Much Ado About the Remains of Sense & Sensibility in The House of Mirth

I enjoyed The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton but I am going to refrain from commenting on it until the other members of the book club finish it. Of course, as with all book clubs, it is really just an excuse to get together in the afternoon and drink chardonnay. But I, like a fool, read it, and have a lot to say about it. I didn’t read Edith Wharton’s other well known book, The Age of Innocence, but I remember seeing the film with Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder. No, I didn’t see it with them. I mean, they were in it, though Winona and I often go shoplifting together.

Speaking of books being made into films, I read The Remains of the Day, and then saw the movie, and then I read Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and saw that film. The Remains of the Day was a terrible adaptation. The book was really good, but the film was awful. Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson were in it. They are good actors but the problem was that the book was totally interior monologue in the head of the butler, The point of the book was that he was oblivious to much of what was really going on while he obsessed over things like polishing the silver. Even though he was missing a lot of the important cues, the reader is able to infer quite a lot of subtle nuance by reading between the lines. Though the butler has many limited epiphanies, the reader experiences greater revelations about just how closed off the butler is. That is the heart of the book. The film just showed the surface of what happened, and tampered with that, trying to make the butler more sympathetic. It was like they showed it to a focus group who complained about what a jerk the butler was, so they tried to make him nicer. I felt really angry about how badly the movie destroyed the intentions of the author. By the way, Kazuo Ishiguro is ethnically Japanese, but is actually British. He grew up and was educated in England. This book was set in England, and a lot of it happens just before WWII, but is memories and flashbacks. The butler takes a road trip, ostensibly to possibly get the former housemaid to return to the staff, but what he won’t admit to himself but is obvious to the reader is that he is still in love with her, but put his profession above his personal life. Another book by this author is set in Japan, and I would really like to read it. An Artist of the Floating World is about an artist who gets caught up in the right wing politics of Japan in WWII. And that makes me think of Mishima, but that is for a whole nother blog.

As for the film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, it was much more successful, but still cut a lot of corners. It was directed by Ang Lee, and follows the book pretty well, but like I said, corners were cut. In Austen there is a third person narrative voice that tells you what is going on and provides analysis and commentary. There is a character who might be connected to this disembodied narrative voice, in Sense and Sensibility it is obviously Elinor, the sensible sister played in the film by Emma Thompson. This whole aspect of the book is jettisoned. A lot of the fun is noting the discrepancies in what some of the characters think is going on, and what the more perceptive narrator and her acolyte Elinor know to be true. In the film this was thought to be too confusing, so characters like Mrs. Jennings not only know what is going on but provide some of the expository backstories that aren’t revealed in the book until the end. The result is that the sense of Elinor gets short shrift while the melodramatic sensibility of Marianne gets all the limelight as she chews up the scenery center stage. Kate Winslet plays Marianne, and Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, and Hugh Laurie are also among the illustrious cast. All the acting was great, but the writing that wasn’t done by Jane Austen not so much. Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay, it seems, so I am inclined to give her some slack.

A film that I really did like was Much Ado About Nothing. Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Robert Sean Leonard, Keanu Reeves, Michael Keaton, Kate Beckinsale and Denzel Washington made up the stellar cast. Robert Sean Leonard was in a film called Swing Kids, about kids in Nazi Germany who just had to dance. This film is so ridiculous that it’s good. Christian Bale is also in it. Robert Sean Leonard was also in Dead Poets Society. He plays the guy who wants to be an actor and gets the part of Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream. His father doesn’t want him to act and forbids him to do the play. The father is the father of Topher Grace in That 70’s Show. A real asshole. The thing is, he is supposed to have found his calling and in spite of his father’s disapproval, he loves acting. But he isn’t really that good. Of course, in Much Ado About Nothing he redeems himself, but the real stars of this play are Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. Benedick and Beatrice. They trade barbs and banter back and forth as if they really hate each other, until as a joke each is led to believe that the other is in love with them. There are at least three levels of comedy here: Robert Sean Leonard and Kate Beckinsale, as Hero, his fiancĂ©, are fairly straightforward, almost a drama. Emma and Ken have all the best lines, with dazzling wordplay, the thrust and parry that only a true bard like Shakespeare can provide. Michael Keaton plays Dogberry the Constable. Though others are supposed to be Italians, Dogberry is clearly British, Cockney perhaps. Keaton paints his character in very broad comic strokes. Kind of like the difference in tone between Jerry and Elaine, and Kramer. Or Will and Grace as opposed to Jack and Karen. Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves both do excellent jobs. Keanu plays a real bastard and Denzel is an absolute Prince. Literally, in both cases.

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