There are four Sense and Sensibility adaptations that stick to the original story. There are also a few modern adaptations, such as Scents and Sensibility (2011) and From Prada to Nada (2011), which I have no interest in. I was not able to get my hands on the 1971 BBC miniseries, but I will be reviewing the 1981, 1995, and 2008 versions.
1981 BBC Miniseries – Starring Irene Richard, Tracey Childs, & Peter Woodward
I only made it through one half hour episode before I bailed on this one. The casting is poor, the acting stale, and the picture has clearly not been digitally remastered. Throughout the episode, Elinor, played by Irene Richard, maintains this creepy doe-in-the-headlights look that is very distracting. I find that in general, film adaptations tend to overdramatize certain aspects of a book. In this case, the scene where Willoughby rescues Marianne is actually less dramatic than in the book. Bottom line: I do not recommend this version of Sense and Sensibility. It’s about as entertaining as waiting for Prince William to lose all his hair.
1995 Film – Starring Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Greg Wise, & Alan Rickman
I greatly enjoyed this version. It spins Sense and Sensibility into something of a comedy and comes the closest of the three adaptations to accurately translating Austen’s sarcasm and social criticism on screen. The acting is absolutely brilliant. In particular, Hugh Grant makes Edward magnificently awkward, from the way he stands with his shoulders hunched to his bumbling speech. The scene when he tries to tell Elinor he is not engaged to Lucy is priceless. I also can’t say enough about Hugh Laurie’s portrayal of Mr. Palmer and of course Emma Thompson is wonderful as always.
This is one of Kate Winslet’s earlier roles, and as such she is not the star of the show, but she does a decent portrayal of Marianne nevertheless. Rickman was a good choice for Colonel Brandon, but I have to admit that have a hard time keeping Harry Potter out of my mind while watching any Alan Rickman movie. I couldn’t stop thinking that the whole production would be infinitely more satisfying is Colonel Brandon whipped out a wand and avada kadavra’ed Willoughby. It was quite distracting. Also, doesn’t Willoughby remind you of Lockhart, that dandy Snape dueled in The Chamber of Secrets?
The only other thing to note about this version is that all the actors (except Winslet) are about a decade older than the characters they play. This really doesn’t matter much, but I think it’s worth noting.
2008 BBC Miniseries – Starring Hattie Morahan, Charity Wakefield, & Dominic Cooper
I previously stated that I put off reading Austen for many years because of the impression I formed of her work based on some of the film adaptations. I’m sure this was one of the adaptations that contributed to that impression. It’s basically a sexed-up, overly dramatic version of Sense and Sensibility. That is not to say the acting isn’t good or the production high quality, but I can’t imagine Austen would have looked too favorably on this interpretation of her first novel.
The series opens with a highly gratuitous love scene between Willoughby and Colonel Brandon’s ward, with faces obscured so as to foreshadow without giving too much away. The series is still very PG, but there is definitely more sexual tension than one might expect in a Jane Austen film. It’s also a bit melodramatic. The scene where Colonel Brandon rescues Marianna has—I kid you not—electric guitar music playing in the background. Seriously.
I will give the writers a little leeway because I understand that they had to do something very different from the award-winning 1995 film for this version to be a success. I also think the casting choices were excellent. In particular, Charity Wakefield and Hattie Morahan were exactly how I pictured Marianne and Elinor while reading the book. Also on the upside, Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens plays Edward Ferrars. On the downside, he’s really quite boring when compared to Hugh Grant in the same role.
The 1995 version wins, hands down. The script, cast, and acting are perfect. The 2008 version comes in a close second because it is very entertaining and well acted, but it just doesn’t capture the spirit of the book, even if the storyline is the same.