After watching and reviewing the 1998 TV adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s great novel, I re-watched the famous 1967 John Schlesinger movie. Unfortunately, I haven’t had much time to blog lately and it is already about three weeks since I saw this version, so it’s starting to fade a little in my mind – but I just thought I’d write something about some of the main points which struck me.
I enjoyed the 1998 mini-series very much – but, after seeing the Schlesinger movie, my feeling is that it is much the more powerful adaptation, with a greater intensity. I’m sure this is partly because of the beautiful cinematography by Nicolas Roeg, who later went on to direct Christie in Don’t Look Now, and partly because a cinema film (the first Hardy adaptation to make it to the big screen in 40 years) can have more of an epic, sweeping quality to it. At nearly three hours long, the film can also move at a leisurely pace at times and doesn’t have the same problem that many cinema adaptations of classic novels suffer, in terms of packing too much into a small space.
This version also has a fine screenwriter, Frederic Raphael, and, of course, a great cast, with Julie Christie, fresh from her success in Doctor Zhivago and Darling, as woman farmer Bathsheba Everdene, and Alan Bates, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp as the three men who court her, farmers Gabriel Oak and William Boldwood and dashing soldier Francis Troy.
A few reviewers have suggested that Christie might be somewhat miscast as Bathsheba, and to be honest I slightly feel this too . Somehow she doesn’t really convince as a woman farmer, though I’m not sure exactly why that is - to me she just seems a little urban and modern in this role, though I have never felt that about Doctor Zhivago. There is also something rather 1960s-looking about her hair and heavy make-up, although, having said that, probably the stars of the more recent adaptation have just as much of a 1990s look to them and I just don’t notice it so much because those kinds of looks are still in fashion.
For me Alan Bates is probably the actor I associate most with Hardy, after a few years ago watching his unforgettable performance as Michael Henchard in the BBC series of The Mayor of Casterbridge, and I think he is excellent as Oak, giving him a solid yet brooding quality. Peter Finch is full of quiet intensity as Boldwood, while Terence Stamp is suitably flashy and conceited as Troy. I was especially struck by a scene where Stamp sings a lewd folk or music-hall song to the farm workers at the harvest-cum-wedding party in the old barn, apparently gloating over his own sexual powers - one of several scenes where folk songs are woven into the film.
Both the 1967 and 1998 adaptations are “faithful” to the novel, including most of its major events and often keeping Hardy’s dialogue – but there are some interesting departures from the text in the Schlesinger film, which are among the most striking moments. One of these comes in a scene which was originally cut from prints in the US and later restored (I don’t think it was ever cut here in the UK), where Troy is taking part in a cock-fighting scene and goads his cockerel on to its death – really bringing out the callousness of his nature and enacting what he does to Fanny.
The set-piece scene where Troy shows Bathsheba his “sword trick” is another moment where he is associated with violence. In this film he repeatedly charges down a hill towards her, and, as she stands her ground in a mixture of fear and fascination, the demonstration is intercut with footage of soldiers charging through the countryside in battle - brief glimpses which could represent Troy’s memories, Bathsheba’s imaginings, or both.
Another striking visual moment, this time associated with Boldwood, comes when he casts Bathsheba’s fatal valentine card into the fire – and the flames leaping around it suggest how the card’s arrival has set his passion burning and consuming.
There are also many other memorable scenes, from the one where Bathsheba and Troy are glimpsed arguing on a beach, with none of their words audible but Bathsheba’s tears and her pleading expression speaking for themselves, to the famous dark scene where the gargoyle spews rain on to Fanny Robin’s tomb in the churchyard.
Roger Ebert’s 1968 review of the film suggested it oversimplifies the characters and turns them “into stereotyped romantic lovers, instead of showing them as complex people trapped in an isolated society”. I don’t think it’s fair to say they are stereotyped, but I do think it’s possibly true that each character is made more straightforward than in the novel and doesn’t contain as many contradictions.
For instance, at the start of the novel, when he is trying to build his own business as a sheep farmer, Oak seems exhausted and over-stretched, and twice a disaster or a near-disaster unfolds while he is asleep – first he nearly dies in his shed when he forgets to open the air vent, and then his sheepdog gets free and chases all his sheep over the cliff. In the film the first of these incidents is completely cut and, although the cliff plunge is powerfully shown, I don’t think it carries any suggestion that it could be partly caused by Oak’s weariness. I also don’t think there’s a mention of the fact that he failed to insure his flock and so his ruin is partly a result of him taking a gamble. Instead, it all seems to be bad luck or fate that happens to him. To put it another way, in the novel he starts as a young man, immature in some ways, and goes on to mature as a result of the trials he undergoes, which turn him into a hero by the end. In the film he seems a hero from the start.
Similarly, Bathsheba doesn’t have the episodes of timidity which she has at times in the book but is more outgoing and determined all the time – for instance, it is her idea to send the valentine card to Boldwood, rather than the episode being sparked by an idle suggestion from Liddy (Fiona Walker). None of this is to criticise the film, since I think simplifying the characters slightly and focusing on the key aspects of their personalities, rather than painting them all in shades of grey, works very well in this movie. The 1998 film does give more of a multi-layered feeling to the characters, which works well too at the slightly slower pace of a mini-series.
I felt that Fanny (Prunella Ransome) is less prominent in this film than in the more recent mini-series, which managed to keep her story in the foreground by including scenes of her working on a farm during her pregnancy, similar to Tess’s sufferings in Tess of the d’Urbervilles when she has been deserted by Angel Clare. In 1967, Ransome wasn’t mentioned on the posters and I haven’t managed to find a picture of her in the character. However, although Fanny disappears from this movie for long stretches, her story still carries the same emotional impact when its melodramatic finale unfolds. In this version, instead of seeing the dying Fanny on the road, Troy spots her hiding in an outbuilding at his farm and has to keep her out of the sight of Bathsheba, watching from the well-furnished house - making the contrast between the two women all the more stark.