Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 23, 2015

Far From the Madding Crowd

Filed under: Film,literature — louisproyect @ 5:07 pm

If I were to second-guess myself, I’d say that my high regard for this year’s “Far From the Madding Crowd” was inextricably linked to my love of Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Ubervilles”. While there certainly was “value added” by director Thomas Vinterberg’s 2015 adaptation (the screenplay was written by David Nicholls, who adapted “Tess of the D’Ubervilles” for BBC), it was the underlying written work that would have perhaps salvaged an attempt by Michael Bay to make a film based on Hardy’s breakthrough novel. Of course, the source is often no guarantee of success, as the dreary version of “Macbeth” starring Michael Fassbender would indicate.

In 1979 I began a systematic study of the world’s greatest fiction in order to prepare me to write the Great American Novel. Nothing much came out of that project except some enormous reading pleasure particularly from the 19th century British novel that I had neglected during a misspent youth trying to overthrow American capitalism with the bluntest of all instruments, the SWP.

If Vinterberg’s “Far From the Madding Crowd” does nothing except to whet the appetite of the audience for a relatively neglected author, he deserves an award far greater than any Oscar. While Hardy’s novels have elements that lend themselves to cinema, as I shall point out momentarily it is his language that soars above plot and character development. Considered by some to be a better poet than novelist, there are passages in “Far From the Madding Crowd” that can rival the greatest poetry. If you go to Project Gutenberg, you can turn to practically any page and read something like this, a description of the farmhouse of Bathsheba Everdene, the novel’s lead female character: “Fluted pilasters, worked from the solid stone, decorated its front, and above the roof the chimneys were panelled or columnar, some coped gables with finials and like features still retaining traces of their Gothic extraction. Soft brown mosses, like faded velveteen, formed cushions upon the stone tiling, and tufts of the houseleek or sengreen sprouted from the eaves of the low surrounding buildings.”

Some critics find Hardy’s language overstuffed and archaic, not to speak of the archness of the names such as Bathsheba Everdene that obviously reflect Dickens’s influence, but in my view it is one of the main drawing points just as it is in Dickens. Speaking of which, Everdene is beloved by Gabriel Oak whose name suggests exactly who he is as a character—a stalwart country yeoman who is as dependable as he is prosaic.

She is also beloved by William Boldwood, an older and prosperous farmer who despite having everything going for him cannot inspire Everdene’s affection. Spurning Oak and Boldwood—a tandem united by their lumbering names and personalities—she falls for a dashing scoundrel named Sergeant Frank Troy who she first spots leading a cavalry regiment bedecked in red near her farm. It was the classic case of falling in love with the uniform rather than the man. Hardy has lots to say about the character but probably nothing more telling than this:

He had been known to observe casually that in dealing with womankind the only alternative to flattery was cursing and swearing. There was no third method. “Treat them fairly, and you are a lost man.” he would say.

In essence “Far From the Madding Crowd” is a love story in the same vein as the Bronte sisters with the heroine finally connecting with the right man all along after a many obstacles put in her way, especially her own bad decision.

It is also a study of class relations in the British countryside in the 1860s when the enclosure acts had finally succeeded in wiping out the small farmer and rendering class relations into a close approximation of what existed in the factory system. After Bathsheba Everdene inherits her uncle’s estate, she joins the rural bourgeoisie. The class differences between her and Gabriel Oak are one of the stumbling blocks in consummating a relationship that would have been the best possible outcome. Through thick and thin, Oak sticks with her as bailiff (a kind of foreman) on her farm even though he bitterly resents Frank Troy’s presence in her bedroom.

In his chapter on Thomas Hardy in “The English Novel”, Terry Eagleton reflects on the anxiety of the middle-class in this period as it is being squeezed into the rural proletariat:

England had long been a capitalist, market-oriented enterprise based largely upon landowners, tenant farmers and landless labourers. There was thus no sharp social divide between country and city, since the social relations which ‘prevailed in the latter were equally dominant in the former. There was also a rural lower middle class of dealers, craftsmen, shopkeepers, traders, artisans, schoolteachers, cottagers, small employers and the like, with whom Hardy, as an offspring of that class himself, especially identified. It was this class, not the ‘peasantry’, which he saw as preserving the cultural continuities of the countryside; and its steep social decline in his own day meant the catastrophic loss of that precious heritage. As with most of the classic English nineteenth-century novelists, then, Hardy’s allegiances lay neither with the governing classes nor with the plebeian masses. Instead, he draws many of his major protagonists from the mobile, unstable lower middle class — one trapped between aspiration and anxiety, and therefore typical of some of the central contradictions of the age. In this sense, Hardy could attend to the plight of this obscure social grouping without losing a grip on broader issues. Gabriel Oak of Far From The Madding Crowd starts off as a hired labourer before graduating to become an independent farmer and then a bailiff.

Turning now to Vinterberg’s film treatment, we should first note that he hardly seemed like the sort of director who would be drawn to such material since he was a founding member of Dogme 95, the film group that can best be described as minimalist. Given the lush cinematography of his latest film, it would seem that he has gone mainstream. If so, that is a recommendation for not allowing dogma (dogme?) to trump sound cinematic judgment.

There are some scenes in his film that are totally riveting, among them one that pitted Oak’s reliability against Troy’s wastrel ways. On the night of a celebration of the autumn harvest, Troy leads the farm hands in a drunken debauchery that leaves them all barely capable of protecting the harvest in the face of a violent storm let alone standing on their feet. Oak, who has remained sober, climbs to the top of the haystacks to lay a canvas atop them despite the howling winds. It is filmmaking of the highest order.

In an interview with Comingsoon.net, Vinterberg shows that he came to this project with exactly the right frame of mind. Asked why he chose to make a film about Victorian England when most of his films deal with contemporary ills (such as the superlative “The Hunt” that dealt with false accusations of sexual abuse of a child), he described himself as a fan—just like me:

ComingSoon.net: This is a really interesting movie for you after “The Hunt.” I feel that in general you’ve been doing very modern films about modern society so to go back in time to direct a Thomas Hardy adaptation seems like quite a leap. Can you talk about that decision to go in this direction?

Thomas Vinterberg: Well, first of all, I like to change. I hate repeating myself, and here was a considerable change, both in genre but also in gender in the sense that my latest movies had been very full of testosterone and this was an exploration of being a woman that I found incredibly modern actually, and visionary. The first thing that has to happen to me when I do a film is unexplainable thing where you sort of fall in love with something. I read this and these characters moved me, the way that Thomas Hardy plays with fate moved me. I was to some degree overwhelmed by it and humbled by it, and it couldn’t go away. And that’s where I decide to make a movie. It’s not, “Now I think this will be right for my career.” And then I felt a certain relief and lightness of doing something I hadn’t been writing. Normally, I invent the movie from the get-go, from the white paper, to the end, like the auteur genre of Europe. This was something different. It’s a collective effort. I’m not the writer. It’s as much a Thomas Hardy movie as a Thomas Vinterberg movie and I felt relief and a sense of playfulness about that.

Although it is not available in streaming, I recommend the John Schlesinger’s 1967 adaptation that starred Julie Christie as Bathsheba Everdeen, Alan Bates as Gabriel Oak and Terrence Stamp as Frank Troy. I bought the DVD from Amazon for $13.49 and it was worth every penny.

Schlesinger’s film was 171 minutes compared to Vinterberg’s 119 and as such could furnish plot continuity that made the film a lot more congruent with the novel. I found, for example, the rivalry between Boldwood and Troy far more developed in Schlesinger.

The studio intended that the film be marketed like other lengthy and ambitious “classy” films of the period such as “Doctor Zhivago” and “Lawrence of Arabia”. It comes with an overture and an intermission.

Like Vinterberg, Schlesinger would not appear at first blush to be a director eager to adapt Hardy since he emerged as a maker of “angry young man” films such as “Billy Liar” that were in their way defied conventional filmmaking esthetics like Dogme 95 did.

However, for Paul J. Niemeyer, the author of “Seeing Hardy: Film and Television Adaptations of the Fiction of Thomas Hardy”, there is an affinity:

That Schlesinger should favor a realist approach is only appropriate, since he is largely a product of the social realist movement in British cinema; and in 1967, he was still very much under its sway. Social realism, of course, gave us the “Angry Young Man” whom the Welfare state had educated out of the working class, but who had not succeeded in breaking down the class and economic barriers to greater prosperity. Such films as Room at the Top (Jack Clayton, 1958), Look Back in Anger (Tony Richardson, 1959), and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960) were marked by familiar elements like a working-class antihero who usually expressed his disaffection through sneering wit, aggressive sexuality, and chauvinism often bordering on misogyny; harsh, unsentimental depictions of bleak northern cities and landscapes, usually with a focus on the effects of industrialism on the land; and—most importantly—authentic regional dialects.

Suffice it to say that “the sneering wit, aggressive sexuality, and chauvinism often bordering on misogyny” are all embodied in Frank Troy while they were not found in Gabriel Oak, the character who had most in common with the angry young men of the early 60s. If you are at all susceptible to novels and films with likable major characters, you will probably be as seduced by “Far From the Madding Crowd” as I was.


1 Comment »

  1. Louis,

    You might want to have a look at Valentino’s Ghost. I have not seen it yet, but it sounds interesting on Mondoweiss:

    Comment by Hal — December 30, 2015 @ 2:35 pm

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