Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Janespotting: Sense and Sensibility (1981 BBC series)

This is the earliest adaptation of Austen's Sense and Sensibility that I could get my hands on.* It was produced by the BBC as a 7-part series in 1981, with each part lasting around half an hour. Of course, I didn't think it would measure up to my gold standard, the 1995 film, but I hoped that with 174 minutes to devote to the story, it would at least be a faithful and detailed rendition.

It took me a while to get into this version; it was taped, not filmed, and the sound quality/mixing was just dreadful—dialogue swallowed and lots of empty, silent spaces where people were just moving around. That was the style back then, and after a while I got accustomed to it. I also got used to the blandness of the scenery and costumes. Sure, Regency England isn't supposed to be particularly colorful, but in S&S Marianne is always enjoying the beauty of the outdoors, and we didn't get to see much besides sunlit grass and trees, maybe a nice walking path. Pretty, but all very similar in look.

I'd like to say that the actors made up for the blandness of the visuals and sound, but alas! It was all very mannered and stage-y. (I wasn't familiar with any of the five romantic leads; looking them up on IMDb, I saw one appeared on an episode of the new Dr. Who, and another on a couple episodes of Babylon 5; other than that, their credits were all British TV—no future stars like P&P's Colin Firth among the cast.) I don't know if it was the actors' or director's choice to remove all hints of wit from Edward and Elinor, or make Marianne seem flighty instead of passionate, but in any case, it sucked a little more life out of the story.

As far as using the luxury of time to be faithful to the novel? Well, I was disappointed there, too. They completely cut out the character of the third Dashwood sister, Margaret, who sets up some of the story by accidentally revealing the initial of Elinor's favorite to Mrs. Jennings and Sir John Middleton, who then tease her mercilessly. This provides some amusement at their indelicacy, but also tension after Elinor discovers Edward is engaged to another. I don't know why they removed the character—they didn't want to deal with a child actor, perhaps—but as a result it sucked just a little more wit and drama out of an already bland production.

I don't mean to say that watching this version was unbearable. It was pleasant enough, and it was interesting seeing some of the scenes that didn't make the feature film, such as Willoughby's confession while Marianne is sick. Still, this version is bland and has little of the sparkle and wit that I think distinguishes Austen's work. I'd rather spend the time and re-watch the 1995 version (twice). Here's hoping that the recent BBC adaptation is more worthwhile.

*There's also a 1971 BBC adaptation, but it's not available in the U.S. I'm very curious, since the actress who plays Elinor is Joanna David, who played Mrs. Gardiner in the 1995 P&P miniseries and is also the mother of the actress who played Georgiana. But I knew I wouldn't be able to access every single adaptation, so my curiosity will have to go unsatisfied.

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