|Dueling Authors-Austen vs Dickens, Sense and Sensibility and Bleak House|
Challenge: Read Sense and Sensibility and Bleak House. Compare and contrast books and authors. Ahhhhhhhhhh!
|Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, adapted by Emma Thompson|
|Bleak House by Charles Dickens, adapted by Andrew Davies|
I think one of the reasons I find Jane Austen so easy to read is that she writes more like a screenplay. There is a lot of action in her novels, and contrary to popular belief they are not just about a bunch of ladies drinking tea. Dickens on the other hand (possibly partly because he wrote in installments, not knowing quite where the story would end up) often gets bogged down in descriptive passages and occasionally goes off on tangents away from the main plot, as if he is testing the waters to see if the novel will go in a certain direction. Andrew Davies says this of Dickens:
|Andrew Davies (photo from The Telegraph)|
"His novels are full of energy and are teaming with life. I love the way he makes such a rich mixture of humor, tragedy, sentiment and social indignation. You get so many different things rolled up into one great book. Dickens had such a vivid imagination and some of his characters are just extraordinary. Bleak House combines a terrific mystery with a series of love stories." "But plot-wise it's a nightmare. It is so convoluted and keeps spinning off into subplots. My main concern was to keep focused on the central plot, so that the whole audience can follow along. In truth, when you get down to the finest detail, quite a bit of the plot doesn't work, so you have to straighten things out. But every problem is an opportunity in disguise and I think we've cracked it."
Now, all you Dickens fans, please don't go all hysterical on me here, and go off in an indignant huff because Andrew Davies sounds like he has to "fix" Dickens. He has to adapt the novel so that he works for the screen. The page and the screen are two totally different things, and they were also trying to make Dickens accessible and exciting for the average British citizen. The BBC actually marketed Bleak House like a soap opera, even airing it early in the evening in half hour segments to try to pull in a wider viewing audience. I love the story both as a novel and a film, as it's such a great mysterious plot which keeps you guessing right up to the end, and such a great social commentary. You have to love Dickens for the way he really goes after lawyers and bureaucracy in Bleak House. Ouch! This novel really should be required reading for all law schools...really. But the commentary about the human condition (the greed, the love, the shame...) in this story is what puts Dickens into the same category as Shakespeare.
|Guppy from Bleak House-what a face!|
I will say that I found Bleak House an easier read because I had seen the Andrew Davies miniseries earlier this year. For such a complex story, I find if the characters are already known to me and the basics of the plot are already understood, I can enjoy the lovely Dickensian descriptive passages more. It also helped that I was not dreading the end. I have been disappointed in Dickens before. I read The Old Curiosity Shop one summer at our cottage and when I got to the end, I almost hurled it in the lake. HOW could he have ended it that way, after trekking me all through the Midlands of England with poor little Nell and her grandfather? Bad, bad Dickens. Bleak House has a lovely satisfying happy/sad ending which will not make you want to throw it out the window.
And now on to Sense and Sensibility. This is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Sense and Sensibility, so if you haven't read this one, I highly recommend it. Much easier to whip through this one than through Bleak House, especially if you are a fan of the 1995 film with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet and Hugh Grant. Here is an Emma Thompson quote (from her Screenplay & Diaries) on her adaptation:
|The Dashwood family of Sense and Sensibility|
I love Sense and Sensibility as it is a novel about two young sisters who have to help each other through difficult times. I can really relate to this as I look back on my own teenage years and my relationship with my sister. Both the passionate sensibility of Marianne and the more controlled sense of Elinor are familiar to me and I think most of us can relate to the characters equally (although we older folk are usually much more Elinorish by now!) But as usual, the language of Jane Austen and the romantic happy ending are what make me reread this book every year or two.
So, in conclusion, both of these novels are fabulous. Both of these novelists are fabulous. Both of these adaptations (imho) are brilliant. Just a note here that I really loved Andrew Davies 2008 BBC miniseries version of Sense and Sensibility too, but if I could only have one, it would be Emma Thompson & Ang Lee's version.
But my theory, right or wrong, is that most of us modern readers benefit from seeing the film adaptation first and then get more out of the inevitably richer prose than if we just read it cold right off the bat. In fact I bounce back and forth between adaptations and books regularly and I love both. I did finish reading Sense and Sensibility just days before I saw the 1995 version on the big screen, and I remember thinking how brilliant the screenplay was. Getting rid of the annoying older sister to Lucy Steele? Very economical, as was lopping off the wife and children of Sir John Middleton. Genius! Didn't bother me a whit!
Apparently, I need both books and films in my life. I am a very visual person. I get more of a sense of time and place from a well crafted period drama and that lets me relate better to the book when I read it. It is much harder for a modern reader to picture the places and characters of Regency or Victorian England than it was for contemporary readers so perhaps that's the reason. And even the Victorians liked to hear Dickens act out his stories on the stage!