Edward onto the screen-short paper, long post
Posted by Laraine on October 31, 1997 at 17:06:49:
Since I have to be gone for the weekend and at least of few people said they'd be interested, I thought I'd post this.
Non-Pemberley types looking to steal this to get out of doing homework--be advised that it's copyrighted and that many teachers read the Web too. Enjoy it (I hope you will), but please do not steal it. That said, I'd be really happy to hear any criticisms anyone has.
As screenwriter of the 1995 screen adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, Emma Thompson faced the daunting task of moving the character of Edward Ferrars not only onto the screen and
towards the twentieth century, but also of making a film hero out of some relatively unpromising material, considering how Austen introduces him to her readers:
Edward Ferrars was not recommended to their good opinion by any peculiar graces of person or address. He was not handsome, and his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing. He was too diffident to do justice to himself; but when his natural shyness was overcome, his behaviour gave every indication of an open, affectionate heart. His understanding was good, and his education had given it solid improvement. But he was neither fitted by abilities nor disposition to answer the wishes of his mother and sister, who longed to see him distinguished--as-- they hardly knew what. . . . But Edward had no turn for great men or barouches. All his wishes centered in domestic comfort and the quiet of private life. Fortunately he had a younger brother who was more promising (11).Not a role destined for Steven Segal--or even Harrison Ford. Not a role either that is championed by many Austen critics, who are judgmental of Edward's deception and his selfishness in engaging Elinor's feelings when he is betrothed to someone else.* Thompson had to change some things about Edward in moving him onto the screen, or the "sense" in sense and sensibility was likely to come off as a rather poor second to its partner--which would be a disservice to Austen's intentions, certainly.
The essential step that Thompson gets right in her reinvention of Edward is his introduction at Norland. The audience must react favorably and quite strongly to Edward because he must spend almost the entirety of the remaining action off stage. While his existence is discussed, and we are not likely to forget who he is (even if we don't know the story before viewing the film), our sympathies with Edward must remain with us if we are to find the ending of the story palatable. Thompson explained that "Making the male characters effective was one of the biggest problems. In the novel, Edward and Brandon are quite shadowy and absent for long periods. We had to work hard to keep them present even when they're offscreen" (269).
One crucial element of creating Edward as a sympathetic character is handling his association with Fanny. It is Fanny who first introduces Edward to the audience, and Fanny can be very useful in acting as Edward's antithesis. Fanny, with her avarice, her tightly curled hair and pinched face, her dog that looks ready to shiver itself out of existence, and with what Thompson calls her "cut glass accent" (240), falls quite short of appealing. For the viewing audience, Fanny is the means by which Mrs. Dashwood's family is disinherited. And the obvious expectation is that Edward will turn out to be worse, being both her brother and an elder son. There is no reason to believe that Fanny has been less efficacious in leading Edward about than she has been in leading her husband about--she has, after all, known Edward longer. And Fanny has set Edward up to rob Margaret of her room, stealing from Mrs. Dashwood's family one more bit of its moral right (for they have no legal rights). Edward's first scene is riding to Norland Park with the house in the distance. He could certainly be surveying the wealth of the property, assessing whether his sister has done well in her husband's inheritance.
Interestingly, Thompson's published screenplay writes Edward's arrival scene slightly differently than it is actually played. Thompson intended "CLOSE on his face as he gazes up at the elegant facade" (38), while Ang Lee made this as a long shot in which we never see Edward's face. Lee's choice allows the audience to remain more in doubt for a bit longer regarding Edward's sympathetic status. Thompson's screenplay as published also does not go through the formal introductions that Lee's final cut uses, but those introductions are useful in contrasting the Edward we might expect with the person his actions and speech make him out to be.
Edward's refusal to accept Fanny's ill treatment of Mrs. Dashwood's family (particularly Margaret) as proper behavior is not very subtle. Instead, it is meant to have us at least mentally and emotionally cheering for him as he comes down firmly on the side of right and decency. Margaret has not actually appeared yet on screen, but the earlier scene in which her disembodied voice (coming from her treehouse) petulantly complains that the John Dashwoods have a house in London and don't need Norland firmly establishes the unfairness of the Dashwood women's situation and their powerlessness to effect any change, heightening sympathy for them and antipathy for John and Fanny. Margaret's further refusal to join the combined families at table is a visual reminder of this unfairness --as a child, she can insist on the unfairness of the situation with little worry about how her behavior might offend anyone. While Marianne can play at the edges of giving offense to Fanny, as an adult she cannot be pointedly uncivil without drawing remonstrance (at least from Elinor). Margaret's refusal to give in is allowed, and it functions very effectively for the viewers, for our sympathy is intensified because a child is suffering, even if it is off camera. Thompson makes great use of the relationship between Margaret and Edward. His insistence on not taking Margaret's room, his immediate sympathy regarding her shyness towards strangers, his shielding her from Fanny in the library, his help in drawing her out from under the table--in short, the affinity we develop for Edward because of his kindness to this girl (whom we do not actually meet until he does)--all of this is a masterstroke on Thompson's part. With hardly a word spoken, Edward is firmly allied with the Dashwood women's plight, and he is proven to be caring and generous (utterly unlike his sister). While he might have been deeply patriarchal, coldly assured, greedy, and selfish, we discover someone who is shy, concerned about a child's suffering, and intelligent and creative enough to determine what might bring her out from under the table--an appeal to her knowledge and interest. He treats her as a human being and she responds as one.
Edward's continued willingness to play with Margaret, to teach her swordplay and plan excursions to China (where he will go as her servant) further connects him with those outside the evil, acquisitive system that is oppressing Mrs. Dashwood's family. His affinity with her not only allies him with proper behavior and decency, it marks him as a potentially excellent father. In a story that will focus much on getting married, this ability to act as a kind and loving parental figure to a young girl can only heighten our sympathy, and the shared parenting of Margaret that Edward and Elinor engage in during the Norland scene further mark them as a couple. His discussions with Elinor about the isolation and separation he feels from society are often instigated or closed by talk of Margaret. The scene when he finds Elinor crying over her father's favorite song moves forward because of her thanks for his help with Margaret, and he goes on to speak in the extension of this scene of his hatred for London (standing for the prevailing inhumane and oppressive society) and his wish for a country living (the country standing for simple enjoyment and even exuberance in life). Their horse riding scene, in which he sees similarity in their situations of feeling idle and useless, disenfranchised and completely subject to the will of others, ends with "Perhaps Margaret is right . . . Piracy is our only option" (50).
In addition to his demonstrated affection for both Margaret and Elinor, Edward is always deferential to Mrs. Dashwood (shown from their first meeting in which he tells her rather than his brother-in-law or sister that the stables are well kept), and he's willing to let Marianne direct his reading of Cowper even when it makes him extremely uncomfortable. Without exception, Edward's role is in relationship to Mrs. Dashwood's family while John's and Fanny's goes so far in the other direction that it might be called anti-social. They refuse to uphold decent behavior, much less protect and champion Mrs. Dashwood's family (who are certainly in need of it). To the extent that he is able, Edward champions them, champions relationships, and champions moral obligations. He is pro-social. Establishing this difference is extremely important from the very first, because Edward's unwillingness to break his engagement with Lucy can be seen as upholding the same principles. He must honor his promises to her because she is also disenfranchised, and he has given his word. Unlike John Dashwood, who can give his word to his dying father and proceed to ignore having done so, Edward is pro-social and cannot do such a thing. While these truths are in evidence in Austen's novel, Thompson has established them very quickly by making the contrast between Fanny and her brother extreme (in looks, attitudes, and actions), by the use of the greatly increased role Margaret is given to play, and also very much by having him begin to relate his attachment to Lucy before he leaves for London. Unlike Austen's story, Thompson has Edward try to be honest with Elinor about his past, but the evil Fanny interrupts him. This attempted honesty does much to redeem him for a modern audience. We see anti-social/anti-love/anti-Elinor Fanny robbing him of his opportunity before this moment to be honest. Of course, this is not true at all, for Edward has certainly had ample opportunity to tell Elinor about Lucy, but the humorous scene with its quick cuts and discussion of seeming nonsense ("Plymouth?" "Pratt?" [Thompson, 62]) makes us assume that a declaration was about to take place which Fanny firmly interrupts, and when we later discover that he had meant to tell her a secret he has obviously told no one else, we find it hard not to forgive him, rather than the reverse.
Throughout the Norland sequence, Thompson makes Edward into something of a trapped man who is manipulated by the system in the same way the Dashwood women are. He is very capable of being preyed upon (as Fanny tells Mrs. Dashwood [Thompson, 57]). We see this in the way that Fanny treats him, and we even get a glimpse of it in the way that Marianne treats him. But the fact that Margaret can poke him in the stomach with her fake sword when he isn't attending shows us how vulnerable his basically good nature can be to those who wish to dominate him. All of this helps to set up Lucy Steele as an evil predator and makes Edward less culpable and much more forgivable. Lucy is very much like Fanny and Mrs. Ferrars. They are manipulative women who can prey upon Edward's good nature because society doesn't value his abilities to be amiable and unassuming, to champion the disenfranchised, to champion relationships, and to champion moral obligations.
I stated earlier that this was not a role for Steven Segal or even Harrison Ford. In truth, Thompson says in her diaries that she is thrilled because "Hugh Grant, for whom I wrote Edward, has agreed to do it despite having become after Four Weddings the most famous man in the world" (210). While much screen writing does go on with specific actors in mind, it is particularly interesting that Thompson would write Edward for Grant. Perhaps more in Four Weddings and a Funeral than in any of his previous roles, Grant perfected a stuttering, bumbling, but endearing character whose appeal rested mainly in his vulnerability and self-deprecating wit. This character is suited to Grant's looks, which are not the extremely dashing looks of Greg Wise (who played Willoughby) or a host of other action-hero movie stars--despite the fact that the Jane Austen Society called the producers of Sense and Sensibility to complain that Grant was too good looking to play the role (Thompson, 244). Thompson summarized Grant's characterization thus:
[he is] as great an actor as I've always thought. So light and yet very much felt. He's made Edward rather troubled and halting, almost a stammerer. It's particularly good because it illustrates how relaxed he feels with Elinor, with whom he can be both funny and fluent (220).
* See, for example Johnson, 57-58, Brownstein, 47, and Sulloway, 126. Another common thread many critics share is that there is little or no difference between Willoughby's actions and Edward's. Johnson and Brownstein both believe the two to be more similar than different in their treatment of the Dashwoods--both are, in Johnson's words, "weak, duplicitous, and selfish, entirely lacking in that rectitude and forthrightness with which Austen is capable of endowing exemplary gentlemen when she wishes" (58).
Brownstein, Rachel M. "Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice." in The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Ed. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 32-57
Johnson, Claudia L. Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988.
Sulloway, Alison G. Jane Austen and the Province of Womanhood. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989.
Thompson, Emma. The Sense and Sensibility Screenplay and Diaries: Bringing Jane Austen's Novel to Film. New York: New Market Press, 1996.
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