent Austen states. There's more a contest of wills, a dispute, a tug-of-war, between Fanny and Mrs. Dashwood, regarding who is in charge. There are the issues of Margaret's room and the keys to the silver, but in the end it seems that Edward, Fanny's brother, carries the day on this matter by giving Margaret back her bedroom and gently taking Fanny down a notch when she criticizes her in-laws' behaviors. He will not admit Fanny as mistress of Norland and gives that honor to Mrs. Dashwood. In the movie, when Edward first enters the room, Mrs. Dashwood and Fanny say to him simultaneously, "Please be seated." This little event is not in the book, but the directors put is in the movie to show that there's a contest of sorts between the women for the position of Mistress of Norland. In the book, no such contest exists; Fanny IS Mistress of Norland.
So -- imagine, if you will, a situation in which a 50-year old woman with the assertive, volatile, passionate personality identical to Marianne's, is forcibly ousted from the position of mistress of her own home by a younger woman she strongly dislikes. What kind of sparks would fly? What flashings would be in her eyes? The movie fails in delivering these family excitements. Mrs. Dashwood should have a personality more like Mrs.Bennet's in Pride and Prejudice.
Obvious examples of the movie's deficiencies are plentiful. Robert and Fanny Dashwood have a little boy, Harry. Much of their selfishness about the family money stems from their concern that the child inherit it all, and that he not be deprived of his due. He is not present in the movie, and that motivation is lost.
One more. From the movie, how long would you guess that Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters live at Norland after Fanny and John arrive? A few weeks? Maybe a month? In the novel, it is "half a year's residence" (14). By the time they are invited to move to Devonshire to the cottage, they've lived with Fanny over six months! This could easily have been conveyed to the viewer with a few words and would enrich our understanding of their suffering and forbearance.
All that to say, even a fine movie cannot equal the finer book from which it's drawn. I'm afraid we will lose some of these great books, when the movies that represent them become so fixed in the public mind as to be replacements for the text. They are not. We are poorer indeed if we allow actors and directors to give us the abridged version of a genius's imagination, without enjoying the full version for ourselves.