Here’s the paradox of books to movies. The more you know about the book, the more critical you’ll be when watching the movie, and the less likely you’ll enjoy it. Here’s a case in point. If you want to enjoy this current version of Far From the Madding Crowd without hindrance, do not read or reread Hardy’s novel before you see it. For me, alas, I’ve read it twice in the last few months. So, who can I blame if I find the movie disappointing?
Now, I know exactly that I need to judge a movie on its own merits and not according to how ‘faithful’ it is to the source. I’ve written a post on this view. This current adaptation misses the mark not because it’s not ‘faithful’ but because it has been mishandled. The script, the direction, and for that matter, the casting. Now hear me out. I had high expectations for it. Here we have an Oscar nominated director, Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt, 2012), offering a new version from John Schlesinger’s 1967 production which touted a high calibre cast of Julie Christie, Peter Finch, Alan Bates and Terrance Stamp. After almost fifty years, should one not hold a certain high level of excitement in welcoming a new version with a modern cast?
To start off, I must give credit where it’s due and that’s to the director of photography Charlotte Bruus Christensen (The Hunt) for bringing the beautiful Dorset country to the big screen so we can visualize Hardy’s ‘Wessex’. The camera captures the lush green fields and gentle rolling hills at dawn and dusk, the farming life, the harvesting under the golden sun. Reminds me of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. The scenic and authentic location of the filming is an alluring backdrop to the story.
Now to the screenplay. David Nicholls is no stranger to simplified versions of classics. His last Hardy light Tess of the D’Urbervilles, a TV mini-series (2008), had four episodes to tell the story. But here as a full-length feature, this new Madding Crowd script could make CliffsNotes writers feel they are doing some heavy lifting. Actually, the movie is not far from the source material, almost all of the scenes and many of the dialogues come from the book, with some alterations, but this is understandable. One would think alterations should be for the purpose of dramatization; so it’s just mind boggling that certain scenes that are essentially dramatic in the novel have been left out, ones that could have enhanced the tension substantially. Two readily come to mind: First is the circus scene where Sergeant Troy was nearly recognized by Bathsheba, and the second is right at the climax of the story, Boldwood’s Christmas party, not omitted but with its tension substantially lessened.
Danish director Vinterberg’s previous work The Hunt – a 2014 Oscar Best Foreign Language Film nominee – was a riveting and psychological piece of work. He could have operated in that mode here. With the scenes sweeping by, and leaving out some pivotal cinematic moments, he has missed chances to engage the audience. The altered state of the climatic scene is regretful. Take that crucial act when Boldwood was driven by mad passion (I’m trying to avoid spoiler here in case you haven’t read the book) during that fateful Christmas party in his home. Instead of displaying the conflict and tension in full public view, Vinterberg has taken the action out into the dark of night. Without all the guests as witnesses, the gravity of the conflict and Boldwood’s ultimate action is effectually diminished; not only that, the handling is incredulously haphazard and swift. While Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd exudes a lighter mood compared to the cosmically burdened Tess of the U’Derbervilles – and I chuckled at many of his lines while reading – I don’t expect movie viewers would take this film as a comedy. But this was exactly the audience’s reaction in the theatre. When you hear loud laughter at the climax of the movie, you know the director has missed the mark.
The story is about the characters, more so here when you have one headstrong female being wooed by three vastly different men. What’s intriguing is the emotional ‘trilemma’ of our heroine. The effervescent Bathsheba Everdene, the independent, new mistress of the Weatherbury farm is, alas, misdirected. Carey Mulligan can be a convincing Bathsheba, but the strength of character is diminished by the breezy script and a director who fails to draw out her potential. From the “I shall astonish you all” first meeting with her farmhands to the “Please don’t desert me, Gabriel!” plea to Oak so he would come back to rescue her ailing flock, there are pages of Hardy descriptions. Surely, time is of the essence in a 120-minute movie, but at least show visually the gravity of her situation before she so readily rides horseback and race to Gabriel. As a transition, let the camera frame a wide angle shot of the field littered with sheep lying helpless, ready to expire, for she’s about to lose them all. But just showing a sheep in distress doesn’t warrant the quick change in character, from leading to pleading. It looks like Vinterberg has crafted a feeble and even exploitive Bathsheba who gets her way by her outward charm. In several scenes she could have been more intense; we see no Hardy’s expression of ‘nether lip quivered.’
Among the three suiters, the strongest performance comes from Michael Sheen as William Boldwood. His nuanced facial expressions speak louder than words. Whether intentioned by Vinterberg or not, Sheen has turned the truly, madly, deeply love-sick Boldwood into a comic character, more so than Hardy’s portrayal. Or, were the laughters not intended? No matter, Sheen’s performance compensates for the lack of in the other two men.
Gabriel Oak the resourceful shepherd is the strong and silent type. Not only is he a man of few words, the Belgium actor Matthias Schoenaerts has turned him into a man of few expressions as well. Schoenaerts is fine in action thrillers like The Drop (2014) but just not in a romantic lead, as in Rust and Bone (2012), and now Madding Crowd, for he fails to command the image of either a lead or a romantic. In several scenes, we as audience are left hanging, ungratified, for his lack of verbal response to Bathsheba’s sincere words.
If Schoenaerts is expressionless, here is an equal rival, Tom Sturridge as Sergeant Troy. The George Wickham parallel who dazzles with his brass and scarlet, Sergeant Troy is a subdued character here who lures with his sword. Is it the director or the screenwriter, the few lines given him are mostly sparse and one-liners like “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a face as beautiful as yours.” Sure, that’s from Hardy, but in richer descriptive context. Or, another short line to explain (away) pages of happenings absent on screen.
I’m writing this not in disrespect but disappointment in that a good chance to do justice to Hardy’s illuminating work is missed. Yet, all is not lost; there still remains a synopsis of a Hardy story and Hardy country in full cinematic view. Further, we are confirmed, again, that Carey Mulligan can sing, in a particular folksy, soulful way. So far, I’ve heard her sing in three movies, and each time it enriches the storytelling. When Awards Season comes this fall, I look forward to a stronger performance from her in Suffragette. Simply by virtue of the release date, it is an award hopeful. Some are already predicting Oscar nods for her role in that production.
As for Madding Crowd, let’s just note that it’s a May-released movie.
~ ~ 1/2 Ripples
Other related review posts:
Tess of the d’Urbervilles (2008, TV)
Can a Movie Adaptation Ever be As Good As the Book?
26 thoughts on “Far From the Madding Crowd (2015)”
Well, at least you have stirred me to give the book another try. I’m not a Hardy fan but reading your reflections on the director’s and script writer’s misses nudges me to give the film a miss as well.
Yes, do give the book a try. It has some wonderful lines and descriptions, and at times, very funny. However, I think you can still check out the movie first especially when you don’t have a clear mental picture all set in.
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This book was on my senior in high school English class list of books we had to read. That was forty some years ago. I remember being very moved by the book but I’m not sure why. Thanks for the heads up about maybe it being a good idea not to re-read the book before seeing this adaptation of the book.
Yes, for this one, I’d say movie first then reread book. You’d enjoy the cinematography and I’m sure some other aspects of it. Be sure to reread the book though. It’s a good read.
Ooh, very disappointing. This is the only Hardy book I really like. And if they can’t get Oak right, it’s ruined for me!
Having seen your brilliant post of Ciarán Hinds and WInnie the Pooh match-ups, now I must check out The Mayor of Casterbridge!
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It’s excellent–you’ll love the performances of both men! And thanks very much.
Very interesting Arti – I disagree (though have never read the book). I thought Mulligan and Schoeanarts were wonderful and perfect (as written for the screen at least) and Vinterberg did a splendid job.
I welcome your counter-opinion. You know I’m a Carey Mulligan supporter, have always enjoyed her works, except here I feel her talents and potentials not fully explored… Glad you had a much more positive experience watching it. I do look forward to Suffragette. Should I be holding high expectations again? 😉
How unfortunate the movie doesn’t live up to expectations. I was looking forward to seeing it but now I will very likely skip it altogether. Great review though. I found your argument well-reasoned and thoughtful 🙂
Mind you, the movie doesn’t get too bad a rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I’m writing as I saw it, and in a way, reading the book first has the advantage: seeing it from both sides now. 😉
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I haven’t read the book since high school and can’t remember all but the basic plot outline — and even most of that is muddled, so I don’t think that would be a factor for me. But I know this must have been very disappointing for you, as I know you had high expectations for it, and rightfully so. It’s still on my list but I think it slipped a bit further down!
After you’ve seen the movie (see if you agree with me about Oak and Troy), do read the book. It is very entertaining, humorous, has some great descriptions, quotable quotes (unlike uttered by actors as a summarized version of scenes), and in-depth character depictions. You’ll love reading it.
Well, I’m only 25% done with the book and was wondering if I should try to finish before seeing the movie. Now, I guess I’ll go ahead and see it over the weekend regardless. Thanks for the advice 🙂
Good strategy, JoAnn! 🙂
I saw Carey Mulligan in Skylight and she just *was* that young idealistic teacher, for all that character’s faults and irritations. She could have made such an interesting Bathsheba. What a shame!
O Denise, how I envy you! That would be my dream to watch (in real life that is) Skylight. I’ve recently discovered National Theatre Live, but too late. They’ve already screened Skylight (cameras in the theatre shooting the play live). I hope they will rerun it as an Encore. I’ll write up a post on that soon. Carey Mulligan is as you know one of my favourite screen actors. She is soft and sweet, her dimpled smiles just grab your heart. So, to be Bathsheba, she needs some tactful and inspiring direction. Sure, Bathsheba is beautiful, but also temperamental and yes, vain too. That’s why she is totally swept up by Sergeant Troy’s sweet words and outward charm. I’m sure you’ll watch out for Suffragette coming out later this fall in time for the Awards Season. How I wish I could be nearer to all the happenings as you are.
I was so excited when I saw a bus advertising “Far From the Madding Crowd” a while back – I had no idea it was being made into a movie. I enjoyed reading the novel a few years ago and had been looking forward to the movie, but I think I’ll revisit the book instead. If they can’t get the main characters correct then what…sigh…
Welcome to the pond! Sorry it took me so long to ‘approve’ your comment. It was pushed back by all the newer ones that I’d forgotten about it. I appreciate very much your visiting Ripple Effects. As far as the movie goes, it is shot beautifully, albeit I find the characters are more important than the cinematography. I always like to see what others think. Maybe you’d still go see it … you might arrive at a different conclusion than I did. 😉
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I’ve just finished re-reading the novel and it was even more enjoyable the second time around. Maybe I’ll go and see the movie for the cinematography knowing that some ‘details’ are going to be missed…
Excellent comparison between the film and the book.
I agree with most of your points.
I think the actors were well chosen but the direction a little weak. At least physically, they look the part. (I’ve never recovered from Isabelle Huppert cast as Emma Bovary) It’s very disturbing when the actors do not match the idea you had of the characters.
It made me think of Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley. Lots of beautiful outdoor scenes but a missed opportunity.
That said, nobody laughed in the theatre during this film.
PS: I loved the book. I love Hardy’s sense of humour.
Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. Yes, I agree with you about Keira Knightley as Lizzy Bennet being a ‘missed opportunity’. For some reasons, I still think the 1995 BBC series with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth my favourite P & P adaptation. As for Hardy, yes, I like the book very much and enjoyed his humour. There are so many LOL moments as I read it (much lighter and more upbeat than Tess).
Thanks for following and I’m sure we’ll have more opportunities to ‘compare notes’ in the future. I write movie reviews, and in particular, adaptations from books. Hope to hear from you again. BTW, I’m not a native English speaker either. 😉
You know so very much about film, and literature, that your reviews always thrill me. I had not read the book, but I still uphold your premise: do not expect one to be like the other. I was not disappointed by certain key elements being left out, as you carefully explained, becuase I didn’t even know them to be missing. Had I read the book first, I’m sure I would have been disappointed. The scenery did thrill me; what ruined the movie for me was that when I saw it last week, right in the middle I discovered my tooth implant had failed for the second time (the pain became unbearable). Nothing to do with the poor film, David Nicholls, or Thomas Hardy. Just stupid Bellezza. xo
So sorry for replying you so late. Or even ‘approving’ your comment. I’ve been away in Toronto for my son’s wedding and have neglected blogging for the longest while. Now I’m back and hopefully I can catch up with the Paris in July event, before July comes to an end, which is very soon. As for FFTMC, I’ll just say, there are lots that the director can do…. bringing out the characters and giving them more power is one of them. Here, the whole production seems lacking strength and backbone, exuding minimal impact, only those from the soft light of the sunset scenes. Mind you, as I said in the post, I do look forward to Carey Mulligan’s Suffragette later this year. From the trailer, she is in fine form. If only she is directed likewise in her portrayal of Bathsheba.
I have seen it now Arti, and have read your review. I didn’t read it before I went. I enjoyed WATCHING the movie because it was beautiful but I came out feeling that it had somehow missed. My husband’s reaction was that it lacked power. It’s over 20 years since I read the book, and since I saw the last movie, so I really didn’t remember the details but I was expecting more tension for Carey – in terms of her relationship with the three men, and her inner conflict regarding independence. My sense is that the main problem is the script, but you’ve convinced me regarding directorial choices too.
I thought the best actor was Sheen. As you say, his facial expressions were marvellous, particularly in that scene when he talks to Oak after Bathsheba (well, I won’t spoil it but you know the scene). Schoenaerts grew on me – but he was very oak-like!
No-one laughed in our audience …
So sorry for the late reply. I was away for a while in Toronto for my son’s wedding. And when I came back last week, it was another family wedding, this time my niece. Yes, double celebrations back to back. Haven’t touched anything on my blog as you can see. But just scanned through my WordPress notifications and found I haven’t replied you all these weeks!
FFTMC – Yes, don’t you think it’s a bit of a waste with the talents of Sheen and Mulligan? Have you seen this director Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt? It’s a sensitive and deeply psychological film about a kindergarten teacher wrongly accused of molesting a child. Here in FFTMC, maybe the story has too big a span, in characterization and in plot. Carey Mulligan has a sweet, ethereal look, therefore needs some good directing to turn her into a feisty and independent Bathsheba. As for Schoenaerts, he needs to be drawn out more as Oak. Have you seen Suite Francaise? he plays the German officer opposite Michelle Williams. Now that’s another film that could be made better. But then again, with Kristin Scott Thomas, it’s still a watchable one.