Sense and Sensibility and Revisionism
In the panning of the 2022 Persuasion release, one particular criticism in the cacophony was consistent, that the work lacked fidelity to the original. Critics directed their attention in particular to modern colloquialisms in the speech, allegedly ruining the novel’s prose. I don’t disagree that the film wasn’t faithful to the book, though I don’t think fidelity is necessarily good, and I consider its failing to be unrelated to that fact. This particular critique is intriguing to me, as the 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility is an expressly revisionist work, yet it’s hailed as a kind of definitive version of the work. What distinguishes their reception?
In Catherine Grant’s Recognizing Billy Budd in Beau Travail1, she argues that a work is an adaptation when it signals to the audience that it’s an adaptation. She also uses a borrowed dichotomy between “faithful adaptations”, which align with common definitions of faithfulness, and “free adaptations” which “draw attention to their status as adaptations, at the same time as they exhibit ambivalence towards the whole enterprise of adapting”. I like these categories, and want to use them as a starting point.
Rather than define two poles, as Grant does, I want to consider three different stances that a work can take with respect to the original: a reverent stance, an ambivalent stance, and a revisionist stance. The distinctions between them are best explained by working through some examples.
The 1990 film Metropolitan is an ambivalent adaptation of Mansfield Park. It borrows some of the structure of relationships from the novel, and even refers to the book in dialogue and as a prop. Despite that, its derivations from the novel aren’t necessarily any greater than any other sources of influence, and it doesn’t signal to the audience that it even is an adaptation. Notably, it lacks an overlapping title, borrowed characters, or matching events. Using Catherine Grant’s definition, it’s debatable as to whether or not this is an adaptation at all.
The 1995 TV mini series of Pride and Prejudice is a far more straightforward reverent adaptation. There are abbreviations and embellishments made to the novel, but its heritage is never in question. Some changes, like diegetic music, come from the opportunities of working in a new medium, and others, like Darcy’s swim, come from opportunities to speak to a new audience. The mini series translates the essential substance of the work to screen, and makes clear its commitment to the period, language, and setting of the novel.
Not all cases are so straightforward. A problematic example is the 2016 film Love & Friendship, which isn’t actually an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Love and Freindship. Rather, it’s adapted from Lady Susan, a wholly different novella. This film reveals to us that we needn’t take an adaptation at its word. It might outwardly purport to have one stance, but upon close inspection, be better described with another. So these three categories alone are inadequate. Instead, we can expand that original categorization into a 3 by 3 matrix of inward and outward stances. The aforementioned Metropolitan is ambivalent/ambivalent, and Pride and Prejudice is reverent/reverent.
The whole point of this exercise is to highlight the cases that complicate Grant’s categorizations, and those are the works where there’s some dissonance between the external and internal stances of an adaptation. Clueless is an oft cited example of a revisionist Austen adaptation, but with this system I’d label it as ambivalent (externally) and reverent (internally). Transplanting the story into 1990s Southern California is interesting, and has revisionist potential, but the story is remarkably faithful to the characters and events of the book. Not only is the essential substance of Emma present, even the minute details (e.g. the ephemera kept by Harriet/Tai) mirror the book. The structure is recognizably adhered to even if it doesn’t outwardly signal that it’s a Emma adaptation.
Fire Island takes a different stance, going out of its way to position itself in opposition to Pride and Prejudice, such as with the opening monologue about the “hetero-nonsense” of the novel’s first line. It foregrounds the dimensions of difference (characters, sexual orientation, and setting), while also being quite blatant about its heritage. Ultimately, the film remains revent to the structure and events of the novel, even when it proves to be detrimental2. The marketing of the film, by its creators and distributors, was also quick to ensure that people knew it was an adaptation, since it lacked any obvious outward markers.
Contrast this with Bride and Prejudice, which in title advertises its connection to the original, but similarly highlights its difference in setting, culture, and even genre convention (by injecting Bollywood-esque musical sequences). These differences are refracted throughout the entirety of the work, and manage to alter all of the significant characters and sequences of the novel. Darcy’s “pride” here is that of national chauvinism and racism. The purported settling represented in Collins’ character offers a promise of a green card in the US. Bride and Prejudice ends up being revisionist/revisionist in the way the previous two works aren’t.
What does all of this have to do with Sense and Sensibility? I focused on the prior three because they’ve all prompted analysis regarding their revisionism. And it’s helpful to position these prior works against the Sense and Sensibility adaptations I watched, because those three films I’d consider as having revisionist internal stances. Kandukondain Kandukondain (கண்டுகொண்டேன் கண்டுகொண்டேன்) is perhaps the best work to start with, because its musical sequences are an amplification of what’s subtly present in the 1995 and 2008 versions: a revisionist, unironic, sympathetic portrayal of Marianne’s romanticism and sensibility.
These musical sequences are the kind of exaggerated flights of fancy that Austen’s narrator mocks Marianne for. They also prominently feature Meena, the Marianne analog, which refocuses the film in her worldview, rather than the analog of the novel’s protagonist. The 1995 adaptation does this as well. Julian North, in Conservative Austen, Radical Austen3, details how Marianne’s perspective is granted greater privilege than in the novel, and much of the presentation of formerly neutral events is now steeped in her ideology. As an example, only in the adaptations is Colonel Brandon a romantic hero, rather than a practical choice and steadfast companion. If the books pit the two ideologies against one another, with Elinor the broad (though not complete) victor, the films clearly side with Marianne, upending the central premise of the novel.
Catherine Grant, in that same piece about Beau Travail, introduces the notion of a “knowing spectator” who’s aware of the original work, and can identify the quotations of the original in the adaptation. In the case of works of dissonant reverence, I’m more interested in the unknowing spectator. For works that are outwardly ambivalent, the unknowing spectator won’t recognize that it’s an adaptation at all. A knowing spectator can see Emma Whitehouse in Clueless’s Cher, but the unknowing won’t know to even look for it. For works that are outwardly revisionist, like Fire Island, the unknowing spectator will likely understand that the adaptation is taking liberties. For works that are outwardly reverent, performing fidelity in all the ways we tend to expect (period, costume, speech), the unknowing spectator will likely take it at its word. This dynamic allows for covert revisionism. In a world where screen adaptations have greater cultural familiarity than their source novels, these covert revisions can supplant the essence of the broader “culture-text”4, our collective understanding of a piece of art.
What motivates this covert revisionism? It’s here that I get stuck. Ultimately, there’s probably no deeper rationale than that these novels carry built-in audiences, and performing fidelity can be a way to persuade them to watch. There’s also likely a recognition that the world view seemingly espoused by Austen isn’t particularly appealing to modern audiences, necessitating a shift to the more compatible Marianne. It’s worth noting that this doesn’t happen uniformly to Austen’s works: Elizabeth Bennet, as written, is almost perfectly aligned with contemporary tastes.
Regardless of the rationale, there’s one consequence of interest. These adaptations stumble into an ongoing project to upgrade Austen’s contemporaneous progressivism regarding women’s rights and place in society into a 20th-, and now 21st-, century conception of feminist politics. This is captured in works like Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, or in the introduction to my borrowed copy of Sense and Sensibility (I’ve unfortunately lost my notes on the edition) where the editor debates Marilyn Butler, whose scholarship declared Austen a defender of English conservatism. These movies tell us that Austen was more like us than we might have imagined, stripping her of the geographic and historical context that gives her work flavor and power.
The biggest losers in this arrangement are the Charlotte Lucases of her writing. It’s easy, as a modern reader or viewer, to respond akin to Elizabeth at the news of Charlotte’s engagement. But Charlotte’s “settling” is supposed to mirror Elizabeth’s actions, as Charlotte is deftly managing the social structures she’s trapped within, the same kind that trap Elizabeth. But Elizabeth has on her side the momentum of being the main character, something nobody else can have. What Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice both recognize and emphasize is that the system of marriage is deeply intertwined with the various oppressive systems that restrain their characters. The protagonists’ marriages in these books couple mutual love with, importantly, a material boost away from precarity. The revisions, in pursuit of a purely romantic presentation of the marriage plot, lose those tensions that draw attention to these oppressive systems, and deprives the characters of opportunities to show resilience against them.
1 Grant, Catherine. “Recognizing Billy Budd In Beau Travail: Epistemology and Hermeneutics of An Auteurist ‘Free’ Adaptation”. Screen 43:1 Spring 2002
2 In many ways, I think the material of the film would have worked better as an Emma adaptation, given the better alignment of its primary characters.
3 North, Julian. “Conservative Austen, Radical Austen”. Adaptations 1999
4 I’m borrowing this term from Renata Kobetts Miller’s essay “Nineteenth-Century Theatrical Adaptations of Novels: The Paradox of Ephemerality” in The Oxford Handbook of Adaptation Studies, but it’s likely that this concept predates that usage.
Other works cited:
Stam, Robert. Beyond Fidelity
Wagner, Geoffray. The Novel and the Cinema