Sense and Sensibility, Part 2: An Homage to Emma Thompson
As I re-read Jane Austen's first novel (for more on the plot and analysis of Austen's writing, see Sense and Sensibility, Part 1) I found myself thinking about and feeling awed by Emma Thompson's screenplay adaptation, which resulted in a 1995 film starring Thompson and Kate Winslet and directed by Ang Lee. I loved this movie so much that at the time, I bought the book Thompson created to compile the script, production notes and photos from the filming.
What amazed me about Thompson's ability to adapt this novel was how little she had to work with. As I noted in my previous post, in contrast with Pride and Prejudice, which was transcribed almost word-for-word to the film script, Austen wrote very little dialogue in this book. She also did little to establish the relationships between the characters from the outset, particularly between Elinor and Edward. Thompson was able to overcome both of these deficiencies while keeping true to Austen's style.
Without dragging out the scenes at the beginning of the film, Thompson sets up the romance between Elinor and Edward with selective dialogue, a few longing looks, and some endearing scenes between Edward and Elinor's sister Margaret. The audience is immediately invested in their relationship, and roots for them throughout the entirety of the movie- much of which, as in the book, they spend apart, as unrequited lovers. It helps, of course, that Emma Thompson herself, who plays Elinor, and Hugh Grant, who plays Edward, are so skilled at the art of subtle romantic acting.
The dialogue throughout the rest of the script is clean and sparkling. Thompson cribs lines directly from Austen whenever she can, and invents the rest in a style so similar, she could have been a reincarnation of the famous novelist.
Here is an example of Thompson's ability to take a brief summary and turn it into a telling scene.
From Sense and Sensibility, novel by Jane Austen:
"Mrs. John Dashwood now installed herself mistress of Norland, and her mother and sisters-in-law were degraded to the condition of visitors."
From Sense and Sensibility, screenplay by Emma Thompson:
MARIANNE: Fanny wishes to know where the key for the silver cabinet is kept.
ELINOR: Betsy has it, I think. What does Fanny want with the silver?
MARIANNE: I can only presume she wants to count it. What are you doing?
ELINOR: Presents for the servants. Have you seen Margaret? I am worried about her. She has taken to hiding in the oddest places.
MARIANNE: Fortunate girl. At least she can escape Fanny, which is more than any of us is able.
ELINOR: You do your best. You have not said a word to her for a week.
MARIANNE (truculently): I have! I have said "yes" and "no."
This is the first scene between Elinor and Marianne. In 7 lines of dialogue, Thompson has established that there is a new mistress of the house who does not trust them; that the sisters equally dislike and distrust her; that Elinor takes on certain motherly responsibilities in the family; that Marianne is obstinate in her emotions and opinions; and that all the sisters have entirely different dispositions, and may be critical of each other. That short conversation, which takes up less than a minute of film, reveals layers upon layers of character beyond "Mrs. John Dashwood now installed herself mistress of Norland, and her mother and sisters-in-law were degraded to the condition of visitors."
I'm not saying that the film is better than the book (if you ever catch me saying that, please smother me under a pile of books) but I do greatly respect Thompson's abilities, and it did teach me a lesson about writing: if you want good dialogue, ask a screenplay writer.
Thompson did earn an Academy Award for this screenplay, by the way, making her the only person to ever win an Oscar for both writing and acting.
(Can you tell I have a little girl-crush on her?)