One of my favorite stories to tell is how I ended up watching Sense and Sensibility at the age of nine. My mother always had a prank up her sleeve whenever she needed a laugh. The only way to be safe was to stay on her good side. Unfortunately, for my dad, the day he asked her to rent Starship Troopers for him, she was desperately in need of a laugh, and he had been in the doghouse for a few days, if not a week. Important thing to know about this story, this was in the late 90’s when independent video stores and VHS tapes were very much a thing.
When my mom picked me up for school that day she told me not to say a word as she stuffed Sense and Sensibility into the VHS rental box labeled "Starship Troopers." I was nine and didn’t know what either movie was about, but my silence was bought with the promise that I could skip homework that evening and watch a movie.
How could I say no?
Less than an hour later, my mom had me put the VHS in the player as my dad giddily got ready to watch a movie he'd been dying for. The serious trailers gave him pause but he brushed it off. Then the open credits began with frilly font and a piano playing in the background. However, my dad kept going. Starship Troopers was just defying expectations. It wasn’t until the title came up that my dad realized he had been had. My mom and I burst into laughter as he stormed out the room, the phone firmly grasped in his hand.
While he ranted to the video story (they also laughed at him), I inched closer to the television. Within minutes I was enraptured with Emma Thompson’s story unfolding on the TV screen. Any hope of watching Starship Troopers was lost that day as my Jane Austen obsession began. It would take me a few decades, a handful of scripts, and an encyclopedic knowledge of Jane Austen adaptations to realize the effect Emma Thompson’s take on Austen had on my writing as well as the Austen genre.
Yes, Jane Austen gets her own genre. Season two of Bridgerton is proof enough.
Growing up as a millennial, I suffered through the years where female friendships were portrayed as anything but positive. Girl-on-girl backstabbing, cattiness, and jealousy, a regular thing. However, when it was brought up in Mean Girls, my response was simple … fucking duh. Maybe it was because I was surrounded by examples of healthy female friendships in my own life. I’d do anything for the girls I rode the school bus with, just as my mom would for her friends.
I also think Emma Thompson and Jane Austen had something to do with it. The first adaptation I wrote was Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. To be fair, the BBC Pride and Prejudice was attempted the year before, but I couldn’t connect with it. To this day, I still can’t (controversial, I know). When I watched Sense and Sensibility, I didn’t fall in love with Edward. Willoughby was a joke to me, even at the age of nine. Admittedly, Colonel Brandon was the only Austen lead who came close, but I believe it’s because so many of his qualities align with the female friendships explored in Sense and Sensibility.
In this version, so much of the story is told through the eyes of the women, through their relationships. Eleanor (Emma Thompson) doesn’t fight for Edward (Hugh Grant). She fights for her sisters. She gives the idea of Edward up for a new friend. Through Eleanor, Emma Thompson showed everyone where a woman’s focus usually lies and what real female friendships look like.
Emma Thompson began a trend in Jane Austen movies. We watched the internal lives of women—the men were just a bonus. Eleanor would do anything for her sisters. They are the constant of her mind. Marianne (Kate Winslet) is a lovesick fool, but when it comes to Eleanor’s heart, she is fiercely protective of her sister.
Eleanor’s care goes past her sisters and mother. She sacrifices her love for a new friend, Ms. Lucy Steele. She owes no biological loyalty to Lucy and yet she does this for her. In fact, all the women who are seen as “good” in Sense and Sensibility take special care of the other women in their lives. It’s only Lucy and Fanny who end up with the short end of the stick.
To this day, Sense and Sensibility has a special place in my heart. It led me to the cliff, and Pride and Prejudice pushed me off. To be specific, the 2005 Pride and Prejudice. A controversial choice but when learning that Emma Thompson did an uncredited rewrite, it shouldn’t be that surprising.
Again, Lizzie’s (Keira Knightley) focus isn’t on marriage or Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen). It’s barely on Wickham! Her focus lies with her sisters and Charlotte (Claudie Blakley). At her core is a protectiveness that is centered on her sisters. Even Lydia is not free from Lizzie’s care, though the latter is not as quick to show it. We see her concern for Jane at almost every turn, but most notable in her refusal of Darcy’s proposal and the secrets she keeps to avoid hurting Jane.
The friendship between Lizzie and Charlotte is the unsung hero of the film.
Other Pride and Prejudice adaptations treat it as a footnote (*cough*—Pride and Prejudice and Zombies—*cough*), but the friendship teaches Lizzie so much more and is one of the healthiest relationships in the film. Lizzie is not required to protect Charlotte, nor does Charlotte ask her to. Charlotte comforts Lizzie in a way that only the truest friend would know how, when Lizzie’s insulted by Darcy (behind her back, the arsehole). But the healthiest aspect of their relationship is how the two women behave after having a fight. They don’t become each other’s enemies. They don’t plot against one another. They disagree and then come back together. The scene in which they reunite, post Charlotte’s marriage to Mr. Collins, is a clear sign of the strength of their relationship.
Yes, Pride and Prejudice has a love story, but this adaptation truly is about female friendship and the interior lives of women.
In 2020, Emma was released, and I forced my friends to see it with me as many times as possible, until COVID drove us all into our homes. Again, we see female friendship as the crux of the story. It is her love of Harriet that pushes Emma to change. Yes, George Knightley tells her of the mistakes she made in her friendship with Harriet, but she takes the action to correct those mistakes to win her friend back, not to win over Knightley.
The love story between Emma and Knightley is almost a culmination of what Emma Thompson started with Sense and Sensibility.
Knightley is vastly different from most Austen leading men, especially in the 2020 version. Knightley has anxiety and is a bit nerdy. He’s older than most of the Austen Men and much more vocal. His relationship with Emma is drastically different than Darcy’s is with Lizzie. He is very much her closest friend. He’s the person who knows her better than anyone else and calls her out on her shit. In a way, Emma came full circle to Sense and Sensibility.
About a year ago, after a decade of writing, I realized the stories I focused on were those that centered around female friendships. Even in my own pilot, where two girls fought over a boy, I knew that in season three they would become best friends and destroy anyone who tried to hurt the other. Slowly I began to see that I was just writing my own friendships into my scripts. In one of my annual Jane Austen Marathons, I took a closer look at the characters' relationships and started to realize the importance the female relationships were. I looked at my own Jane Austen adaptations and had unknowingly written the same thing.
The movies I had loved since the age of nine had been quietly influencing me the whole time. Without me even realizing, Emma Thompson had been guiding my ship the moment I put pen to paper. I couldn’t ask for a better teacher.
As more of these Jane Austen style shows and movies come out, we see a shift to the importance of relationships between these female characters. The ladies of Bridgerton are clear examples of this. It also serves as a reminder that these movies and shows are about so much more than romance.
If you think Pride and Prejudice is simply about Lizzie falling in love with Mr. Darcy, then I’d ask you to take a closer look. You never know what you might find.
*Feature Photo: Sense and Sensibility (Columbia Pictures Corporation)