Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Talking Sense, with Sensibility

I don’t think Emma Thompson is stressing about it, but I continue to feel that I owe her an apology. It all dates back to 1995, when (after leaving Roger Corman’s Concorde-New Horizons Pictures), I was desperately scrounging for work in the film industry. For a brief, miserable period, I served as a reader for a big recording label that was trying to work its way into films. In that pre-Internet era, being a reader was a miserable job, and I doubt it’s changed very much since,, aside from the fact that a screenplay PDF can now arrive automatically in your in-box. My job was to rush bright and early to the company’s headquarters, grab the screenplay that had been assigned to me, then race home. I had about six hours to read the script and fill out a detailed report outlining the basic plot and evaluating the strengths of the writing.  By 4:30 p.m. I needed to be back at the same office, dropping off the fruits of my labors. I’d been warned in advance that company executives had no time to waste: I was expected to be as tough as possible on everything I considered.

 So . . . one day I was assigned Emma Thompson’s first screenplay, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. This was intended as a writing sample: the film was in process of being made by another company, but it was my job to evaluate whether Thompson should be considered as a screenwriter for future gigs. As a PhD English major I had read my share of Austen, and loved her witty slant on romantic life in the early 18th century. I enjoyed Thompson’s screenplay too, but I obeyed my mandate to be a stern critic. I didn’t feel too bad, back then, about the harshness of my complaints: Thompson was already an Oscar-winning actress, and I didn’t think I’d ruin her life by dissing her talents in another field.

 I soon gave up on the indignities of being a reader, a dead-end job if there ever was one. Sense and Sensibility (starring Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman and many of Britain’s finest) turned out to be a major hit. It was nominated for seven Oscars (including best picture) and won for Thompson’s screenplay. She was also honored by the Writers Guild of America, as well as by the literary folks attending the annual USC Scripter Award presentation. The Scripter competition gives prizes to the best screen adaptation of an existing literary work. Normally, both the screenwriter and the author of the original material are feted. At USC, actress-turned-author Fannie Flagg read a letter purporting to be from Jane Austen herself, praising Thompson’s work and crowing that the Brontë sisters would doubtless be jealous to have missed out on similar accolades. (Thompson had her own fun being Jane at the Golden Globes presentation –see below.)

 As for me, I continued to think ill of Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility adaptation until I re-read Austen’s novel and then sat down with The Sense and Sensibility Screenplay and Diaries, published by Thompson in 1996. Thus prepared, I was able to see what a very smart, sensitive job Thompson had done of simplifying Austen’s complex language and plotline without losing the essence of her concerns. I understood for the first time what she had wisely left out, and (equally important) what she had added: like giving the youngest Dashwood daughter a personality and interests that richly enhance her sister’s evolving romance. I’m late in saying it, but Brava, Ms. Thompson!



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