So I thought I'd celebrate Austen with a breakdown of Sense and Sensibility, the 1995 Emma Thompson/Ang Lee adaptation, which is a gem of a movie to study for story structure no matter what genre or time period you're working with.
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Sense and Sensibility
Screenplay by Emma Thompson
From the novel by Jane Austen
Directed by Ang Lee
Starring Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman and Kate Winslet
Running time 136 minutes
Ah, now this is a love story: a classic book and a perfect adaptation. There’s real emotion, real chemistry, fun comedy, real hope and fear all the way through; the story puts us through the emotional wringer, plunging us to the depths and lifting us back up to the heights. Get out the Kleenex and let’s see what we can learn from this gem.
I am going to start with some general notes first — some things I suggest you look for as you’re watching this film — particularly in terms of THEME, HOPE, FEAR and STAKES.
Some writers who take my workshops and read my blog complain about the films I use for examples of story elements and structure. I’m particularly apt to use Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs — to the horror of some romance writers who wouldn’t be caught dead (sorry, I’ll stop now) reading those books. But I always try to get writers to understand that they can learn just as much from stories outside their own genre, because the elements of story — and suspense — are the same no matter how many bodies are or are not falling or how many creatures are or are not lurking in the basement.
Personally, I find serious horror in Sense and Sensibility (and any Austen book), and it’s not a horror of romance, either. I am, however, horrified at the Netflix description of the film as “Austen’s classic tale of 19th century etiquette.” This story is more about monsters in the basement than it is about etiquette.
Actually, it is about an evil much bigger than a monster in the basement, and if you ask me, the fact that that monster is lurking under the romance and comedy is what makes this story a masterpiece.
Just wanted to note for the filmmakers among you that the credits sequence is just titles on black, with period music underneath. This is a technique often used with period films, I think used deliberately to slow the audience down and put them squarely in another time. Music is a pure time machine from — or to — the period it was written; it works on us in a way that no visual or dialogue ever could.
I would say that the first short sequence (4 min.) is a prologue — and a hugely important one.
The film opens at the deathbed of Mr. Dashwood, the father of our not-yet-seen heroines. Mr. Dashwood has called in John Dashwood, his son from a previous marriage, to whom Mr. Dashwood’s entire fortune and houses will pass under the law of primogeniture, which bars women from inheriting property and keeps both the patriarchy and the aristocracy intact by mandating that family fortunes pass undivided to the eldest son of a family, with only minimal livings carved out for any remaining male children.
Before he dies, Dashwood extracts a promise from John that he will take care of the present Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, who by this law of primogeniture are only allowed to inherit 500 pounds. (THE DEATHBED PROMISE, in this case, promptly broken.)
John’s original intention is to give the Dashwood women, his stepmother and stepsisters, an additional 3000 pounds so they can live comfortably on the interest, but in the course of a carriage ride up to Norland Park, where John and his wife will take over the Dashwood house, John’s harridan of a wife, Fanny, whittles weak-willed John’s gift down to nothing at all: “Twenty pounds here and there should be ample. What would four women need with more than 500 pounds?”
(Also in this carriage ride, John also voices the FEAR that Marianne will lose her bloom and end up a spinster like Elinor.)
This series of scenes is a beautiful — and outwardly funny — dramatization of greed in action, and Fanny makes a detestable villain. But more importantly, the scenes introduce the real villain of the story, and every Austen story: primogeniture, which kept the rich superrich, the poor practically or literally indentured as servants to the rich, and women enslaved to men, for centuries.
Stylistically, Jane Austen was writing comedies, but the stories are built on social outrage, and I believe it’s that canny blend that made and keeps these books classics.
So the death of Mr. Dashwood, and the Dashwood women’s subsequent disinheritance, is the INCITING INCIDENT. (4:30)
One more note as you’re watching this film: pay special attention to how the storytellers use weather to create mood and emotion, and also pay attention to the set decoration: the paintings on the walls behind the characters constantly comment — often hilariously — on the story and themes.
The whole next sequence is very filmic, played at first almost as a montage, with fast cuts between extremely short scenes. We are introduced to the extremely sympathetic Dashwood women: Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor, Marianne and 11-year old Margaret, as they are reduced to guests in their own house in the midst of their deep grief over the loss of their husband and father. While Fanny steamrolls through the house claiming everything in it as her own, the Dashwood women scramble to find other living arrangements on their tiny inheritance.
These are great character introductions to Elinor and Marianne, Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. The filmmakers deftly find comedy even in this tragic situation, eg. Elinor’s first line to Marianne as Marianne plays the world’s most doleful dirge on the pianoforte: “Would you play something else, dearest? Maman has been weeping all morning.”
I see this movie as having a dual protagonist, even though Elinor is clearly the more dominant one and the point of view character. But Austen, and Thompson in the adaptation, are using the sisters to demonstrate a theme: literally, sense and sensibility. At the beginning of the story the sisters are out of balance: Elinor is all sense and Marianne all sensibility (passion). By the end of the story (and partly through the crucible of love), they have each gained some of what the other has, to make both of them more fully realized women.
This is what you could call a “character cluster,” like the three-brother or three-sister structure you often see, especially in stories with a fairy tale structure like the Harry Potter books/films. If you’re thinking about writing a dual protagonist, this is an excellent example to study.
Note also the restatement of THEME when Margaret asks Elinor why John and Fanny are coming to take over Norwood when they already have a house of their own. Elinor tells Margaret, “Houses go from father to son. It's the law.” That extra emphasis on how this is the law makes it very clear what the problem is, and keeps this societal FORCE OF ANTAGONISM very present in the story.
Now, enter Edward Ferrars, Fanny’s intelligent but very reserved brother, Hugh Grant at his diffidently charming best. (The scenes become longer here.) Edward’s formal bow, and the Dashwood women’s polite curtseys in return, become a RUNNING GAG in the film (a running gag is a staple of comedy). Each time the action stops as Edward does his best at this bow, but there’s something always just a little off about the timing.
Marianne wants to hate him, especially because Fanny has kicked Margaret out of her own room to give her brother the best view in the house, but Edward has already noticed the offense and quietly moved himself to a guest room.
Edward instantly understands the pain of the Dashwoods’ circumstances, bonds with and draws out youngest daughter Margaret, and falls hard — albeit reservedly — for kindred soul Elinor. In a beautiful scene in the library, Edward and Elinor coax Margaret out from where she has been hiding under a table by pretending ignorance of the source of the Nile, and we see that Edward and Elinor are perfectly, beautifully matched: intelligent, witty, sensitive, kind, and off-the-wall. They are at their most charming when they’re together. This is a common and I think crucial scene in any romance or romantic subplot —THE DANCE — where we see that two people are perfect for each other. So much more meaningful than “meet cute”!
And this scene gives us our great HOPE for Elinor: that she has found the great love of her life and they will make a true, encompassing marriage. It’s also, I would say, her CALL TO ADVENTURE (separate from the INCITING INCIDENT) — meeting her true love.
But there’s more to this than love. In her circumstances, Elinor’s life and her family’s lives depend on her making a good marriage, because women are prohibited from earning an income. A happy marriage to a well-off man is the dream, the best possible outcome — but the stakes couldn’t be higher, and Elinor’s situation is more than tenuous; she has not the slightest power over her future except to marry. So this is the unstated but clear PLAN: to marry for love and secure the family’s future. (15 min.)
We see the couple’s feelings deepen when Edward catches Elinor crying as she listens to Marianne play their father’s favorite song on the piano. He gives her his handkerchief (which becomes what Joseph Campbell calls a TALISMAN: a significant object for a character, like Luke Skywalker’s light saber and Harry Potter’s — well, lots of things, but the cloak of invisibility, the Nimbus 2000, etc.).
The ANTAGONISTS, Fanny and Mrs. Ferrars (Fanny and Edward’s mother), immediately go about preventing this match. (Mrs. Ferrars is never physically present, only offstage, but very present in the form of the threat of disinheriting Edward if he makes an “unworthy marriage.”) (18 min.)
The Dashwood women receive an offer of a cottage in Devonshire for minimal rent from Mrs. Dashwood’s wealthy cousin, Sir John, but Mrs. Dashwood has seen the “attachment” forming between Elinor and Edward and tells Marianne that they will put off the move. (Look at the painting of a man on the wall right behind Mrs. Dashwood as we see her thinking this over: it’s almost like a comic book bubble showing her thoughts. This is the PLAN — to give Elinor opportunity to engage with Edward, to make a happy marriage but also secure the family fortune.)
You could say that there is one long sequence here at Norwood (from 4:30 to 26 minutes), but you could also say it’s two sequences. This is where I would say it breaks, at 19 minutes.
Edward and Elinor spend more time together and continue to fall in love; this is accomplished in an amazingly short amount of film time.
The horseback riding scene is especially interesting thematically: Elinor states plainly "We (women) have no choice of any occupation whatsoever. You will inherit your fortune, we cannot even earn ours." But we also see that Edward is constrained by the threat of complete disinheritance if he does not make a career and a marriage that his mother approves of. The scene also shows that these two can talk honestly of deep issues.
We also see another antagonist to the match: Marianne, who thinks that Edward is not passionate enough for Elinor, and that Elinor’s feelings are too tepid to be real love.
When Marianne asks Elinor how she feels about Edward, Elinor says that she greatly esteems him. Marianne chides her for being so dispassionate. (Settting up ELINOR’S CHARACTER ARC: Elinor is not completely honest about her feelings, which will get her into trouble down the road.)
In another scene, Marianne asks their mother: "Can he love her? To love is to burn, to be on fire." Marianne just comes right out and says what she believes (and DESIRES), and this sets up Marianne’s CHARACTER ARC. There’s also some FORESHADOWING and FEAR for Marianne here when her mother replies that Marianne’s passionate role models Juliet and Heloise made “rather bad ends.”
But despite her objections, Marianne says she will support her sister’s wishes with her whole heart.
Meanwhile evil Fanny actively works to thwart the relationship by telling Mrs. Dashwood that their mother has made it clear she will disinherit Edward should he marry beneath his station. (22 min)
It’s a devastating move because we are already so invested in Elinor and Edward’s love — and oh, do we hate Fanny. There are also two PLANTS here: that Edward will in fact be disinherited, and that he is too much of a gentleman ever to go back on a promise, which will become very significant later.
At dinner, Mrs. Dashwood announces they will leave immediately for her cousin's estate. (NEW PLAN.)
The next day Edward finds Elinor in the stable, saying goodbye to her horse, which the family cannot afford to keep. (Horses are a classic symbol of perverse sexuality, so this is a sly hint of Edward’s youthful romantic liaison that we will learn about — not here, but eventually.) Edward says that he must speak to Elinor, which we and Elinor think will be a marriage proposal. Instead Edward tells a rambling story of his early education under the tutelage of Mr. Pratt (PLANT), and before he can get to the point, Fanny races in telling him their mother needs him immediately back at the family home. Edward obeys Fanny (JUST SAY SOMETHING, STUPID!), and the Dashwoods move from their home to a cottage on the estate of Mrs. Dashwood’s wealthy cousin, without a marriage proposal from Edward to Elinor. (26 min.)
CLIMAX SEQUENCE TWO
(As I said, you could call that all one long sequence.)
SEQUENCE THREE: (27 min. to 45 min.)
This sequence sets up Marianne’s story, as the first sequence, or two sequences, set up Elinor’s.
The Dashwoods arrive at Barton Cottage, their new, much smaller home (but I’d still take it any day!) with gorgeous shots of the Devonshire countryside. (CROSSING THE THRESHOLD and INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD.)
They are heartily welcomed by the crass, noisy, but warm-hearted Sir John and his mother-in-law, wealthy Mrs. Jennings, surrounded by their pack of dogs (dogs are a classic symbol of the id and instincts, here run rampant). These are ALLIES, and Mrs. Jennings is also the MENTOR/FAIRY GODMOTHER. There’s a great moment when Margaret says later that she likes Mrs. Jennings because “She talks about things. We never talk about things.” (And this reticence turns out to be a huge INTERNAL OPPOSITION.)
They settle into their new life: Elinor struggles to make ends meet for the family and secretly pines for Edward (though she tells her mother that it’s more sensible to be practical about the barriers to Edward marrying a woman without a dowry. Again, Elinor’s character WEAKNESS — she’s practical against the wishes of her own heart.)
Fiery Marianne catches the eye of Sir John’s good friend, the county’s most eligible bachelor, wealthy and cultured Colonel Brandon (a completely dreamy Alan Rickman). (Just a quick aside — look at the paintings of dogs behind Sir John and Mrs. Jennings in this scene as they tease Elinor.) Marianne scorns Brandon’s attentions, dismissing him as too old (he’s 35 in the book). Brandon is a perfect gentleman (and like Edward, very charming and attentive to young Margaret, a CLUE). Elinor likes him, but is not immediately won over. And Alan Rickman is great casting, here; he so often plays villains that there’s an ambiguity about his performance which keeps us in suspense about whether or not he’s a good man, and right for Marianne — after all, marrying for money often leads to tragedy.
Elinor asks Mrs. Jennings about Brandon and Mrs. Jennings tells Elinor that Brandon has a tragic past: as a youth he fell in love with his father's young ward, and the family broke up the lovers by sending Brandon away to the military and turning the girl out of the house. She was “passed from man to man” and when Brandon returned from the West Indies he searched for her and found her dying in a poorhouse.
This is our FEAR for Marianne, and it’s a big one. In Austen’s time “ruin” for women meant prostitution and the attendant poverty and syphilis – the worst possible life.
Mrs. Jennings’ unsubtle matchmaking turns Marianne away from Brandon. Instead she falls hard for the young, handsome and dashing Willoughby, whom she meets in a stormy romantic scene on a moor right out of Wuthering Heights (SETPIECE). Willoughby also seems very well-fixed financially (set to inherit an older relative’s nearby estate) and outspokenly shares Marianne’s passion for poetry and music. Mrs. Dashwood and Margaret are instantly charmed; Marianne is openly adoring. Elinor, though, has doubts …
CLIMAX OF ACT ONE – (45 minutes into a 2-hour, 15-minute film)
There’s HOPE but also FEAR, here — I felt Willoughby was a bit over the top in a way that might backfire badly — might even lead to her “ruin.” Plus — this guy over Alan Rickman? I think not. Still, what I love about this casting and characterization is that he seems a good match for Marianne; it’s a legitimate romantic dilemma, and keeps us in SUSPENSE about which is the right man for her.
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- Alexandra Sokoloff