Hardy and the Pastoral, Schlesinger and Shepherds: Far from the Madding Crowd

By Welsh, James M | Literature/Film Quarterly, April 1, 1981 | Go to article overview

Hardy and the Pastoral, Schlesinger and Shepherds: Far from the Madding Crowd


Welsh, James M, Literature/Film Quarterly


FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD (MGM, 1967). Vic Films Production. Directed by John Schlesinger. Produced by Joseph Janni. Screenplay: Frederic Raphael. Director of Photography: Nicolas Roeg. Editor: Malcolm Cooke. Production Design: Richard MacDonald. Art Director: Roy Smith. Music composed by Richard Rodney Bennett. CAST: Julie Christie (Bathsheba Everdene), Terrence Stamp (Frank Troy), Alan Bates (Gabriel Oak), Peter Finch (Boldwood), Prunella Ransome, Fiona Walker, John Barrett, Owen Berry, Lawrence Carter, Denise Coffey, Paul Dawkins, Vincent Harding, Harriet Harper, Marie Hopps, Freddie Jones, Margaret Lacey, Alison Leggatt, Pauline Melville, Andrew Robertson, Brian Rawlinson, Julian Somers. U.S. 16mm. Distributor: Films, Inc.

The director adapting a novel for a mass audience works from one of two possible assumptions: 1) that the viewer probably will not know the original work and therefore needs to be guided carefully through the narrative, or 2) that the viewer probably has read the original work and that key motifs and mutually understood distinctions and nuances of character can therefore be telegraphed to the audience without a great deal of preparation and cinematic development. Perhaps the adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd scripted by Frederic Raphael and directed by John Schlesinger in 1967 succeeds when evaluated by the second assumption, but only to a point, for the novel, which is not, I suspect, widely read these days, is greatly compressed and much diluted.

Far from the Madding Crowd may also achieve a degree of popular success under the first assumption because Julie Christie appears to be visually and temperamentally perfect for the role of Bathsheba Everdene, even though much of the contradictory ambiguity of Hardy's character is lost. The character is broadly defined by her pride and vanity, and this Schlesinger seeks to convey by visual means. After her night encounter and entanglement with Sergeant Troy in "the fir plantation," for example, when the soldier flatters her by remarking on her beauty, Schlesinger cuts immediately to Bathsheba back at home studying the perfection of her face in a mirror. As the shot is held on that mirror image, it suggests vanity as well as girlish infatuation. Miss Christie's acting, moreover, captures the essence of her character's flirtatiousness and recklessness and suggests something of her impetuousness.

No doubt the film succeeds in capturing Bathsheba's superficial beauty and reckless manner. But the novelist is at pains to show that Bathsheba is more than merely a bold coquette; Hardy gives her a complexity of mind that in its own way is equally as interesting as her vivaciousness. The viewer who has read the novel may bring this understanding with him to the film. The viewer who has not read the novel can only be charmed by the considerable charisma of the actress and will be responding as much to personality as to character-to star acting, in other words.

The other single most interesting character in the novel is Gabriel Oak, and though Alan Bates has the authentic look of Hardy's devoted shepherd and protagonist, the Schlesinger treatment whittles Oak down in stature and makes of him a rather wooden piece of background furniture. At the end of the novel, Oak finally wins Bathsheba because of his apparent stoic disinterest in her, for his experience with and observation of her proves that the man who is direct and frank in confessing his romantic interest in her, such a man as Boldwood, who wears his heart on his sleeve, cannot succeed in winning her. Hardy's Oak will therefore admit to his love as well as his obvious enduring devotion only on his own terms, and after his own earlier rejection, he waits wisely for her to come to him. That he apparently shuns her is exactly what finally renews her interest in him. Being unable to reflect this understanding, Alan Bates is not so interesting. He is merely there.

Likewise, Terrence Stamp makes a visually appropriate Sergeant Troy, all dash and brass, but the change in Troy after his marriage in the film is not convincingly motivated, nor is the disintegration of their marriage readily explained. …

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