I first became interested in Hardy when I had to study Far from the Madding Crowd for O-level back in the 1970s. It’s a book I’ve reread many times over the years since then (and studied for other exams), and I still love it . His world view here is sunnier than in late masterpieces like Tess of the d’Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure, but starting to darken, and the title, quoted from Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard, is definitely ironic. The madding crowd is never very far away from woman farmer Bathsheba Everdene and the three men who court her.
Although the 1967 John Schlesinger movie starring Julie Christie, Terence Stamp and Alan Bates is the most famous adaptation of this novel (I have now reviewed that version too), I think the 1998 ITV mini-series is also a fine production, and it sticks much more closely to the book. It was directed by Nicholas Renton, who also made the excellent BBC mini-series of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters a year later, and, like that production, has a rich, multi-layered feeling to it, with achingly beautiful landscapes and at times an underlying flavour of melancholy. It’s interesting to see how similar the sleeve of the British DVD of this production is to the sleeve of the Schlesinger version!
For me, Paloma Baeza is perfect as Bathsheba, looking exactly as I’d imagined the character, and giving her just the right blend of confidence and determination with an underlying vulnerability. She makes Bathsheba grow from the lighthearted girl at the start to, by the end, a woman who has suffered and knows life – and who knows what she wants.
Baeza’s portrayal of Hardy’s heroine dominates this production, but the other leads are all well-cast too. Jonathan Firth, younger brother of Colin, plays Sergeant Troy with a dashing, toothy caddishness. I was quite surprised to see that he gives the character a West Country accent – I don’t remember if Terence Stamp has a Dorset accent in the 1967 version, but I don’t think so. However, to me the accent seems right, bringing out the fact that, although Troy might be the son of a nobleman, he is also the son of a servant, and illegitimate. “I’m a bastard”, he tells Bathsheba in a bedroom scene, showing her the gold watch which is all he ever had from his father - one of the moments where his character is made more understandable, without his behaviour being any less appalling. I think it’s one of the strengths of this novel that Troy has far more depth as a character than a later villain like Alec in Tess, and Firth brings out the varying shades of his nature.
After seeing Nathaniel Parker play Rawdon Crawley in the BBC production of Vanity Fair – made the same year as this Hardy adaptation – and the aristocratic hero of the Inspector Lynley Mysteries, at first I was slightly surprised to see him as Gabriel Oak. But his West Country accent seems fine to me (adding that I’m from the East of England so not the best person to judge!) and, like Baeza as Bathsheba, he makes the character grow and deepen through the film.
One thing I’ve always liked about the book is that, interwoven with Troy’s flashy courtship of Bathsheba on the surface, Hardy has also included scenes which show Oak’s deeper love for her unfolding in a less showy style. The famous courtship set-piece scenes are the one where Troy helps Bathsheba to move a swarm of bees and the one where he shows her the sword trick, both beautifully done in this production. Set against them are the darker scenes where Oak struggles to save Bathsheba’s ricks and she tries to help him as a rainstorm approaches – and the one where he saves her sheep after the fight between them. Troy’s scenes might glitter more, but Oak’s scenes are the real moments of farming drama. Gabriel, the good angel, repeatedly “saves” Bathsheba, but her own love of farming and dedication to the life, something she shares with him but not with Troy, also come across.
Parker and Baeza play these scenes out perfectly and Parker gives a feeling of simmering passion he constantly has to restrain, which is especially poignant in the scenes where Oak has to sympathise with Farmer Boldwood about his loss of Bathsheba – without giving any sign that he loves her too. Nigel Terry looks rather older than I’d imagined as Boldwood, who I think is around 40 in the book, but I imagine this casting choice was probably made to make him clearly older and more staid than Parker as Oak. At times I feel as if his character is slightly elbowed out, with a greater focus on Oak and Troy, but then, perhaps that also happens in the book a bit .
Natasha Little, who played Becky Sharp in the BBC Vanity Fair, looks almost unrecognisable as the frail but determined Fanny Robin. Fanny’s story is slightly expanded in this version from her character in the novel, with a bedroom scene between her and Troy and a couple of scenes showing her hard life after they separate, as she works on a farm in the winter trying to conceal her pregnancy. These scenes seem to be borrowed from Tess, but I think they work well here in underlining that, despite all the beautiful scenery, Hardy’s countryside is always a tough place to survive.
The running time of this mini-series, with four 54-minute episodes (all run together as a single movie on the promotional DVD I have) means that far more of the events of the novel can be included than in the Schlesinger movie. Obviously not everything is there, but I didn’t notice any major incidents which were missing. I was also impressed by how much of Hardy’s dialogue has been kept in the screenplay by Philomena McDonagh, with whole conversations very much as I remember them from the novel.
Most of the material which has been added to the novel seems to have the effect of making the story a little earthier – for instance, Troy’s sex scenes with both women, which are not graphic but do bring out his seductive abilities, and some sexy moments with minor characters from the village. The villagers’ chats in the pub might also be a little earthier at times than in the novel.
Watching this series again, I was struck by just how good it is – and wondered if it might be better-known if it had been shown on the BBC rather than ITV.