Sebnem Toplu and Pete Remington
The first versions of Jane Austen's novel Sense and Sensibility were written during the years 1798-1801. It was eventually published in 1811. The BBC television production we are using appeared in the late 1970's and the film in 1995, by which time, of course, many books had been written about Jane Austen, and any number of adaptations made of her works. Where amongst all this, then, to find a "core" text from which to adapt, and how to reconstitute it coherently? The issue is complicated for us by our contemporary awareness that "text" itself is an unstable category - produced as much by us in our reading of it as it is by the author. This is not to mention the question of finding the author him/herself (assuming of course that he or she is not dead - at least in the phenomenological sense.)
Our BBC production, intended originally as a broadcast series, is able to spread its narrative over some three hours. This obviously give it greater opportunity for a discursiveness approximating more closely to the novel - indeed to the structure of a novel published in parts. Feature films, however have to be a popular success; or else a lot of people lose a lot of money. Hence, predictably though not inevitably, one would expect to see our film leaning towards the organisation of a discourse elaborated within the norms of successful genre cinema. The point being made is a general one - how does popular film "do", for example, romance; and in what ways is the film's reading of Austen accommodated to this?
It is a commonplace that adaptations of "classic" narratives have, at any one time, to acknowledge a triple time-structure: the "then" of the original work's production date, the "now and/or then" of the original work's narrative, and the "now" of the time in which the adaptation is produced. The matrix will include - willy-nilly - extra-textual history (shifts through time of historical/social perspective) as well as textual history (in the Lit.Crit. sense) and whatever history may or may not be represented in the work itself. Dauntingly enough, any or all of these elements niay at any one time be regarded as "fictional", a factor of the instability of what constitutes a text that we have already noted. To put it more simply, what you see depends on where you're standing.
Does this mean one can just stand anywhere - as many people seem to do on the local council buses? At this point that old Althusserian phrase "relative autonomy" comes to mind, posing itself as the question, " How autonomous relative to what?" One of the few stable starting places seems to be the works themselves, as yet works rather than texts. The points we are to discuss, then, stem from the reading space arising within them, distinct from the "now" of both the productions and the "then" of the novel's historical setting. It is to be borne in mind, though, that what we designate as a "space" could equally be designated as a "process". The spatial metaphor is useful in providing us some sense of a structured matrix, while the word "process" reminds us of textuality as a continual coming-into-being, the generation of reading itself.
Writing in 1951, Andre Bazin put forward the view that, in cinema "Everything takes place as if in the time-space perimeter, which is the definition of presence" (Bazin 98). Although subsequent accounts of the operations of cinema have differed widely from Bazin's, all have more or less proceeded from the notion "time-space" we observe here. We may also observe that the majority of the major differences spring from his words "as if", words which seem to fall somewhere between the signifier and the signified. The major trend in film theory from the 1970's onwards, which one might term the psychoanalytic-linguistic tendency has colonised this territory with a vengeance. One can detect the whole Lacanian mirror structure, drawn on so frequently to explain the subject's identification with his or her more complete self on the screen, lying latent in Bazin's phrase.
Inasmuch as our adaptations may be termed "women's narratives" - adapted from a source written by a woman for a predominantly female reading public, concerned with specific problems faced by women in Austen's society, and continually reinterpreted since then in the light of shifting conditions and attitudes relating to women's social position, we find ourselves inexorably led in our argument towards Kristeva's famous essay "Women's Time" (1979, rep. Kristeva 1986), particularly relevant in outlining two contrasting forms of temporal experience, the linear ("male") and the cyclic ("female"). One might note the presence of both modes in cinematic representation. In this scenario, the linear aspects reveal themselves most clearly in the unrolling of the film, the fulfilment of the TV programme schedule, whilst the cyclic or circular mode is particularly evident in the popular-cinematic encodement of certain narrative forms. It is to be observed, for example, that our film version starts with a death and finishes with a wedding. It is wise to be wary here, however. The clarity of such patterns does not automatically give us "women's cinema" of the kind attempted by such film makers as Chantal Akermann. We should merely note it as the opportunity to read "across the grain" of works we have every reason to expect will approach their resolution by the shortest route.
We should also record here our awareness that in treating our film and television adaptations similarly, we are guilty of collapsing together two very different viewing situations. We certainly have not forgotten that one might at any moment in the BBC programme channel-surf into an advertisement for feminine hygiene products or be interrupted by a visitor from Porlock. Our justification for putting these differences aside is perhaps a slim one - that, obviously shot on location with a single camera set-up, the television programme shares to some extent the enunciative mode of cinema. What we aim to expound here can only, then, be regarded as an idealised form of textual enactment, by which we mean the interaction of the work and its subject.
In so far as extra-textual time enters into our argument, we may begin to account for many of the differences we observe by noting that the production dates of our two products place them at markedly different points in the development of the contemporary discourse surrounding women's issues, and that this development itself is embodied in the organisation of time within each narrative - especially in relation to the reconstruction of the historical perspective. In these contexts, in many respects space is time. Consider, for example, the conversation within which Fanny and John progressively cut down his commitment to his sisters' welfare. One notes here that the BBC version, enacted in "real time" (or at least time edited together to give the effect of continuous passage) locates the responsibility for their actions with the characters themselves. The more obviously synthetic montage of locations in the film - serving, moreover as the credit sequence with its normally expository function - serve to locate the obsession with money and property in the whole surrounding society. One might expect also striking differences between our two works in their treatment of both female and male characters - a metaphorical re-positioning. The key elements to look for here are the differences in the ways each production foregrounds, annuls, develops, one might say creates aspects of a narrative structure quarried from the novel.
It would be hard for us to approach our adaptations without at some point having to negotiate the whole question of romance and "women's films". The necessity for this kind of negotiation is not particular only to film. Ros Coward has noted a similar situation in contemporary popular women's fiction (Coward 1989), observing that the "contemporary1t aspect of the equation is the playing out of this negotiation on the terrain of sex. Following Foucault, she asserts the error of the claim that discourses of sex have ever been in any significant sense "repressed". What has changed through time has been the mode in which they are embodied and the territory on which they are contested. Without performing the massive alterations to the novel we observe in Joffe's film of The Scarlet Letter, we are unlikely to see any overt sex in our adaptations. We can nevertheless expect to see sexuality as embodied in gender identity as a key element in both representations.
At any event, it is certainly possible to draw a straight line between Austen (whom Coward cites, along with Richardson and Fielding, as one example of the centrality of "women's fiction" to the history of the novel) and our modem audio-visual representations, noting also that at the beginning of the commercially released video of the film, two other products are advertised - Little Women and the animated Swan Princess.
We feel obliged to add that since discourse is the site in which the shifts of emphasis between the original and the adaptations occur, both the gender of the adaptor and the vexed question of authorship in an industrially manufactured product are also of subsidiary importance: we are dealing here with a contest of meaning - always, of course, produced by real people in real situations; but those concrete realities can never completely explain, in fact always fall far short of the meanings' totality. Thus, our one point of security remains the products themselves, which, in that they materialise the conflicting meanings, we can finally designate with that name we have so far avoided calling them - texts.
We have encountered a. slight obstacle in following Coward following Foucault down our particularly garden path, in that she utilises his observation that from the late nineteenth century onwards one can see a shift towards a 'confessional' mode of discourse on sex, carrying with it implications of liberation (Foucault passim). She goes on to observe a shift towards confessional, sex-based narratives in the popular novels she is discussing. Austen's novel was, of course, written in the third person. Market considerations have tended to push novels, films, and television closer together - as one can recognise through the phenomenon of the 'integrated package' -novel film, TV series, CD of the music, and possibly interactive computer game: Whilst each of these media is still distinct from the others we can see a strong motivation to assume that what works in one format will also work in another. How, then, to produce a suitably "popular" adaptation incorporating this shift towards sex-confession without doing significant violence to one's audience's conception of the text or entangling oneself inextricably in the pornography debate'?
Purely first person confessional cinema is somewhat rare. However, all
narrative cinema functions by enmeshing the viewer's subjectivity in the
constructed subjectivities of its leading characters. One major device
for achieving this, is, of course, the point-of-view shot. However, the
point-of-view shot itself only really functions through its interaction
with other ways of representing the scene; other angles, distances, and
so on claiming a greater or lesser degree of objectivity. In other words,
subjectivity here is intimately linked with the organisation of space.
Stephen Heath, amongst others, has described this in terms of suture,
a notion deriving ultimately from surgery and appropriated for film
theory from psychoanalysis. He writes
Nevertheless, if we acknowledge this process to be a primary one in the operation of cinema, all else easily follows. It does not, of course, require any of the above considerations for us to open up the question of the contrast between the ample Norland estate and the more cramped conditions of Barton Cottage. It is there in the novel as an obvious metaphor for the change in the Dashwood family status. However, significant differences emerge between the two adaptations: in the television version the grounds of Norland are conceived principally in terms of the immediate garden area, making its contrast with the fenced-in patch of a restricted cottage garden a clear matter of declining social status. The filmed version, on the other hand, gives us much greater variety in its representation of the Norland estate, including substantial wide shots of open, but obviously well-tended parkland. Its Barton cottage is less cramped, and located on a hill with open views all around it. Thus the Dashwoods' change of circumstances is located much more firmly in the opposition "domesticated" v. "wild".
House and garden make substantial contributions to the unfolding of our narratives, and it is worth noting here the early appearance, or rather non-appearance, of the youngest Dashwood, Margaret, in the film version; hiding in her free house, even further into nature, a miniature Baron in the Trees. To deal adequately with Margaret we need first to return to Ros Coward.
In developing her argument about the contemporary popular novel, she points out that there has been a tendency, accompanying its confessional mode, for it to concentrate on the voice of childhood -at least in the sense of its first person narrators reproducing an encounter between the world and their own bewildered inexperience. The film makes great use of Margaret in precisely this way, displacing on to her character a lot of the bewilderment a modern viewer might feel with the alien social codes of the early nineteenth century. Of course these social codes are not - cannot be - themselves represented in an unmediated fashion, but Margaret, developed from an insignificant, almost superfluous, character in the novel, is the narrative-function that most easily enables the viewer to inhabit the narrative's internal structure (inherited largely from the book) with a recognisable range of contemporary subject positions - indeed one might say with a complete structure of subjectivities. Indeed she performs this task to the very end, since she witnesses Edward's proposal to Elinor on our behalf - our gaze during this scene being centred on her. The most marked contrast with the TV version rests here: in that version, the character of Margaret has been cut.
This contrast will become clearer through more extended comparison. Firstly, the film. Before leaving Norland, a scene is inserted in which Elinor speaks with the servants, giving them a farewell present, and apologising for only being able to take two of them. In the TV adaptation, no servants are taken, but two are arranged for the family by Sir John Middleton, and greet them at Barton. The novel merely tells us that "The man and one of the maids were sent off immediately into Devonshire" (Austen 1811, 1992 edition). One would not expect Austen's narrative to be too concerned with the servants. The adaptors, however, are stuck with them, and have to do the best they can. What is significant here is that the film uses them to make a point about the enlightened modernity of one of its heroines, affording a. possible point of identification.
The arrival of Barton appears in the film in this way - a rampant rollicking slice of the late eighteenth century - bewigged and powdered and surrounded by dogs - almost a Gilray cartoon. Note also Marianne's striding away from the group to be shown alone against the hillside. In the film, Sir John and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings, both somewhat advanced in years, live alone. The TV production, following the novel, has Sir John, about forty, with a wife and children, Mrs. Jennings being a semi-permanent visitor. Both adaptations follow the novel in that the MiddletonJennings household is initially a source of irritation for the girls - especially Marianne - but eventually proves a source of firm support in the days of Marianne's trial. The film version pushes things a little further. Margaret says of Mrs. Jennings: "I like her. She talks about things. We never talk about things". Childhood and the liberating confessional confront the repressed present. Freedom from restraint lives in the previous age and the future age. Only our time is hemmed in by conventions.
Thus it is no surprise to see a character desiring to break away from those conventions continually trying to break out of the space which they occupy. Following the novel, the film has Marianne first encounter Willoughby on a rain swept hillside with Margaret as her witness. Moreover it introduces Willoughby mounted on a horse - which, taken with the wide, wild landscape, pushes the narrative towards the kind of foreshadowing of a troublesome affection one would expect from Jane Eyre. Margaret's presence is important here, as the horse rears and she is terrified. A pubescent girl frightened by a horse in torrential rain points us towards a very straightforward area of symbolism. One might remember also that, while the film's Edward does not, as do his other two namesakes, come to visit Elinor at Barton, he does send Margaret an atlas - offering her the whole world.
Having stifled Margaret at birth, the BBC version is compelled to have Elinor witness Marianne's fateful meeting, which somewhat inexplicably takes place in fine weather and on a wooded slope. Moreover we have a glimpse of Willoughby in an earlier shot as the girls climb the hill, instead of his arising, as it were, out of the earth. This, plus the absence of the clearly romantic icons the film utilises keeps us more distant from the enthusiasms of the eventual lovers.
The contrast between interior and exterior space is continually exploited in the film. All of the significant events of Marianne's love affair with Willoughby take place outdoors, with the exception of the interview before his departure to London and the confrontation in London that leads to his eventual letter of betrayal. We see from the handling of this scene that Marianne cuts through the whole of society, parting the ballroom like the Red Sea, only to be again cast as an outsider, subject to a cruel exchange of looks - put in her place - by Willoughby's fiancee, as he rejoins his party, as an insider, "somewhere else". Compare this with the television production (which more closely follows the novel): the shortness of the distance traversed, and the tighter framing especially when Marianne returns to Elinor's arms, which makes this much more a drama of individuals.
We need only note that the television drama again follows the novel more closely in indirectly linking Marianne's fever with her disappointment in love. The film goes further than this. Her fever results from her again tramping the hills in a storm in order just to get a glimpse of Willoughby's house - which has been moved quite a few miles nearer the Palmers' residence than the novel places it. This is a lovesick girl!
Right to the very end a similar use is made of the great outdoors. Almost the final shot of the film has Willoughby (on his horse) looking down at Marianne's wedding with - one infers - bitter regret. This wholly invented scene is there to stand in for one which both the novel and the TV production employ, but which the film omits: Willoughby's visit at the height of Marianne's fever. Lacking the confession both of his faults and of the reality of his love for Marianne (an ambiguous statement from any man's lips) accorded to Willoughby by the novel and the BBC, the film is forced to place the acknowledgment that he did truly love Marianne rather awkwardly in the mouth of Col. Brandon, during the scene in which he relates to Elinor Willoughby's seduction of his ward. One is tempted here to quote the advertisements for Carlsberg lager, who, due to Britain's strict advertising codes were constrained to temper their claim to be the best lager in the world by a word that subsequently became their catch phrase "probably".
This final scene of romantic isolation would not be enough for us to
share Willoughby's regret had we not already been prepared for it. Willoughby,
after all, is one of us. The short sequence in which he mocks Col.
Brandon after his departure has ruined their planned picnic ties us to
the interests of Willoughby and Marianne in a complex movement. Writing
in praise of contemporary European cinema Gilles Deleuze has pointed to
its mobilisation of the Brechtian notion of "gestus", which he defines
The two lucky men - Edward and Brandon - unsurprisingly share a great number of common characteristics in all three versions - most notably their attention to the needs of others. The film has Brandon, despite his flannel waistcoats, leaning more in the direction of Willoughby - he rides his horse with some bravado, and seems every inch the hunting' gentleman Sir John claims him to be. The BBC Brandon manifestly does not live up to such a description, and seems to prefer a carriage. Moreover, the film's Brandon first begins to woo Marianne out of doors - he offers her his knife while she is gathering rushes. The film shows both Edward and Brandon falling in love in similar ways, and almost at first sight. We see them both, initially in long shot, moving to mid shot then close up approaching through the big house - Norland for Edward and Barton Park for Brandon - lured by Marianne's music. Edward then offers a weeping Elinor his handkerchief while Brandon stares in rapture at Marianne. The point here is that both their love-affairs take place at home, embodying the social values that both houses represent - though Brandon's has to come in from outdoors.
But even Edward's love has a little of the outdoors in it. Just prior to the sequence mentioned above we have the exchange of looks between him and Elinor that customarily signifies a love interest. He is outside - but only on the lawn playing at sword-fighting with Margaret. His outdoor side is playful and domesticated. Elinor is inside at her desk - probably calculating the economies appropriate to her new situation. The looks are exchanged only at a distance, through a window. However, although Edward's love is at home indoors, he is obviously not - as evidenced by the difficulties he has with bowing to people naturally and at the right moment. We can see, then, in both men, something struggling to forge their own identities, which the return of their love by the two women will somehow facilitate.
Our description of the film can now proceed to its conclusion. Whilst the major male characters are all awaiting fulfilment, we have a structure of subjectivities centring around the three sisters Elinor and Marianne are trapped in the contingencies of the present. Elinor submits to them, though her longing for Edward represents what they repress; Marianne fights against them, or tries to escape them; and Margaret, inasmuch as she is an adolescent, disengaged enough from day-to-day responsibility (and, as yet, sex) is half-in and half-out of them - able to make more free-form connections, and, most importantly, looking forward to the future. We, the spectators are of course the future. We might note here also that this structure depends on the ages of the older sisters. Having Emma Thompson play Elinor inevitably prevents us from thinking of her as Austen's nineteen-year-old. The TV production sticks more nearly to the girls' denoted ages in the novel.
We have not dwelt much on the BBC production: at least in matters of narrative ordering and dialogue, it adheres pretty closely to the novel, an approach probably due to the BBC's reputation for "faithful" adaptations. This is not to say, of course, that it does not have its own peculiar orientation. Its initial image is of the two sisters on a see-saw, and this image of balance might well serve for the whole programme; but a balance to what end? The following sequence departs significantly from the novel. The two sisters are called to see half-brother John, and asked on behalf of his wife's family to shun Edward for his folly in honouring his engagement to Lucy. Without any discussion they form a united front to reject his proposal. Whilst the dialogue tells us that John's position originates with Mrs. Ferrars, what we see is the two women unitedly opposing a man who the production has up to that point delineated as one of its main money-obsessed marriage-brokers.
A comparison of the dates of our TV productions then gives us a possible explanation. When the BBC programme was produced, the discourse of popular feminism was still concerned to a large extent with denigrating patriarchal power in a number of areas, particularly in terms of personal freedom and the domestic sphere (one remembers, for instance, the question of wages for housewives). The current discourse around women's issues has become less directly confrontational and has begun to allow more room for considerations of popular romance, for example, that go beyond merely seeing it as a manipulative tool of the media. It rather considers the place romance occupies in many women's lives as an area of legitimate and positive investigation. There is even room within this for a serious appraisal of men's positions - and indeed the film does allot one brief scene to a "male space" in which Sir John Middleton and Brandon seriously discuss the prospect of Brandon marrying Marianne.
This would seem to suggest that a difference of as little as fifteen
years in the "now" of the adaptation can have quite a fundamental effect
on the reading; proof indeed, if any further were needed, of the weakness
of any appeal to the central "truth" of the original text. We have seen
how multiple various the determinants operating across the field of any
one textual enactment can be. It is perhaps important to conclude with
the reminder that the spectator subjectivity we have referred to in this
paper is - quite apart from its specific construction within the textual
enactment, subject to its own mutation and development in areas of experience
where notions of textuality are difficult to apply - all of which goes
to say that maybe, if you come back to either of our two productions in
a year or so's time, you will not agree with a word we have said.
Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility, (1811) Ware: Wordsworth Classics, 1992.
Bazin, Andre, What is Cinema II (select. and. trans. Hugh Gray). Berkeley & LA: University of California Press 1967.
Coward, Rosalind. "How I Became My Own Person" from Female Desire. rep. in The Feminist Reader, ed. Catherine Belsey & Suzanne Moore, London: Macmillan. 1991.
Deleuze, Gilles, Cinema II: The Time Image. trans. H. Tomlinson & R. Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1989
Foucault, Michel, The Theory of Sexuality Vol. I trans. Robert Hurley, London, Penguin, 1978.
Heath, Stephen. Narrative Space, Screen. vol.17, no.3, Autumn 1976.
Kristeva, Julia. The Kristeva Reader. ed. Toril
Moi, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.