Director: John Schlesinger
Screenplay: Frederic Raphael
Based on the Novel by: Thomas Hardy
Producers: Joseph Janni
Starring: Julie Christie, Terence Stamp, Peter Finch, Alan Bates
BBFC Certification: U
Duration: 168 mins
On the face of it, Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel Far From the Madding Crowd ought to have made ideal source material for the big screen. Not only is the novel packed with incident, with no less than three romantic entanglements occupying the protagonist Bathsheba Everdene across its 400 pages, but Hardy’s style is extremely visual, conjuring up scenes of the Wessex countryside vividly in the reader’s mind. Indeed, elements of Hardy’s novel even read like a shooting script, an early chapter heading reading ‘Night – The Flock – An Interior – Another Interior’. This potential must have had great appeal to director John Schlesinger when he took on the project and his images of the rolling hills of Dorset (with cinematography by future director Nicolas Roeg) in sumptuous widescreen are one of the film’s major assets.
Unfortunately, epic scenery is not enough to hold an audience’s attention for nearly three hours and unfortunately the fully-rounded characters that Hardy was able to bring to life so completely with his words and, as omniscient narrator, his access to their inner-thoughts and emotions, are not so memorably rendered on-screen. The behaviour of the characters in Hardy’s text is always fully explained but without these explanations, crucial moments in the plot seem inexplicable or unlikely and when we fail to believe a character’s actions, we fail to believe the character. So it is that well-loved characters such as Gabriel Oak and Bathsheba Everdene are reduced to cardboard cut-outs. Undoubtedly Julie Christie is the wrong choice to portray Bathsheba and her casting was the cause of some controversy at the time of the film’s original release. But somewhat unfairly, many people laid the blame for the film’s failure entirely on Christie’s shoulders. In fact, she gives an engaging enough performance but Frederic Raphael’s screenplay retains so little of the powerfully-realised protagonist of Hardy’s work that Christie is reduced to portraying a strong-willed but girlish shadow of Bathsheba, who smiles sweetly at everyone with none of the determined solemnity that Hardy imbued her with. As such, the attraction felt towards her by the film’s three male leads seems to be reduced to nothing more than a superficial lust for her beauty, which is bang on the money for Terence Stamp’s Sgt. Troy but entirely undermines the gradually debilitating obsession of Peter Finch’s Boldwood.
Finch, in the novel and film’s most tragic role, is exceptionally strong and gives a terrifyingly melancholic portrayal of a man possessed by desire. As the young, dashing but utterly loathsome Sgt. Troy, Terence Stamp is also memorable. But Alan Bates as Gabriel Oak, the shepherd who adores Bathsheba long before any of her other suitors appear on the scene, shows us none of the agonised longing borne with dignity throughout his lifelong devotion. Instead, he appears to be portraying one of the local drinkers in the tavern at the foot of Castle Dracula, with his prominent beard and accent giving his scenes an unwanted staginess that seems determined to squash the widescreen panoramas into a proscenium arch. Oak’s presence in the novel is almost as pivotal to holding the whole thing together as the spine of the book itself. In the film, it seems almost perfunctory and necessitated only by the need for an ending.
What Far From the Madding Crowd loses in its unintentional departure from Hardy’s characters, it may well have made up for had it been more willing to deviate a little from the novel. Although many purists feel that a film adaptation should be a 100% accurate reproduction of the text on screen, often the stiffest of literary adaptations are those that stick rigidly to the texts. Far From the Madding Crowd owes its great length to a determination to include almost every event and exchange from the novel, save those extended comic scenes that provide local colour. And yet, it rushes through the early pages of the novel, in which Gabriel first encounters and falls for Bathsheba, in a matter of minutes, robbing the subsequent relationship of any gravity or believability. For those who are unfamiliar with the source text, the film may often prove to be a confusing experience.
It’s easy to see the good intentions of Schlesinger’s would-be epic and its imminent re-release in cinemas will no doubt help a new generation to appreciate it at least on a visual level. But it seems unlikely that many will be captivated by its story, which here seems like a rambling series of awkwardly linked events, and it’s a shame that it may put off some from reading Hardy’s excellent novel. Although it has maintained a decent reputation over the years, Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd is generally considered as a failure by most and perhaps it is a sign that the director himself agreed that his next film, Midnight Cowboy, was a huge stylistic shift in the opposite direction; a shift that ended up bagging him a Best Picture Oscar.
Far From the Madding Crowd is back in UK cinemas from 13th March 2015. It is released on Blu-Ray and DVD by Studiocanal on June 1st 2015