Emma's Writing Sense

Emma's Writing Sense

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Dec 13th 2018

When Jane Austen’s first novel was published in 1811, writing and printing were laborious processes, as there were no personal computers with word-processing and format-emulating programs galore from which to choose. When producer Lindsay Doran invited her good friend Emma Thompson to attempt a feature film adaptation of it 180 years later as the actress’s first screenplay, there were more options available. On and off, interrupted by thespian toils on some truly terrific movies fueled by top-notch scripts – Howards End (1992, from which a Best Actress Oscar® and other top laurels resulted), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), The Remains of the Day (1993, a Twilight Time title), In the Name of the Father (1993) and Carrington (1995), to name a few, Thompson worked on several drafts, starting in handwritten form (as in a 300-page initial draft), all in the service of preserving Austen’s unique voice while flavorfully condensing the book’s rich mixture of incidents and characters into a satisfactory film script. Not unlike a romantically troubled Austen heroine, she was also coping with the fraying of her marriage to actor/filmmaker Kenneth Branagh, then involved with her Howards End castmate Helena Bonham Carter. 

But the lure of the Austen project was irresistible, and in a seeming rebirth of Hollywood interest into the Austen oeuvre, Sense and Sensibility (1995) got a green light and, according to biographer Chris Nickson in Emma: The Many Facets of Emma Thompson, “before Christmas 1994 she’d sat down with Lindsay Doran, Ang Lee [the director] and co-producer James Schamus to discuss her most recent draft, the 13th or 14th she’d completed.” By then, she had ported her material over to a personal computer – not without some fraught incidents. In January 1995, “there was no choice except to buckle down to work, with a deadline looming large on the horizon,” Nickson reported. “At least there was no repeat of the previous year’s calamity, when the script had vanished into her Macintosh, and she’d been unable to retrieve it. Even technicians from Apple had been unable to find it. In panic and desperation, she’d taken her computer to her old friend Stephen Fry, who after a day, managed to locate the file.” Her screenplay provided a treasure trove of juicy roles for existing friends who’d helped her conceptualize her adaptation via a 1993 exploratory read-through (Hugh Grant, Robert Hardy, Hugh Laurie, Imelda Staunton) and other pals and colleagues who would fit the bill (Alan Rickman, Imogen Stubbs, Tom Wilkinson, Kate Winslet and the man who would become Thompson’s second husband eight years later, Greg Wise). It would also lead to more literary license. Nickson recounts: “As usual, Emma kept a diary during the making of the film. It was something she liked to do, so ‘the jobs don’t all run into one another until it’s like a great big tube of toothpaste.’ While extracts from her previous diaries had seen publication before in magazines and newspapers, this was destined for grander things: together with her screenplay, the diaries would form her first book,” available here in its 2007 paperback reissue:

Upon its theatrical debut 23 years ago today with Thompson in the lead role as older sister Elinor Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility was justly celebrated for its fidelity to and its canny deviations from Austen, bringing out the best in all its creative team and acting company. As Janet Maslin declared in The New York Times, “Mr. Lee is after something more broadly accessible, a sparkling, colorful and utterly contemporary comedy of manners. Mr. Lee and Ms. Thompson are not above winking at their audience over such musty, Regency-era conventions. Nor are the overly reverential about the text itself, which has been artfully pruned and sometimes modified to suit broader comic tastes.” Nominated for seven Academy Awards®, including Best Picture, Actress (Thompson), Supporting Actress (Winslet) and Director, the film claimed just one, but it was a particularly pleasing accolade: Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published to Thompson, who became the only person in history to win Oscars® for acting and screenwriting. TT’s bountiful Sense and Sensibility hi-def Blu-ray is itself another information-packed diary of the film’s production, with a glorious rendering of the feature accompanied by two marvelous Audio Commentaries, five Making-of Featurettes, Deleted Scenes and a hilarious clip of Thompson winning the Golden Globe® for her script, accepting it in delightful Austen-speak. As it’s now available for 50% off original list as part of the label’s holiday season promotion, it’s a bargain the cash-strapped Dashwood clan would find quite sensible.