Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Far from the Madding Crowd

Every so often I reread my favourite Thomas Hardy novels: Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure and Far from the Madding Crowd, so naturally I was interested to learn that a new film version of the latter, starring Carrie Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene, has just been released.

I own the first film version of Far from the Madding Crowd, starring Julie Christie, Alan Bates and Terence Stamp.  Back in the days when VHS players were state of the art, and few people had them, I rented this version to entertain a family we were visiting. The father of the family had his doubts about the entertainment value of the movie, but when it began, he was hooked by the depiction of Gabriel Oak's work tending his flock of sheep, because, as a cattle farmer, he knew the difficulties of making a living off the land. His interest confirmed my appreciation of the classics of literature. I was charmed, recently, when an acquaintance of mine mentioned that her ninety-year-old mother was rereading Thomas Hardy again in preparation for being taken to see the new version of Far from the Madding Crowd.

Roger and I saw it yesterday and were impressed. The earlier version is more faithful to Hardy's novel, but it was long; it had an intermission, and the new version had to abbreviate the text to achieve a more normal length. The new version has a more real feel to it. Landscape and weather play a big role in Hardy's fiction, and the film emphasized them. We get a sense of what it was like to walk around a farm at night in an era prior to flashlights, electric lighting and motor vehicle lights. The characters looked grubbier and more authentic than in the earlier film.

Bathsheba Everdene rises in the novel from unemployed governess to owner/manager of a large farm, and Carrie Mulligan conveys the young woman's delight at the opportunity to take over this inheritance, her nervousness as she meets her farm workers for the first time, and her pleasure in working in the field with them and being on the land. Hardy was ahead of his time in depicting a woman who lucked into a career that fully made use of her intelligence, a chance to head a business with great potential. In the end she succeeds in that, even though she has made mistakes in her personal life.

It is amusing to read Hardy, writing in the 19th century, in Victorian times, about a woman's erotic awakening. I remember first reading the seduction/rape scene in Tess and not being sure what really had transpired between her and Alec in the forest.  In Far from the Madding Crowd Hardy was subtle and conveyed things symbolically so as not to offend publishers and readers. (He deeply offended them, later, with Tess and Jude.) On the screen, in this remake of Far, we get a better sense than in the novel as to why Bathsheba's romantic life works out as it does. Carrie Mulligan looks young, as befitting a heroine who is 20 when the novel opens and 23 at the end.

While it is clear that Gabriel Oak is the best man of Bathsheba's three suitors, his proposal to her, early on, after a short acquaintance, is so unromantic and direct that it is off-putting.  He is  ten years her senior, ready to settle down, and she is not. He has mapped out their future and that it will be a dull one, featuring a piano, cucumber frames and babies' birth announcements in the paper.Can we blame a twenty year old girl, who hasn't had any suitors, for wanting more?  Later, when  Mr. Boldwood proposes to her, he does it in similar terms; it is all about the material things he can offer her. He says she won't have to do farm work any more, not realizing that she likes being a hands-on manager, and that she can provide for her own material needs for herself.  Sergeant Troy is clearly a slimeball, but to a girl barely out of her teens, dazed by her sudden rise in the world, he is glamorous in his red coat. Unlike the other two, he courts her by praising her beauty. No wonder she falls for him.

In the three novels mentioned above, Hardy creates complex female characters well worth reading about even in the 21st century. Like most Victorian novelists he is verbose, and sometimes in his role as omniscient narrator, discussing the characters' thoughts, he is not enlightening, and it is better when their actions speak for them. His explanations of farm work, however, are of interest nowadays, as technology has changed and most of us live urban lives. His appreciation of folk songs and customs and his love of the natural environment are attractive qualities.

Originally, Far from the Madding Crowd was written as a magazine serial, and as a result, the chapters usually end in cliff-hangers, thus maintaining suspense and reader interest. I hope the remake of Far from the Madding Crowd will encourage people to read the book.

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