onsdag 24 januari 2018

The BBC Sense and Sensibility - a respectable achievement

As a way of bolstering my pleasure in reading, I've started a Jane Austen Rereading Project. It's been a while since I've read most of her books; I'm actually far more familiar with the TV and film adaptations. Rereading the novels will be a pleasure in itself and will give me some decent blog-post subjects, both on the novels directly and on how well adaptations work when compared directly to the novel (I'm more used to comparing them to each other).

Sense and Sensibility - the first of Austen's novels I've decided on rereading, as it's the one I feel least familiar with - is a case in point. I've watched the 2008 BBC adaptation of Sense and Sensibility penned by Andrew Davies more than once, and each time I've struggled to see the point of it. It's perfectly good in its way, but there's hardly a thing in it that the marvellous 1995 film with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet didn't do better. Also, the BBC version more or less courts comparison with the film by handling some things in exactly the same way. Notably, the characterisation of Margaret, Elinor's and Marianne's younger sister, is lifted directly from the film. In the book, she hardly has a character to speak of, but instead of coming up with a new way of filling the part with some purpose, Davies borrows the lovable moppet version of Margaret created by Thompson (who wrote the script for the film) wholesale. She even hides under a table in Norland Park's library, and Edward Ferrars endears himself to Elinor by being kind to her, as in the film. None of this is in the book.

If I compare the BBC version directly with the novel, however, it fares rather better. I'm halfway through the novel, and so far the adaptation has proven faithful as far as plot and character are concerned. The dialogue could be more elegant at times; on the other hand it is refreshing that Davies does not try a faux-Austenesque style (I remember one Persuasion adaptation where the characters kept saying "Indeed" when meaning "Yes", which is typical costume-drama speak). David Morrissey as Colonel Brandon, though cutting a perfectly respectable figure, may not be Alan Rickman - but then from what I've seen of the novel's Colonel Brandon so far, he's not exactly Alan Rickman either. Sir John Middleton and Mrs Jennings are more toned down than in the film, and though I really enjoyed watching Robert Hardy and Elizabeth Spriggs letting rip, there's an argument to be made for a less extreme interpretation of these characters - they may be vulgar, but they're not quite strangers to polite society. It was also a nice touch that the BBC versions clung to the fashions of their respective youth, looking more in style with the 18th century than with the Regency.

Of all the adaptations I've seen (besides the film and this one, there's a somewhat crusty one from the 1980s) this is the most favourable to Marianne. Charity Wakefield is charming and pretty in the right, bright-eyed way. She is a little more polite than Marianne in the novel, who in her turn is a great deal more polite than Kate Winslet's Marianne. In particular, though she has her private doubts concerning the depth of Elinor's feelings for Edward, Marianne in the novel is always respectful and affectionate towards her sister and shows a great deal of interest in the subject of her future happiness. In view of this, perhaps it is fair that we get an adaptation where Marianne is not seen as such a selfish brat as all that.

The casting is good on the whole - Hattie Morahan's "sensible voice" as Elinor reminded me a little too much of Emma Thompson's, but she is the right type for Elinor, and closer to the novel's version of the character seeing that Elinor is only nineteen at the start of Sense and Sensibility. Janet McTeer is great as the girls' mother - a little more down to earth than she appears in the book - and we see a welcome glimpse of Jean Marsh aka Rose in Upstairs Downstairs as Edward's dragon of a mother. The only real miscasting is Willoughby. Dominic Cooper is a good actor; I remember him valiantly making the most of things as the daughter's fiancé in Mamma Mia. However, ungallant as it may be to say it (if you can be ungallant about a man), he's not dashing enough for Willoughby. Willoughby is the only one of the girls' love interests that is described as handsome in the novel, so he must be good-looking in an obvious and generally acknowledged way, especially as he has very little else to recommend him. I may have scoffed at Marianne's cheap taste in the film in preferring Greg Wise's Willoughby to the delectable Rickman, but I could see how it happened - Wise has exactly the right kind of film-star looks for the part.

This adaptation included the scene where Willoughby shows up while Marianne is ill and tries to justify himself to Elinor. I was always glad that this scene was not in the film, as Willoughby does such a poor job of defending himself, but I saw another review of this TV series which pointed out that this is precisely the point of the scene - not to make us sympathise with Willoughby, but to make us even more certain that Marianne is well rid of him. Viewed in that light, it certainly works well. When it comes to secondary characters included here but not in the film, you can see why they weren't in the film as they serve little purpose for the plot. But the elder, beau-obsessed Miss Steele is amusing, and though Lady Middleton is a personality-free zone (as she is in the book, where she only serves as a vehicle for barbs against over-indulgent mothers) it makes sense that there should be a Lady Middleton, with children. If Sir John was a childless widower, it would be a little remarkable that he should be so merry, and that his match-making mother-in-law should make no attempt to set him up. He would in that case be in need of an heir.

I still don't view the BBC adaptation of Sense and Sensibility as entirely necessary, and if you only watch one screen version of the book, I would still recommend the film rather than the TV series. Even so, I think I can understand why Davies wanted to have a crack at it, and it is far from badly done.