ADAPTING A NOVEL with a plot as unwieldy as that of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd (1874) for the screen requires compromise: the film must either remove a number of scenes that appear in the novel or squeeze as many scenes as possible into a watchable span of time. Thomas Vinterberg’s recent adaptation almost always opts for the latter technique, and the result is a film that is completely dutiful, very attractive, and mostly dull.
In fairness to Vinterberg, Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd is crowded with so much confounding, brilliant, baroquely intricate action that to remove a single element from a retelling risks toppling the whole story. Hardy packs a fallen woman tale, an untimely death, a mysterious disappearance, and a feminist bildungsroman into a central romance in which not two but three suitors — the shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), the farmer William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), and the soldier Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge) — compete for the hand of Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), that wonderfully vexing, eternally modern creation for whom the phrase “fiercely independent” must have been invented. Every time she twitches, the novel quakes with great drama. Agitated, perhaps, by the novel’s inexhaustible action, Henry James famously complained that “everything human in the book strikes us as factitious and insubstantial; the only things we believe in are the sheep and the dogs.”
More on the sheep and the dogs in a moment. James may have despised the rustic, exaggerated humans of Far From the Madding Crowd, but quickly after panning the book he stole its human plot for The Portrait of a Lady (1881). He deleted the sheep and dogs and clothed his humans more fashionably, but the bones of the story are the same. A bright, beautiful, ferociously independent young woman fends off marriage proposals from two appealing men who offer to raise her social and economic status; instead, after inheriting a dazzling pile of property, she accepts the hand of a vile man who requires her to support him. In both novels, the heroine’s continuous indecision (and eventual disastrous decision) makes for a compelling drama, dense with dramatic irony.
But there is a key difference between James’s novel and Hardy’s, one crucial for filmmaking, and it involves the sheep and dogs. And the hay, the rain, the grain, and the honeybees. James maintains a firm focus on human society, human interiority, human psychology — specifically the inner life of his “Lady,” Isabel Archer, whose representation is crucial enough to require the whole of the novel’s title. Hardy, though he and his characters indulge with just as much gusto in the masculine gaze, does not intend for Bathsheba to be the sole center of his novel. Rural life, in all its forms, lived many miles and accents and classes away from the “Madding Crowd” of busy London. Thus where James fills his novel with dinners and parties and teas and digestive walks, Hardy fills his with scenes of agricultural labor.
The problem for the creative filmmaker is that these scenes tend to be quite specific and require a considerable amount of explanation for those not well acquainted with Victorian farming techniques. It is easy enough to play around with the filming of a dinner party or estate ramble, as, for example, when Elizabeth Bennett catches Mr. Darcy swimming at Pembroke, a wonderful scene that does not occur in the novel Pride and Prejudice but that few Austen fans would care to see removed from the BBC’s 1995 adaptation. The novel Far From the Madding Crowd, meanwhile, already includes a scene of Gabriel Oak, by far the most interesting love interest, splashing around in the water while washing sheep. The film at least takes the liberty of allowing Bathsheba to jump in beside him and try her hand at bathing the filthy ruminants, though even this bit of naughtiness is copied from John Schlesinger’s 1967 adaptation of the novel (as is another slight divergence: in both films, “pastoral tragedy” ensues when Gabriel Oak’s ill-fated sheep plunge off an ocean cliff to die on a sinister beach; in the novel, they fall, less picturesquely perhaps, into an inland chalk pit).
Other scenes are more difficult to interpret creatively, and Vinterberg takes no special pains. For example, I have always wanted to see someone draw a parallel between two particularly famous scenes involving jabs with sharp objects. In the first, Gabriel punctures Bathsheba’s flock of bloated sheep in the rumens to release their gas and save their lives. (I do appreciate that Vinterberg’s version explains what is going on here, whereas Schlesinger’s leaves the dialogue out and prompted exclamations of bewildered alarm from my viewing partner.) In the second, Sergeant Troy whisks Bathsheba into a secluded bower and makes her swoon by demonstrating his swordplay skills. The differences between the two men’s efforts are obvious — one is work, the other play; one is lifesaving, the other life-threatening — but surely there must be a visual way to suggest that both scenes, not just the latter, serve as elaborate mating rituals. Vinterberg films both scenes prettily but suggests no connection: Oak’s scene is sexless, all quiet labor and windy meadow; Troy’s is swelling music, sweating brows, and sharp breaths.
This is what happens when you feel the need to include every famous scene but neglect to consider the perspective from which we might view those scenes. Insofar as this film takes a specific perspective, it settles on Bathsheba’s. Thus she watches Oak save her sheep and thinks him functionally indispensible but personally boring, like a toothbrush or a spoon, whereas Troy swishing his big sword is quite useless but aesthetically desirable, like a four-inch stiletto or a lawn flamingo.
But we shouldn’t be seeing everything from Bathsheba’s perspective. Hardy was writing about a rural society that was larger than his larger-than-life heroine. His novel opens with a description of Gabriel Oak; Vinterberg’s film opens with a shot of Bathsheba. At least Carey Mulligan plays her beautifully. At first I doubted that Mulligan — with her cherubic cheeks, droopy eyes, and crooked smile — could effectively play Bathsheba, whose stern beauty, Hardy writes, belongs “rather to the demonian than to the angelic school.” Yet Mulligan admirably sharpens her own soft brand of beauty to suit the role, setting her jaw firmly when angry or distressed and flashing her big brown eyes at suitor and employee alike with all possible imperiousness. She moves perfectly, too. Every turn of the head or descent from a horse is quick, graceful, and impetuous, representing admirably Bathsheba’s propensity to throw all of her energy into every action, however large or tiny. Her performance adds one wonderfully light note into an otherwise stodgy production.
Unfortunately her vivaciousness overshadows the performances of her three costars, all playing oversized personalities in their own ways — Troy with his awfulness, Oak with his goodness, Boldwood with his madness. A crucial scene at Boldwood’s Christmas party is rendered meaningless because the camera lingers so insistently on Mulligan’s face that the viewer cannot access Boldwood’s perspective, which matters more than anything else as he steels himself to secure a promise of marriage from Bathsheba and instead meets disaster. This one poor choice neuters the story’s violent climax.
More than a properly impassioned Boldwood, though, I miss a solid Oak. Gabriel is more a man of action than of words, more a man to get things done than to do them in a unique way, so I imagine he must be a particularly difficult character to render interesting on screen. Still, Schoenaerts, who is obviously too good-looking for the part of a man whose features, in Hardy, “adhered throughout their form […] exactly to the middle line between the beauty of St. John and the ugliness of Judas Iscariot,” does almost nothing to distinguish him on screen. He might at least brood less and smile more. The miracle of Gabriel Oak, as Bathsheba realizes too late, is that
among the multitude of interests by which he was surrounded, those which affected his personal well-being were not the most absorbing and important in his eyes. Oak meditatively looked upon the horizon of circumstances without any special regard to his own standpoint in the midst.
It would be wonderful to see, on film, a representation of a rare character like this — essentially a representation of selflessness without pretensions toward martyrdom or glorification. Period and medium combine to make such a character nearly impossible to depict on screen. We as a culture like our protagonists to stay at the center of things, and films in particular must emphasize a given character’s centrality by lavishing screen time on him or her. Still, one day, I would like to see an adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd in which a Gabriel Oak could play his critical role in an imagined world and be celebrated for it, but not at the expense of everything else in that world — human, sheep, dog, and otherwise.