Born to an Extraordinary Fate: Sense and Sensibility Turns 200

Sense and Sensibility (1995) ©Columbia Pictures
Sense and Sensibility (1995) ©Columbia Pictures

October 30 marks the bicentenary of the publication of Sense and Sensibility — and thus our enduring love affair with Jane Austen. Drafting a manuscript called Elinor and Marianne around 1795, Austen returned to it at some point in the next decade and completed the version we know now in 1810. At her expense, the Military Library publishing house printed the book, in the era’s traditional three volumes, in 1811 — her first published work. Modestly attributed to “a Lady,” the novel sold well, beginning a remarkable literary legacy.

Author Martin Amis once remarked that “Jane Austen is weirdly capable of keeping everyone busy,” that her broadly similar novels had something for everyone: romantic happy endings, dramatic situations, cool irony, balls-out humor, social criticism, quiet subversion. S&S is probably the most extreme example of this, featuring two heroines in three romances, some of Austen’s most laugh-out-loud lines (“I did not know I contradicted any body in calling your mother ill-bred”), razor-sharp satire, and sensational subplots (adultery, illegitimacy, seduction, duels). But, as critic Claudia L. Johnson has written, it’s also Austen’s most radical work, criticizing a world whose codes undo the lives of impoverished women.

These are all reasons to love Austen. But we leave it to director Ang Lee to offer the simplest and perhaps the best one of them all. My parents met him around the release of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and complimented him on his work, particularly "S&S." Lee grinned and said, “Jane Austen rocks.” Exactly.

Many versions of Austen’s beloved novel exist, but here are the most readily available:

“Sense & Sensibility” (1971)
Never broadcast in the U.S., the BBC’s four-part miniseries stars Joanna David and Ciaran Madden. Typical of the era, it features elaborately stagy sets, mannered acting, and unpolished production values (you could play a half-decent drinking game with boom mike shadows). While the actresses’ hairstyles are ridiculously entertaining, the series isn’t particularly memorable (the men are indistinguishable) — only for Austen film completists.

Jane, what do you think? “It must seem to you a miracle that my life has been extended to the advanced age of forty.”

“Sense & Sensibility” (1981)
Ten years later, the BBC produced another adaptation, a seven-part drama more subtle and naturalistic than its precursor. Irene Richard (who appeared in the 1980 “Pride and Prejudice” series) and Tracey Childs have a great rapport as the close Dashwood sisters, though the entire cast is uniformly good. Despite a three-hour running time, the serial remains compelling, although it ends on a slightly ambiguous, abrupt note.

Jane, what do you think? “The readiness of the house ... was making considerable improvements.”

“Sense & Sensibility” (1995)
Ang Lee’s film of Emma Thompson’s Oscar-winning screenplay remains the best-known adaptation — and the one we like to think Austen herself would’ve enjoyed. Starring Thompson and Kate Winslet opposite Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman, the production balances the unflinching realities of women in genteel poverty with effortless romance and satire. Inspired by Vermeer, the film is also a delight to look at and helped usher in the new era of Austen dramas.

Jane, what do you think? “His person and air were equal to what her fancy had ever drawn for the hero of a favorite story.”

“Kandukondain Kandukondain”/”I Have Found It” (2000)
Indian superstars Tabu and Aishwarya Rai (later in “Bride and Prejudice”) play Sowmya and Meenakshi, analogues for Elinor and Marianne, in this S&S-inspired musical. When their mother is disinherited in favor of her brother, the sisters must rebuild their lives, searching for professional and romantic satisfaction. The film makes good use of the genre, particularly in their version of the Willoughby-meets-Marianne scene, which becomes an atmospheric number with rain and fog, like a music video from the ‘80s.

Jane, what do you think? “They speedily discovered that their enjoyment of dancing and music was mutual.”

“The Jane Austen Book Club” (2007)
Robin Swicord directed her own script of Karen Joy Fowler’s bestseller about five women (and one man) who form a book group to discuss Austen’s novels. Each member is loosely based upon a character in one of the novels; Allegra (Maggie Grace), the twentysomething daughter of fellow member Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), stands in for Marianne Dashwood. A tribute to how books change our lives, the film is fun for Austen lovers.

Jane, what do you think? “Her favorite authors were brought forward and dwelt upon with so rapturous a delight.”

“Sense & Sensibility” (2008)
As part of their Austen season, the BBC commissioned new versions of five of the novels. Andrew Davies, known for his 1995 "Pride and Prejudice" screenplay, wrote this three-part serial featuring Hattie Morahan and Charity Wakefield. Essentially, this is an adaptation of Lee’s film rather than of Austen’s novel, lifting dialogue, details, and scenes wholesale from Thompson’s screenplay. Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable production, with an exceptionally strong cast and easy-on-the-eyes settings.

Jane, what do you think? “With more elegance than precision.”

“From Prada to Nada” (2011)
S&S meets “Clueless” in Angel Garcia’s movie about Chicano life. Nora and Mary Rodriguez (Camilla Belle and Alexa Vega) are impoverished by the sudden death of their father. Forced to leave their privileged life, they move in with their aunt Aurelia (Adriana Barraza) in east Los Angeles. Though mostly missing the point of its source, the picture reflects the novel’s strong matriarchal community. Aurelia and her friends are the core of the family as well as of the film — you almost wish it was about them.

Jane, what do you think? “Elinor was alternately diverted and pained.”

Tell us: Which are your favorite versions of Sense and Sensibility?

  •!/Marilyn_Res marilyn terrell

    Well of course Ang Lee's the best but thanks for posting the others!

  • Carl Zapffe

    Ang Lee's 1995 remains the best with the acting, scoring, outstanding casting, beautiful cinematography, and very witty dialogue (co-written by Thompson) enhanced by its more than capable actors. I say this in spite of the fact that the leads are all too old for their roles, especially Emma Thompson, although being the great actors that they are, we have to forget this.

    Admittedly, I make this broad statement in ignorance of some of the other versions, especially the 1971 version which I have not seen, so a major disclaimer here. It's funny that Austen's P & P mini-series have, or were, broadcast regularly on PBS back in the Eighties and Nineties, but not so for her S & S.

    I even see "Emma" broadcast regularly, possibly because Paltrow made both her version and the similar version (which I like much better, although the name of the actress eludes me at the moment) famous by juxtaposition.

    This is a wonderful example where the books read even better than the very fine films made from them. Austen is my favorite author for her insightful literary gems.

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