Pemberley (Lyme Park, Cheshire)

Pemberley (Lyme Park, Cheshire)
Oh, to be in England...

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Dueling Authors-Austen vs Dickens, Sense and Sensibility and Bleak House

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
OK, as I start writing this, I am realizing how crazy I was to take on reading and reviewing both Sense and Sensibility and Bleak House for this Dueling Authors blog tour for The Classics Circuit. I freely admit that I was forced to skim through parts of Bleak House, but I will go back and give it a proper read soon, as I truly enjoyed the book. Both of these classic novels have been adapted superlatively for the screen  and this was my motivation to tackle the mammoth task.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens, adapted by Andrew Davies
First of all, let me say how much I really love both of these authors. I give preference to Jane Austen, not surprisingly considering the title of my blog. And again, because I am obsessed with the film adaptations of classic English literature, one of the reasons I chose these two books is that they have been very successfully adapted for film by two of my favourite scriptwriters, Andrew Davies and Emma Thompson (I wish Emma Thompson would do more adaptations!).  Novels are not screenplays, and many readers who adore these novels are perturbed by the changes which have to be made to shape the novel into something that will work well on the screen as well as fit into either the 2 hour cinematic film length or a miniseries of between 3 and 15 parts (yes, Bleak House was parceled out into 15 little episodes, much like how Dickens actually wrote).

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:

Emma Thompson
"I have a notion that it might be nice to see Colonel Brandon tickling trout- something to draw Marianne to him.  Tickling trout is a mysterious old country method of catching trout; you tickle their tummies and when they're relaxed you whip them out of the water.  I ask Laurie (Laurie Borg, co-producer) if it's possible to get trained fish. Lindsay (Lindsay Doran, producer) says this is how we know I've never produced a movie.  She tells us that two of her friends had read the script and thought I'd invented the pregnancy of Brandon's family ward for shock value. It's surprising to find such events in Austen but after all, how many people know that there's a duel in Sense and Sensibility?  When Lindsay asked me to adapt the novel I thought that Emma or Persuasion would have been better. In fact there's more action in S&S than I'd remembered and its elements translate to drama very effectively."
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!
Sense and Sensibility (Penguin Classics)Bleak House (Penguin Classics)

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!


  1. Ha ha, imagining you hurling your copy of Curiosity Shop into the lake!
    I'm just finishing reading Emma's diary notes of S&S so it's fun to hear you quote from it. LOVE Sense & Sensibility - seems kind of an obvious statement but there it is. And I thoroughly enjoyed the adaptation of Bleak House but have no real desire to read the book but glad you enjoyed it!
    Thanks for the post!

  2. I was initially put off by the massive size of Bleak House but after watching one episode of the brilliant miniseries I was completely hooked -- I even got my children to watch with me and they loved it. I've read the book since and I do love it, but I think Davies did a fantastic job of adapting it -- the plot is quite convoluted and a lot of characters disappear for chapters at a time, so I'm extra impressed that he was able to keep the essence of the book. Both are masterpieces.

    Oh, and I love S&S too -- the Emma Thompson version will always be my favorite, the casting is so good and the script is so funny. I love the bits with Edward Ferrars and Margaret.

  3. I enjoyed reading this post. Your comments on Dickens' plots and sub-plots being the result of his stories written in installments made a great deal of sense. I've never thought of it that way! Hopefully, this will make me a lot more patient with him if I decide to try something else by him.:)

    I loved the 1995 Sense and Sensibility! I have yet to read the book, though. I have it scheduled to read sometime toward the end of this year...:D

  4. I loved the adaptation of Bleak House. I don't think I'd have finished Bleak House if I hadn't started watching the movie too to 'help' me out! It really helped bring the novel to life. It helped me know which characters were the most important, which stories were the most important. Of course, I ended up loving the book too. But I do value good adaptations.

  5. Hi all! Back after the Canadian Victoria Day long weekend (celebrating Queen Victoria's Birthday with the mosquitoes and blackflies and no internet!)

    Glad you all like the wonderful adaptations of Bleak House and Sense and Sensibility too. I don't think I'll ever tackle another Dickens novel without the help of Andrew Davies (or Sandy Welsh of Our Mutual Friend and N&S)! But when will Emma T do another adaptation?-I hope the rumours about My Fair Lady are true...

  6. I absolutely love Emma Thompson's S&S. It was just how Jane Austen would have liked it.

  7. Hi catface

    Yes, the world is a better place because of Jane Austen and Emma Thompson. Period!

    P.S. The music in S&S is amazing too. Patrick Doyle is also a genius.

  8. Hi Jenny:

    I agree about watching the movie first. Especially for older works. If the movie is good, I am always inspired to read the book to fill in the gaps or to get a better understanding of what makes the characters tick. At the moment I'm reading Little Dorrit. I'm not sure I could have kept all the characters straight if I had not first seen the excellent BBC mini-series. Andrew Davies did a excellent job on that screen play. Often before the character in the book is even named, I know who they are just by the description.




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