‘They kept the noiseless tenor of their way’: Female Characterisation in the Literature and Film of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd


Thomas_Hardy_(1923_portrait)How do Thomas Hardy’s literary representations of women translate to film? In light of the recent adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd, READ interviewed Sreemoyee Roy Chowdhury on Hardy’s representation of female characters in literature and their subsequent representations in film. Sree shares her thoughts on the different film adaptations, identifying their strengths and weaknesses, as well as their exploration of gender and sexuality. 

Your research examines the way women are characterised in Thomas Hardy’s literature. Could you tell us a bit more about the scope of your research, and which works you are examining in particular?

The aim of my project is to keep a very narrow focus on the characterization of Sue Bridehead, the protagonist of Jude the Obscure (1895). I want to study and analyse the reader-response surrounding Sue, which changes and takes on added layers and dimensions over the decades after the publication of the novel. The purpose of a study of this kind is two-pronged. First, through a study of the critical opinion surrounding a controversial character like Sue, it will assess the way the feminist movement and theory emerged in the nineteenth century and gathered force in the next decades. Second, to analyse and question how and why a fictional representation of a white British woman living in the late nineteenth century is still topical and worthy of study in the twenty-first century. What gives her universality as well as an air of mystification cutting across the barriers of time, space, race and different social, cultural and economic settings?

What have earlier film adaptations of Far from the Madding Crowd been like?

Director Thomas Vinterberg makes the most of the raw charm of the countryside of Dorset, capturing its breath-taking beauty, its rugged brutality, as well as the interiority and the internal spaces of the barns, the homes, and the social gatherings to create a holistic picture of the lives of the characters peopling the novel.

Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) is Hardy’s fourth novel and widely regarded as his first major literary success. It has had five film adaptations to date, in 1915, 1967, 1998, 2010, and most recently Thomas Vinterberg’s 2015 film version.

Though I haven’t seen the 1915 version of Far from the Madding Crowd, the idea of it intrigues me as it was made in the tradition of a silent drama film by Laurence Trimble. A Hardy adaptation that is stripped bare from words and dialogues must be a unique experience indeed.

The 1967 version of Far from the Madding Crowd is a classic in its own right. John Schlesinger’s take on Hardy, with the stellar cast of Julie Christie as Bathsheba, Alan Bates as Oak, Terence Stamp as Troy and Peter Finch as Boldwood, is an intriguing watch. For the most part, the film stays true to the literary ambiance of the novel and is arguably the most authentic big-screen Hardy adaptation to date. Interestingly, the film did well in the U.K., though it was a critical and commercial failure in the U.S. Some scenes from the movie are particularly memorable, such as Troy’s flaunting of his swordsmanship to impress Bathsheba, who stands immobile before him in the scenic location of Maiden Castle.

Granada Television produced the 1998 television film adaptation in Britain, and WGBH in Boston. It is an interesting watch for its striking visuals, but it does not stand out, particularly after the excellent 1967 film.

Stephen Frears’s 2010 adaptation is titled Tamara Drewe, and is based on the newspaper comic strip of the same name. It is a modern retelling of Far from the Madding Crowd, which was later published as a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds. This film version deviates furthest from the actual novel. It loosely structures itself around the same romantic plot but changes the setting to modern day England, where Tamara, Bathsheba’s counterpart, is a journalist who goes back to the village of her childhood after her mother’s demise, having undergone rhinoplasty to enhance her appearance in the interim. Her new found attractiveness post-surgery does not go unnoticed by the men of her village and she soon finds herself a bevy of suitors who are utterly un-shallow, and attracted to her because of her sparkling wit and personality!

Is Vinterberg’s new adaptation better than the earlier ones?

Vinterberg’s 2015 adaptation is a delight to watch and definitely my pick of the lot. My primary reason for wanting to watch this film (apart from it being a Hardy adaptation) was to see Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba, having been mightily impressed by her fine performance as Jean Berkey in the Coen brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis, and she delivers – and how. Mulligan’s performance is riveting from the very first scene in which she appears, flirting as candidly with the men in her life as the different camera angles. Her act is supported well by most of the cast, particularly Michael Sheen (who is excellent as the middle-aged William Boldwood), who falls prey to Bathsheba’s coquetry. Sheen’s Boldwood is powerful and vulnerable and simultaneously wise and naïve, incapacitated by his heart-wrenching crush on Bathsheba. Tom Sturridge portrays Sergeant Troy’s rakish ways, and convincingly portrays his self-besotted, cruel nature lurking behind a charming smile, though his role is underwritten. The casting of Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak is decidedly curious, as is his dialogue delivery, in an attempted Wessex accent with a mild Dutch twang! Schoenaerts is entirely too handsome, with too much screen presence to convincingly recall Oak to mind. In the novel, Oak is the silent observer at the heart of the plot as well as Bathsheba’s life; imperceptible, almost invisible, until the end of the novel, when Bathsheba finally accepts him as her husband.

Director Thomas Vinterberg makes the most of the raw charm of the countryside of Dorset, capturing its breath-taking beauty, its rugged brutality, as well as the internal spaces of the barns, the homes, and the social gatherings to create a holistic picture of the lives of the characters peopling the novel. Vinterberg noticeably omits a particularly interesting scene in which Sergeant Troy returns from the ‘presumed’ dead as a member of travelling theatre-circus troupe. He masquerades as Dick Turpin while Bathsheba watches, unaware of his true identity. It could be that Vinterberg is unwilling to engage with the surreal, bordering on absurd, aspects of the original text, and to adhere to a more naturalistic sensibility in keeping with his interpretation of the rest of the novel in his film. In Schlesinger’s version, by contrast, he plays with the sensationalist elements of the novel with relish, trying to stay faithful to the spirit of the novel even while deviating from it in parts.

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Linda M. Shires argues that Bathsheba endures a ‘crisis of gender’ in the novel. How are gender and sexuality portrayed in the 2015 film version? Does this differ from the novel?

[Mulligan’s Bathsheba] comfortably moves back and forth between the traditional notions of the ‘masculine’ and the ‘feminine’ as her interests and abilities are not easily compartmentalized under any structured category.

I agree with Shires’s argument that Hardy does not try to build a dialectical structure of power where one sex is oppressed by the other, but rather tries to depict power as a shifting variable, which is gained and lost through the various negotiations between individuals in the novels. Neither is the ‘male’ gender always associated with ‘power’, nor is the ‘female’ with ‘victimization’.

Shires feels that Bathsheba undergoes a ‘crisis of gender’ as she is reluctant to confine herself within the conventional,  feminine ideal. She inhabits a patriarchal, capitalist space, in the ‘masculine’ role of a farm-owner instead of being a pretty, docile wife of a farmer. Hardy’s characterization of her puts her in a mobile, heterogeneous zone. Her character challenges the age-old patriarchal structure to make space for greater female autonomy.

In the 2015 adaptation, Mulligan’s Bathsheba wears a leather jacket, expertly rides a horse, is ready to get wet and muddy alongside the men who work for her if required, while also being quite fashion-conscious and flaunting an impressive range of hats and pretty, feminine dresses. She comfortably moves back and forth between the traditional notions of the ‘masculine’ and the ‘feminine’ as her interests and abilities are not easily compartmentalized under any structured category. She is extremely self-aware, turning down Gabriel Oak’s proposal candidly, ‘It wouldn’t do, Mr Oak. I want somebody to tame me; I am too independent; and you would never be able to, I know.’ There is a desire in her to relinquish her power, but in that desire lurks the awareness that the power is hers to hand over to begin with, if she chooses, when she chooses, to whomever she chooses. The men of the novel, Oak, Troy, Boldwood, correspond quite closely to the patriarchal ideology of male/female gendered roles, viewing Bathsheba primarily as a valuable object, to be desired, won over, and possessed; however, Bathsheba, though conditioned by the structure of power as a product of her times, refuses to be a powerless onlooker to her own life, exercising her will and caution in her decisions.

The Bathsheba of the film differs from the Bathsheba of the novel in being far more direct, far more egalitarian, and less coquettish than Hardy’s original portrayal who is a paradoxical blend of indecisiveness and conviction, vanity and earthiness, maturity and impulsiveness.

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