It’s my day off, and it’s raining, and perhaps appropriately I’m watching that very rainy Jane Austen novel adapted for the screen and directed by Ang Lee, “Sense and Sensibility.” Poor Marianne Dashwood is always taking walks, and claiming it won’t rain, and getting practically drowned not only by precipitation but her own emotions. The movie is gorgeous to look at, and full of actors I adore, but honestly, the script? Is more like what a modern reader thinks when reading the book than like Jane Austen’s words, and that is more disappointing on this perhaps 15th viewing. Oh, Alan Rickman is rich-sounding as butter tastes, but some of the lines he has to speak are painfully ridiculous. (Maybe not, “Give me an occupation, Miss Dashwood, or I shall run mad.” That one’s okay. But lots of the others.) Oddly, the less important characters seem to be speaking Austen’s words more often than the major characters. And yes, I know Emma Thompson wrote the script. I love her. But, oh dear. It’s such a responsibility to take those special words and those beloved characters and put them on film. I’m aware of this because I sort of do the same thing every week when I write a sermon, when I try to take the flat words on the page and make them three-dimensional, to make the stories feel right now instead of long, long ago.
And it puts me in mind of other conversations, more personal ones, where the surroundings were right but the words felt unbelievable, out of place and time. Final words were spoken, dramatically, full of horrible and intimate detail, on the edge of the woods where the now-departed dog loved to chase the squirrels, beside the car we took on trips or to the grocery store. Shouldn’t such scenes play out on a more dramatic landscape? Aren’t dog parks and station wagons too ordinary?
Emma Thompson, in a commentary on the film, says they had to create a falling-in-love plot for Elinor and Edward Ferrars, because the book was “arcane and prolix.” (Don’t bother to look them up; she means obscure and tedious.) In fact, there are only half-a-dozen or so lines of dialogue in the whole movie that came from the book, because, she says, Austen wasn’t writing good dialogue until later in her writing career.
No wonder regular people have trouble saying things well to each other, especially in moments of great emotion. No wonder we have trouble getting the words and the pictures to match.
But sometimes, sometimes, just at the right moment, you are saying the thing you really mean, in just the right words, and there are fireworks in the distance, or the waves are breaking, and the air smells like ocean, and the scene and the time and the feelings match, just so.