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Avoiding those Madding Crowds: Date Night with Thomas Hardy

2013 April 16

Ryan D. Fong
Kalamazoo College

For most of our readership across the United States and in the UK, April is proving to be a very cruel month indeed—with severe weather patterns and cold fronts marching across the North America and Atlantic. In these frigid days and dank nights, in which we grow ever wearier of these lingering and intemperate climes, what is a good Victorianist to do? The options would seem (at least to this Victorianist) to either sink into the depths of gloom and despair over this stubborn winter weather or to curl up with companionable date at home and watch a good adaptation of a nineteenth-century novel, in an effort to generate some alternate sources of warmth and comfort.

Or, as I would like to suggest, you can do both. By turning to Thomas Hardy. Yes, you read that right: to Thomas Hardy—for a cozy and romantic night in.

While I freely admit that Hardy and romance is not the most inevitable of pairings, I hope that you will hear me out on this one. Certainly, if you are trying to find a love-kindling adaptation of a nineteenth-century text to cuddle up with on your couch, then Jane Austen and the vast romance industry that has emerged in her wake would seem a more natural fit. Even the Bronte sisters and the many versions of their dark and melancholy moors would seem to conjure up images of love and romance (however vexed) more readily than Hardy. Because Hardy, as we all know, is tragedy and suffering. For if there is love in Hardy, then it is almost always a love that goes astray very quickly and quite devastatingly.

I will grant that this would be very true if you perused your Netflix queue and stopped only on the adaptations of Hardy’s late novels—such as Roman Polanski’s Tess or Michael Winterbottom’s Jude. While both are worthy films in their own rights, for their visually stunning cinematography and fine acting, their respective endings do not exactly inspire one to make grand declarations about the conquering power of love. If, however, you were to turn towards the many and varied versions of his earlier novel Far from the Madding Crowd, I would argue that you have the makings of a much more satisfying night in. And while this story is not one without its struggles and tragedies—especially if you are a sheep, a dog, or a female servant—it is a Hardy novel where the human body count is relatively low and where the final union of its protagonists is one that is not completely undermined by a general mood of despair. Furthermore, of the three adaptations I will feature for you here, there is a remarkable range to choose from, with everything from a grand and opulent example of late-1960s cinema to a more comedic, Neo-Victorian take on the novel.1

Far from the Madding Crowd (1967)

Many will know Julie Christie from her famous turn as Lara in David Lean’s adaptation of Doctor Zhivago, but she is just as much of a cinematic force of nature as Bathsheba Everdene in John Schlessinger’s film, which was released two years later. With Alan Bates, Terrence Stamp and Peter Finch giving strong performances as Gabriel Oak, Frank Troy and William Boldwood, respectively, the film’s sweeping presentation of Hardy’s prose is firmly anchored by all of the acting leads. The aesthetic of the film is admittedly dated, but that is also what gives its remarkable, if campy, appeal. The swordplay scene between Bathsheba and Troy is an exemplary case in point, since it strikes the twenty-first century viewer as both hilariously over the top and visually arresting. With quick cuts between close-ups and wide shots of verdant green hills—which were captured on location in Dorset’s Maiden Castle—the scene has a palpable erotic energy, even as it all seems distractingly silly. These tensions were noted and criticized when the film first came out, in the way that they overshadowed any sustained depictions of psychological depth or social reality. Roger Ebert found the film to be a “homogenized, vitamin-enriched product” in which the characters had been “ironed out.” More recently, Keith Wilson asserted that the film’s characterization of Sergeant Troy, especially, renders him “opaque almost to the point of impenetrability”—despite the fact that Hardy grants him a “striking degree of psychological complexity” compared to the other womanizing characters in his oeuvre (96). These critiques are fair ones, to be sure; however, I would argue that the film, with its intense visual privileging of landscape, provides an useful, if often melodramatic, lens into the palpable materiality of Hardy’s Wessex and to the way its settings make manifest the complex emotional energies that shuttle between the main characters with great force and with great speed.

Far from the Madding Crowd (2008)

If the grand gestures of the 1967 film adaptation are too much for you, then you might enjoy the more recent theatrical adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd, written by Mark Healy and available online here through Digital Theatre. Directed by Kate Saxton and filmed in 2008, the play and its performance in many ways invert the dynamics that characterize Schlessinger’s film. Because of the confines of the stage, to the set especially (which is sparely and strikingly constructed), the landscape takes a supporting role, where the actors and their development of the characters are foregrounded in contrast. While this relative minimalism in depicting the natural world of the novel marks a significant loss from the rich descriptions in Hardy’s text, the strong performances more than make up for any perceived lack of depth. Rebecca O’Mara is a gale force wind of emotion as Bathsheba Everdene, who is matched in intensity by Adam Croasdell as Troy. Meanwhile, Phil Cheadle as Gabriel Oak keeps everything together—both literally within the unfolding plot and affectively in the push towards his and Bathsheba’s eventual union. Interestingly too, the performance recorded here does more than just mimic the experience of watching it as an audience member. Shot in HD and from multiple angles, the recording blurs the line between the experience of theater and film very effectively—which makes this version of the novel a rewarding one to experience and watch.

Tamara Drewe (2010)

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If your prospective couch companion groans at the thought of watching yet another costume drama with you, then Tamara Drewe is likely the less-maddening Madding adaptation for you. Based on a reworking of Hardy’s novel by Posy Simmonds in a graphic serial strip and directed by Stephen Frears, this film resets the novel’s action in modern day Dorset rather than in the nineteenth century. Here, Tamara Drewe, who left her hometown as a homely young girl and who returns as a fully blossomed young woman, creates a sensation amongst the various men in the town. Playing on Simmonds clever substitutions—such as Sergeant Troy becoming Ben Sergeant, a drummer in a rock band—the film makes a number of knowing winks to the well-read viewer. These nods even include one to the famous swordplay scene from the Schlessinger film discussed above, where Ben, played by Dominic Cooper, seduces Tamara, played by Gemma Arterton, by playing makeshift percussion instruments made out of kitchen objects. Simmonds’s Tamara Drewe certainly takes liberties with the details of Hardy’s plot and Frears’s film takes even further liberties with Simmonds. The result is a general lightening of tone and an erasure of many of the darker elements that give Hardy’s novel its richness and depth. Most significant among these changes is the decision by Frears (and Moira Buffini who wrote the screenplay) to let Simmonds’s version of Fanny Robbins character, Jody, survive to the end. While this is understandable given the fact that Jessica Barden, who plays Jody, gives an absolutely knock-out performance as the teenage fangirl obsessed with Ben, it nevertheless makes this film feel much less Hardy-esque. The film, as a result, is brighter and lighter, without all of the roundness provided by the darker notes and hues. On its own terms, however, the film works well as an entertaining dramatic comedy—with the acting performances of Roger Allam and Tamsin Greig providing a large dose of the story’s emotional heft and weight.

Whichever you chose, each of these adaptations of Far from the Madding Crowd will surely provide some significant evening entertainment—even if none of them can quite match the power of Hardy’s original prose. And like the cycles of the seasons that so effectively mark the various movements of the novel, you can watch any of them knowing that the Spring will eventually arrive—even if it is long in coming in Dorset, around the UK, and across the pond.

1. There have been other adaptations of the novel, which I will not describe here. These include the theatrical adaptation by written Hardy and J. Comyns Carr in 1882, which to my knowledge has never been filmed, a 1915 film, and a 1998 adaptation for television. Far from the Madding Crowd has also inspired a musical (2000), a ballet (1996), and an opera (2006).

Works cited

Ebert, Roger. “Far from the Madding Crowd.” RogerEbert.com January 23, 1998. Web. http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/far-from-the-madding-crowd-1968

Wilson, Keith. “Far from the Madding Crowd in the cinema: the problem of textual fidelity.” Thomas Hardy on Screen. Ed. T.R. Wright. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 96-107.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. April 17, 2013

    Great post, Ryan. Not only do I love the 1960s version of the film, I happen to live near many of the locations – Devizes, Maiden Castle. It’s of huge significance to English West Country heritage. I think your comments about character and setting are spot on!

  2. fong permalink
    April 17, 2013

    Thanks, Gaby! I appreciate the feedback! I didn’t mention it in the piece, but Tamara Drewe was also shot on location in Dorset. Some of the locations are listed here:

    http://realwestdorset.co.uk/2010/09/tamara-drewe-film-locations-dorset-and-beyond/

    It would be interesting to know how many Hardy adaptations have returned to Dorset for their settings. I know that Polanski’s Tess, famously, had to be shot in France because of his legal issues. But I wonder about the many others. More research questions!

    It is not surprising given the importance of place in Hardy’s work that many would want to be “authentic”–even though we should always be mindful of the slippage between Wessex and Dorset. Furthermore, Hardy is such a visual writer, as Terry Wright and Roger Webster have pointed out in their essays in Thomas Hardy on Screen, that the desire to get the landscape “right” makes sense in this context as well.

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