Thursday, April 3, 2008

The ‘Austen formula’

I’ve been looking forward to Sense and Sensibility (one part of Masterpiece’s highly anticipated series The Complete Jane Austen) for almost a year now. As a huge fan of both Pride and Prejudice and Bleak House—two miniseries with screenplays penned by the great Andrew Davies—I had high expectations. Not to mention, Sense and Sensibility is probably my favorite of the Austen novels since it was my first introduction to the world of pianofortes and Regency-era romantic entanglements. Before I read it, I wasn’t familiar with the “Austen formula,” so I experienced all the surprises and heartbreaks right along with the characters. Watching it Davies style brought back all those memories of stepping into the world of Austen characters: the Elinors and Mariannes, the Willoughbys and Colonel Brandons. It made me consider all the variables that come together to create the classic Austen formula.

Location is a key variable in the formula, especially a character’s home. This version of Sense and Sensibility seemed more true to life, exposing the struggles of living in an isolated cottage with little money (I couldn’t help but feel Davies infused a little bit of Bleak House into his screenplay adaptation). This particular version also takes Barton cottage and sets it by the sea amongst waves crashing against the rocks, which added that extra degree of intensity to the drama.

The second variable in the formula is character dynamics. The audience is left to decide whether they are more emotional like Marianne, more sensible like Elinor, shy and generous like Edward or arrogant like Willoughby. In this version (and not surprisingly), we get the added bonus of seeing intense dialogue between Willoughby and Colonel Brandon, where previous versions focused mainly on the perspectives of the sisters.

The third factor of the formula includes distinct romantic entanglements involving many tears, a great deal of patience and very long letters. The female protagonist reassesses her values and prejudices and ends up with the man she would have never in a million years considered at the beginning of the novel. In this version, however, I think that Davies does an excellent job of making the romantic relationships between characters believable. He establishes scene early on with a moving piano composition, where Marianne and Colonel Brandon grow closer through a shared love of music (to the point where I almost thought, well do they really even need to bother bringing Willoughby into the plot?).

The saddest thing about watching was realizing that I had to wait a week before seeing the second part of the series. Even though I’ve read it and seen two different versions, I was immersed in the plot as if I were encountering the world of Austen for the first time. The upside is that I have something to look forward to this Sunday.

(Part two of Sense and Sensibility airs on MPT Sunday, April 6th at 9 p.m.)

Susan Zagar
Intern, Leadership Giving

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