Rarely do I listen to a book as opposed to pick up a physical copy and read it with my eyeballs. (Almost never do I read with my eyes a digital copy.) The exceptions to this rule are two: one, when I have a migraine and I am laying there bored out of my mind and I can’t fall asleep. Then, I listen to one of the books I have in my auditory library, always a book that I am familiar enough with to permit me slipping off to sleep. In some cases, I’ve read the book tens of times. Two, when I am traveling a long distance and am the sole driver. There’s nothing else like listening to a book, for me, to keep me alert, awake, and to keep the time cruising by. Yesterday, I embarked on just such a road trip: ten-twelve hours, all by my lonesome, from North Carolina down toward the far tip of Florida. Not horrible, and just enough time to read yet another Jane Austen book, Sense and Sensibility.
It should be noted that I can not approach this book as a casual observer. Sense and Sensibility (1995)—the one with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet and Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman and Gemma Jones (and Professor Umbridge!) and directed by Ang Lee—is one of my very favorite movies. Most the time, if you asked me my favorite movie, I would shoot off two or three and Sense and Sensibility would be one of them. I have no idea how many times I have watched it. It would be silly of me to even think that I could read (listen) to this book and divorce the reading from all that viewing. It did make it a pretty perfect book for me to listen to, though. I knew I would not really need to mark it up or take notes. I was already very familiar with the story. In other words, this book review is going to be more of a comparison of two Sense and Sensibility versions: one the 1995 Ang Lee movie and the other the Rosamund Pike audiobook. And I will try to address the original in there, somewhere.
Sense and Sensibility is the story of the Dashwoods: a newly-widowed mother and her three daughters. They are pretty well off as gentlemen’s daughters, but the father’s dying creates a situation where their older half-brother inherits all and wiggles out of helping them in any way. They end up in a cottage, indebted to the kindness of a cousin, in a removed country where there are few people to meet. Among them, of course, are plenty foible characters and just enough beaux to really begin the plot and the Austen dance of position, money, and love: Victorian marriage rites. With one sister so sensible she appears cold and the other so romantic she lacks self-censorship, we’re going to get two tastes of the same dish and a splash of fun besides.
The first thing I want to say is that the audiobook version I listened to was very good. Rosamund Pike is, of course, an accomplished, British actress. She read very well and she even did the voices. I can not prove this, but I am pretty sure she was aiming for the voices from the 1995 film. For a bit, I actually thought she was Emma Thompson, but then out came Kate Winslet, and Lucy, etc. It made it easy for me to know who was speaking, for sure. The reading was clear, pleasant, and entertaining without being over the top.
The movie’s not really a short movie, at 2 hours and 20 minutes. Yet, it does a fair amount of cutting, which is always necessary with book adaptations. I was not surprised that some of the characters disappeared in the movie, nor that some were combined. I was surprised that most of the cutting came from the second half of the novel (while the first half was crazy-recognizable to me), which led me to believe that the second half of the novel is actually too long and too slow. I mean, I really enjoyed the book and I am discovering I am a fan of Austen’s, but the pace of the first half definitely does not match the second. And I found myself drifting off and thinking, I already knew that. We all already knew that. Get on with it! Where are the big ta-das? Going back to those cut and combined characters, though, I did discover some characters that I will miss in the movie version. Though we get the idea in the movie, there is a wider breadth of human study in the book. Because it’s a book.
The book also has more humor. There are awkward moments in the movie, sure, but not nearly as much humor. Another thing I am discovering: Jane Austen is quite funny. I found myself chuckling aloud as I careened down the freeway. I don’t want you to think this is humor writing, exactly, but Austen has very keen observation that can be turned into a laughable moment, for sure. Her heroines tend to have a snark to them, too, even when they are all pure and sensible, that make their observations often funny. Which brings up another point: the book has a lot more explanation. At times, like I mentioned, I thought some of it was overboard. But there are other moments when the additional word-footage led to a deeper understanding of the story and a deeper meaning for the story. We definitely get to flesh out the characters more in the book, though we really hone in on just a few. And the meaning of the title is much more clear: the sensible daughter must come to a crisis of emotional weight and the sensibility (romantic) daughter must find some sense before she burns up. It’s kinda’ there in the movie, but much better in the book.
I did find myself asking the same question I’d been asking of the movie for decades: why does Margaret exist? Why have three sisters when the story is about two opposing sisters? I mean, the book is called Sense and Sensibility, not Sense and Sensibility and Something Else. I could find reasons for lots of characters to be there that were not even in the movie, even if just for a laugh. The movie gives Margaret more to do and more of a personality (though different from the book), sure, but it’s still weird. Until… The very last few lines make the whole thing make sense! Finally! And I’m not going to tell you, but there is a reason, artistically, why Margaret exists and I finally know (though I didn’t all the way through).
All in all I like Sense and Sensibility, just as I have enjoyed the other two Jane Austen books I’ve read thus far (Emma and Northanger Abbey). It’s still one of my favorite movies (I literally just watched it because of course I wanted to see it again after “reading” the book). It’s well acted, sweeps you away to the period with costumes and details, has great romantic tension and beautiful cinematography, and deserves to be a favorite of mine, and many others. Rotten Tomatoes loves it! It was nominated for no less than seven Oscars. If you like romantic or period films at all, you must give it a look-see.
And one last thing: I found the villain of the novel to be much more villainous, in a delightful way. The truth is that in the movie you’re not exactly sure who the villain is, and it definitely isn’t who it is in the novel. Again, I won’t tell you, but there are conspiracies happening, deviousness abounding, and much of the pain and heartbreak are coming from one (perhaps unlikely) character.
SENSE AND SENSIBILITY MINISERIES (2008):
I was wondering if there were any other movie adaptations of Sense and Sensibility. I found a 2008 miniseries in two (or three) episodes. (It depends where you find it.) By the BBC, this version couldn’t be an improvement on the 1990s version that I already loved so much, but I gave it a look-see. Because it is much longer, there are things that are more fleshed-out about it, including the characters and the closeness to the book. Lots of reviewers are calling it good, not great, and never quite the novel. They also love to point out that it looks more like a movie—high production value—and is acted “superbly.” I like how one reviewer put it: each version adds something to what it has to say about the original. If you read the book and enjoyed it, or if you want to skip the book altogether, this is a well-done miniseries. Took me three nights to finish and it is worth your time if you like period-stories and Austen-esque romances.