With When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.
With the rom-com officially back in vogue thanks to summer hits like Crazy Rich Asians and Netflix’s Set It Up, it’s hard not to think back on the genre’s most recent heyday, the 1990s. The era of Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts, and Nora Ephron defined our modern idea of what a rom-com looks and feels like, but the actual history of the romantic comedy began well before the invention of film. So it’s appropriate that the ’90s rom-com boom coincided with another big pop culture trend: a resurgence of interest in Jane Austen, the godmother of the genre.
During the 1990s, five of Austen’s six novels were adapted as either feature films or high-profile TV productions, three of them in 1995 alone. That was the year Amy Heckerling gave Emma a modern-day spin in the generation-defining Clueless, and there’s a strong argument to be made that Clueless is actually the best of the ’90s interpretations of Austen’s work. But of the more faithful period adaptations, there are two crown jewels: the 1995 BBC/A&E miniseries Pride And Prejudice and the 1995 feature film Sense And Sensibility. The former gave us Colin Firth emerging from a lake, while the latter set the high-water mark for big screen Austen adaptations.
It would be unfair to say Jane Austen is an under-appreciated cultural figure, as her work enjoys a tremendous amount of both popular success and serious scholarly study. But within the broader pop-culture landscape, Austen’s body of work still frequently falls victim to the “male glance,” a term which I discussed in my Breakfast At Tiffany’s column that describes the phenomenon wherein female-centric art is automatically assumed to be less complex and nuanced than male-centric art. For those who know Austen solely by cultural reputation, her novels are often incorrectly assumed to be sweeping romantic melodramas, when in reality they’re usually biting social satires. And even those who do engage with Austen’s work can sometimes still come away missing the depth because they’re so ready to assume it’s not there. In fact, one of these misinterpreters, and certainly the most famous one, was none other than Mark Twain himself.
Though Twain may have hated her, the two authors are more alike than they are different. Though her stories do have happy endings, Austen was not by any means a demure fairy-tale writer. Rather, she was a keen social critic whose masterful use of irony is unparalleled. When a palace librarian kept sending her pompous, unsolicited advice about her work, Austen wrote Plan Of A Novel, According To Hints From Various Quarters, a short satirical work eviscerating his suggestions.
The stakes in her work are usually much higher than just, “Will her heroines find love?” Austen depicted— and, to some extent, critiqued— the social system of the landed gentry at the end of the 18th century, wherein marriage and money were irreparably linked. That system was disadvantageous to the women of the upper class, who couldn’t take up professions and often couldn’t inherent property (depending on if it was entailed), and were therefore even more dependent on marriage as the be-all-end-all of their economic future. Then, there was also the even bigger threat of women being “seduced” by dishonorable men and then abandoned with no recourse for rejoining society. So while Pride And Prejudice is, on one hand, a heartfelt romance with the same emotional stakes as any love story, it is also a drama about a family of women who will be left destitute and homeless if they can’t find wealthy husbands. In other words, Austen novels are a bit like When Harry Met Sally by way of Glengarry Glen Ross.
The best Austen adaptations are the ones that understand the unique mix of romance, social commentary, high stakes, and humor that define her work. And 1995’s Sense And Sensibility is the perfect example. The film was a passion project for American producer Lindsay Doran, a lifelong fan of the novel who waited years to find the right screenwriter. As Doran put it, “Usually romantics are too optimistic and dreamy to see Austen’s cynicism, and satirists are too cynical to believe in romance.” After watching a British variety TV series called Thompson, Doran decided that its host and sketch writer, Emma Thompson, had just the right comedic voice to match Austen’s. It turned out that Thompson was also a huge Austen fan, and she spent the next five years carefully writing and revising the screenplay—her first—in order to get it just right. Thompson worked to ensure the novel’s historical context was clear to modern viewers and that the male love interests (who disappear for big chunks of the story) were compelling enough to root for. In the years she spent refining the script, Thompson’s acting career also began to take off. By the time she’d won an Oscar and been nominated for two more, it became clear that she should star in the project, too.
A relatively faithful adaptation, Sense And Sensibility centers on the two Dashwood sisters. Reserved and practical older sister Elinor (Emma Thompson) represents the “sense” (a.k.a. rationality) of the title. Meanwhile, her expressive, romantic sister Marianne (Kate Winslet) represents “sensibility” (a.k.a. sensitivity or emotionality). When their father dies and his estate is passed on to their greedy half-brother and his greedier wife, Elinor and Marianne are ripped away from the life of comfort they once knew.
Along with their mother and younger sister, they move into a small home in the countryside, and the sisters soon find themselves caught up in some complicated romantic attachments. Elinor quickly falls for the humble but noble Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant) while Marianne only has eyes for the dashing John Willoughby (Greg Wise). Meanwhile, the quietly loyal but less outwardly dashing Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman) also falls for Marianne, even though she couldn’t be less interested in him. Family pressures, past secrets, and countryside gossip all play a major role in the surprisingly twisty romantic plot. However, Sense And Sensibility is, more than anything else, a study in contrasts between the two Dashwood sisters. As Marianne puts it, “We have neither of us anything to tell [each other]. I, because I conceal nothing; and you, because you communicate nothing.”
With the script in place and a cast pulled largely from Thompson’s friends and artistic collaborators, all that remained was finding the right director for the project. Doran and Thompson ultimately went with a rather unexpected choice in Ang Lee, who at that point had made never made an English-language feature film before. But the blend of social satire and family drama he’d explored in his Taiwanese “Father Knows Best” trilogy indicated he’d be a good fit for the material. Though Lee hadn’t read much Austen (he had initially dismissed her novels as books for “girls”), he also saw the connections between Thompson’s screenplay and his earlier work. Lee later said, “I realized that all along I had been trying to do Jane Austen without knowing it. Jane Austen was my destiny. I just had to overcome the cultural barrier.” For their part, Doran and Thompson were thrilled that Lee so immediately understood the film’s comedic tone. As Doran explained, “[Lee] knew where the jokes were, which a lot of the directors didn’t.”
There’s plenty of excellent cinematic lore about the cross-cultural mishaps on the Sense And Sensibility set. Lee initially bristled against an environment where actors were more outspoken than was the norm in Taiwan, whereas Lee was far more blunt with his direction and criticism than his British actors were used to. Ultimately, however, the set found a balance. Lee encouraged his cast to practice tai chi, leading many to later recount the humorous image of British actors in period garb practicing Chinese martial arts, and Lee’s directorial tactics—for instance, his suggestion that Thompson and Winslet room together during production to help develop a sisterly bond—eventually helped to get the best from his actors. Winslet sparkles in an early role, Grant is an endearing master of deadpan humor, Wise delivers both charm and unexpected depth, and Rickman makes a great brooding romantic leading man, while several memorable supporting roles are brought to life by the likes of Imelda Staunton, Elizabeth Spriggs, Gemma Jones, and Hugh Laurie. Yet it’s Thompson who steals the film with her nuanced, layered portrayal of Elinor’s hidden internal struggles.
Together, Thompson and Lee turned out to be the perfect co-interpreters of Austen, each exploring the same core elements through a slightly different lens. Thompson’s script emphasizes the heart, humanity, and humor in Austen’s work while keeping Elinor and Marianne’s relationship a major focus. For his part, Lee explores those elements with an understated directorial style that matches Austen’s understated prose. His camera often hangs back and lets the scene play out from a slight distance, which helps both the humor and the heartbreak to land stronger. No scene better sums up the Thompson/Lee partnership than the film’s big emotional climax, in which Elinor gets her happy ending long after she’d made peace with the idea that it would never come. It was Thompson’s idea to have Elinor hysterically sob through Edward’s proposal, and it was Lee’s choice to have Thompson face away from the camera so as not to overplay the moment. The result is hilarious and poignant, providing the perfect moment of catharsis for a movie largely about emotional repression.
Sense And Sensibility earned Thompson an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay—one of seven Academy Awards the film was nominated for—making her the only person to have picked up Oscars for both performance and writing (she won Best Actress for Howard’s End a few years earlier). And the film still stands as one of the all-time best onscreen interpretations of Austen’s work. Though Sense And Sensibility is sometimes discussed as if it’s merely a morally didactic tale about the two titular qualities, it’s much more so a portrait of two strong but imperfect women navigating an unfair world. For all of her emotiveness, Marianne is also smart and perceptive. For all of her propriety, Elinor still feels deeply. Crucially, each woman has something to learn from the other. Thompson’s adaptation understands and conveys that.
Though Jane Austen did not invent the romantic comedy (she’s building on, among other things, the works of William Shakespeare), she brought to rom-coms a keen understanding of the interior lives of women. Austen’s canon is full of the kinds of complex female protagonists the genre could certainly use a lot more of. While modern rom-coms too often return to the well of neurotic or clumsy traits for their leading ladies, Austen’s heroines have complicated internal flaws that are balanced by their intelligence and dignity. They’re relatable, not because they’re written as broad everywomen, but because they’re written with such specificity. Elinor, in particular, stands as one of Austen’s best creations, and 1995’s Sense And Sensibility gives both her and her sister their due.
Next time: How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days marked a rom-com turning point.