Far from the Madding Crowd – does the film live up to Hardy's novel?

Far from the Madding Crowd might be Hardy’s sunniest novel, but it is also subversive and unsettling. Thomas Vinterberg’s new film adaptation creates a Bathsheba for the modern audience, but does it capture the book’s strangeness and erotic energy?

Far from the Madding Crowd has been called the “warmest and sunniest” of Thomas Hardy’s novels. In contrast to the inexorable tragedy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles or the nihilistic horror of Jude the Obscure, it indeed has a conventional happy ending. The narrative follows the fortunes of the spirited “woman-farmer” Bathsheba Everdene and her three suitors: the sturdy, steady shepherd Gabriel Oak; Sergeant Troy, a dangerous Don Juan in uniform; and the repressed gentleman farmer William Boldwood. Gabriel is ultimately rewarded for his constancy, and the book ends with his wedding to Bathsheba.

However, the plot also contains elements which are far from warm or sunny: murder, insanity, a macabre coffin-opening scene featuring the corpses of a mother and her baby, life-threatening elemental eruptions of fire and thunderstorm, numerous violent animal deaths, and sexual symbolism so brazen that it can only have been intended to cock a snook at Victorian prudery.

How to square the novel’s contradictory impulses was a puzzle to its first readers, and remains so, newly thrown into relief by the release of Thomas Vinterberg’s film version, starring Carey Mulligan. Although Far from the Madding Crowd was Hardy’s first resounding literary success, reviewers could not agree on how to read it. When it originally came out, anonymously in serial form in the Cornhill Magazine in 1874, one critic thought he could detect the hand of George Eliot, who was already known for her realist treatments of rural life in works such as Silas Marner and Adam Bede. Yet the Westminster Review concluded that, on the contrary, it had more affinity with the “sensation” school of fiction as practised by Mary Braddon, the bestselling author of Aurora Floyd and Lady Audley’s Secret, who specialised in convention-busting female characters, in melodramatic twists and in subverting bourgeois complacency. The comparison was meant to be unflattering, as the sensation school – despite its sophistication in the hands of writers such as Braddon and Wilkie Collins – was felt by the Victorian literary establishment to lack both moral and aesthetic legitimacy.

Despite its happy ending, Far From the Madding Crowd is an unsettling, unstable book. Its very title – a quotation from Gray’s “Elegy written in a Country Churchyard” – is an ironic literary joke. Gray idealises the “noiseless” and “sequestered” calm of country life, where “sober wishes never learned to stray”; Hardy disrupts the idyll, and not just by introducing the sound and fury of an extreme plot into the pastoral world. Like Braddon and Collins, he was out to subvert his readers’ complacency.

Trailer for Far from the Madding Crowd

Born in 1840 in a tiny Dorset hamlet, Hardy’s own origins were as obscure as those of his fictional Jude. The son of a builder and a former domestic servant, born shortly after their shotgun wedding, he was fortunate in having a determined, ambitious and unusually well-read mother who prioritised his education. Although university was out of the question, he found work in an architect’s office, and, after moving to London, began to write in his spare time. His first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady (now lost), was rejected by publishers because it exposed too readily – and too radically – the author’s own class insecurities and resentments in its treatment of a star-crossed love affair between a young architect from a working-class background and a girl of higher status. Its angry depiction of the upper classes was thought too likely to stir political “mischief”. In response, Hardy turned to the “pastoral” as what he called “the safest venture”.

Hardy’s unique literary calling-card was his intimate, first-hand knowledge of the countryside where he grew up. He was so excited at times while writing Far From the Madding Crowd at his parents’ cottage that, while out walking, he had to grab a leaf or a stone on which to scribble phrases. But his was no untutored natural genius welling forth. Far from the Madding Crowd astonishes with its craft. It also shows Hardy surreptitiously redirecting his seditious instincts into experimentation with literary technique. The peasants in the story are generally presented as happy with their lot; it is the novel form in Hardy’s hands that resists the order of things.

Socially, Hardy was a man on the margins. Aesthetically, he also disrupted genre boundaries. Unlike Gray’s sober peasant who never learned to stray, he created a hybrid voice, which moved between pastoral, social realism, melodrama, gothic and sensation. It is as if Hardy wants to keep his readers in suspense not just as to which of her three suitors Bathsheba will choose, but as to which literary mode he is writing in. It is an index of his genius that he does so without sacrificing readability.

John Schlesinger’s classic 1967 film version (with Julie Christie as Bathsheba, Alan Bates as Oak, Terence Stamp as Troy and Peter Finch as Boldwood) takes risks by embracing the original’s atmosphere of extremes. Vinterberg’s film, in contrast, which has a screenplay by David Nicholls, is a realist, “George Eliot”-version of Hardy that pushes the more mannered elements of the story to the margins, almost as if in embarrassment. In doing so, it “normalises” what is in reality a deeply unsettling book, and, despite some good performances, neutralises much of its power.

In the novel, for example, the unrequited lover Boldwood becomes a fetishistic obsessive, secretly stockpiling women’s clothes labelled with Bathsheba’s name, driven to madness – and ultimately murder – not just by frustration but by his cruel and calculated sexual humiliation at Troy’s hands. Finch in the earlier film renders him as twitchily psychotic by the end. Michael Sheen in the new version turns in a beautifully underplayed performance, but the result is a character who would not seem out of place in a novel by Mrs Gaskell, and whose final murderous act seems out of character and perfunctory.

Carey Mulligan and Tom Sturridge in Far from the Madding Crowd.
Bathsheba with Troy, played by Tom Sturridge, in Far from the Madding Crowd. Photograph: Allstar Collection/Fox Photograph: Allstar/FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

Significantly, one of the scenes from the novel omitted by Vinterberg is the extraordinary one in which Sergeant Troy – who has married Bathsheba but disappeared, presumed drowned – re-appears having joined a low-life travelling theatre-cum-circus troupe. At the local country fair, Bathsheba joins the audience in the tent and watches him in the role of Dick Turpin, unaware of his true identity. In its theatricality – and implicit commentary on the novel as an entertainment – the scene could have come directly from sensation fiction, where masquerade is a frequent theme (as in Collins’s No Name, in which the strong, amoral heroine Magdalen uses her talents at stage-acting to pursue her goals). In Schlesinger’s hands, the events teeter as boldly on the edge of surreal absurdity as they do in Hardy’s original (which is probably why Vinterberg avoids them as an affront to his more naturalistic sensibility).

Schlesinger’s greater willingness to engage with Hardy’s sensational side means that, even when he departs from the novel, he gets closer to its spirit. The famous scene in which Troy dazzles Bathsheba with his phallic swordplay takes place on a barren hillside, not in the sexually symbolic “hollow amid the ferns” where, in the book, she waits “trembling and panting” for him to “produce his sword” like a “living thing” so that he can “thrust” at her. Vinterberg, in contrast, faithfully films the scene in a fern hollow, but it is reduced to just that, a fern hollow. His Troy, Tom Sturridge, has none of the dangerous sociopathic erotic energy harnessed by Stamp’s stagey yet dangerously disinhibited performance.

Like much sensation fiction, Hardy’s novel deals in gender ambiguity and in role play, with its powerful heroine who rides astride like a man. Yet the original Bathsheba is also masochistically accepting of her female fate, determined to “stand [her] ground and be cut to pieces” rather than leave Troy when her marriage to him becomes torture. Hardy’s heroine is a paradoxical character, designed to provoke, tease and confuse the reader just as she does her suitors. The new film, in contrast, presents a Bathsheba who is “hygienic” for modern audiences: an empathetic, egalitarian modern feminist, self-empowered but not motivated by power.

Is Far From the Madding Crowd really warm and sunny? The happy ending may seem to fulfil the will of some benign natural Providence, in contrast to the cruel fatalism found in Hardy’s later works. But there are hints that he is already moving in that direction. In one of the dialogues between two farm workers, the question of fate comes up. When the gloomier man complains “Your lot is your lot and Scripture’s nothing: for if you do good you don’t get rewarded,” his more optimistic fellow rejoins: “No, no; I don’t agree … God’s a perfect gentleman in that respect.” For the author of The Poor Man and the Lady the idea of God as a gentleman can only be a bitter joke. The Hardy of Jude the Obscure is already there in embryo.

  • Far From the Madding Crowd goes on general release on 1 May.


Lucasta Miller

The GuardianTramp

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