A ‘Madding’ disappointment

As an English major with a passion for British literature, I spent many an afternoon during my college years absorbing the novels of Thomas Hardy. From Tess of the D’Urbervilles to Jude the Obscure, Hardy brings a keen sensitivity to the emotional landscape of women trying to find their roles in a world dominated by men.

My favorite Hardy novel, Far From the Madding Crowd, introduces a compelling character named Bathsheba Everdene. At a time when most women pursue marriage, this lady dares to want more. Written when Hardy was just 34, the novel brims with insight about how people react when a woman tries to stand up for herself. While Hardy’s heroine can be a bold thinker she hesitates when trying to choose among the three men who pursue her affection.

As  compelling as Bathsheba can be on the page, she is a challenge to portray on screen. In 1967 — fresh from winning an Oscar for Darling and scoring a success in Doctor Zhivago — the lovely Julie Christie struggled to define the character in John Schlesinger’s overdone adaptation. The star and her director could not find a way to explain Bathsheba’s choices despite a running time of almost three hours.

For this new film version, trimmed to two hours, director Thomas Vintenberg returns to the core of Hardy’s novel to look beyond the superficialities of Bathsheba’s entanglements. Rather than simply give the character lovely gowns to wear, Vintenberg shows her working the farm as she debates her liaisons. And, although she is too smart for her times, the director reveals how she pushes her views with any man who insists she can be influenced. While the lady’s sense of purpose may inspire selfish choices, she doesn’t demand empathy. As written for the screen, this Bathsheba can easily intimidate.

While Julie Christie could have brought a mysterious indifference to this take on the role, Carey Mulligan is too likable. This actress who can be bland (The Great Gatsby) or fascinating (Shame) portrays Bathsheba as a girl next door who masters the art of saying “no” until the one time she should. Rather than explore the dark side of the character, the ever-engaging Mulligan resembles a perky character out of Jane Austen rather than a somber woman from Thomas Hardy. While her performance would easily fit into Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice, Bathsheba’s selfishness gets lost in the warmth of Mulligan’s charm. While we should believe Bathsheba can manipulate with delight, the actress tries to make us trust her actions. And that’s not what Hardy had in mind.

As her suitors, Matthias Schoenaerts looks the part of the ever-patient man who is always there when Bathsheba has troubles while Michael Sheen brings appealing seriousness to the older man searching for a final opportunity for happiness. But director Vintenberg spends so much time on exposition in the film’s first half that he has to rush the second half to finish within two hours. This gives these actors less opportunity to develop their characters just as the plot heats up.

When I read Thomas Hardy in college, the professor suggested we take time to absorb the second half of the novel. Otherwise, she said, we might overlook the characters’ motives. While Thomas Vintenberg creates a visually interesting film, with an engaging leading lady, he misses the essence of what Hardy is all about.

Film Nutritional Value

Far From the Madding Crowd

* Content: Medium. The story of a driven woman who finds herself challenged by romantic entanglements demands a more authentic approach to the screen.

* Entertainment: Medium. While the film is lovely to watch, and Carey Mulligan turns on her charm, we lose the darker dimensions that author Thomas Hardy intended.

* Message: Low. There’s not much to learn from this interpretation of the story. To absorb what Hardy had in mind, read the novel.

* Relevance: Medium. Unless you are curious about the film’s literary origins, you may get restless during the film’s rather slow two hours.

* Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. The look of the film may offer a few things to talk with your older children about. But the characters may confuse.

(Far From the Madding Crowd is rated PG-13 for “some sexuality and violence.” The film runs 119 minutes.)

3 Popcorn Buckets

Behind the Screen

It’s not easy to adapt a literary classic for the screen.

While the novels we read in school offer familiar titles to movie marketing people, they bring challenges to writers and directors. The words that work on a page do not automatically translate to the visuals a movie requires. And, as the new film of Far From the Madding Crowd reminds us, it takes more to make a movie from a book than to recreate the author’s work.

Perhaps the best example of a movie adaptation of a literary classic is Emma Thompson’s view of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility from 1995. On the page, Austen is a breathtaking author who uses minimal words to create a flourishing world filled with fascinating characters. The power of her work is in what she suggests not, necessarily, what she describes. This actually gives a screenwriter little to work with beyond the frame of the story and the sketch of the people. It’s up to a savvy adapter to absorb the intent of Austen’s words while filling in the blanks the author purposely leaves.

Thompson’s screenplay – for which she won a well-deserved Oscar – is a lesson in how an author from a bygone era would likely write a movie if she had the chance. The screenwriter uses what the author suggests to create a three-dimensional world in which her fully developed characters can navigate the challenges of romance. Few of Thompson’s sequences actually come from the book; the novel is more about what these ladies think than what they do. But Thompson so perfectly understands what Austen intends – as if she channels the late author – that her creative interpretation of the sequences beautifully expands the story that Austen describes with few words. Thompson and director Ang Lee create a world we want to visit and characters we want to know. And they make a movie we want to watch over and over again.

Oscar-winning screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala accomplishes a similar feat with her adaptation of E.M. Forster’s tricky novel, Howard’s End, from 1992. This talky novel – filled with episodes about the adventures of a free-thinking pair of sisters – contains the type of precise dialogue that authors of the time loved to create. But this could make a stifling film if limited to people talking in lavish drawing rooms. Instead Jhabvala and director James Ivory open up the story to make the visual experience as integral to the movie as the words adapted from Forster’s original. And they create marvelous roles for Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter and Vanessa Redgrave. The moviemakers celebrate the magic of the novel without letting themselves get trapped in its specifics.

Sadly, the makers of Atonement in 2007 did not study what works on screen when adapting a novel to film. This modern-day classic by Ian McEwan has enough deception, romance, intrigue to fill any literary classic. But it barely survives its transfer to the movies because screenwriter Christopher Hampton fails to recognize what makes the book so good. On the page, we endure the selfishness of the characters because we believe in the integrity of the central relationship. But Hampton and director Joe Wright weaken this connection by letting actress Keira Knightly overwhelm with her mannerisms and distract with her smile. As a result, we never get to experience on film the power that McEwan creates with his words. Like the disappointment of Far From the Madding Crowd, the weakness of the adaptation makes us hope that someone else will, someday, try to film the story the right way.

Yes, it’s tricky to put a book on film. But, when it works, the results are marvelous.

And that’s what’s happening behind the screen.

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