Far From the Madding Crowd Vs Far From the Madding Crowd

Let’s establish right from the start that I do not believe it possible to take a great Victorian novel and do it true justice on screen. This is not a debate of book versus film, on this occasion there is simply no contest. Television adaptations have a better chance of properly telling such stories due to the longer format but all you are ever going to get is an abridged version.
This is not to say that the film versions of classic literature can’t still be superb. The 1939 Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon Wuthering Heights, for example, is missing about half of the book it’s based on but is still a brooding gothic masterpiece that carries with it the spirit and passion of Brontë’s writing. 
Of course many of the canon of English lit, along with superhero comics it seems, have been transferred to celluloid on numerous occasions. (Interestingly one of the other Wuthering Heights, starting  Ralph Fiennes and Juliet Binoche, faltered precisely because it attempted to tell the entire story.) Great Expectations has been adapted into features at least seven times and several of them really aren’t as good as you’d think they’d be.
While comparisons of page to screen are pointless then, looking at different film versions is inevitable and altogether fairer. With all of this in mind consider Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s telling of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, out in cinemas now, which can’t help but set itself up against the 1967 John Schlesinger adaptation. The new film is really good, no doubt about that, but is it better than its much celebrated predecessor?
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The Cast
Let’s start with the casting. Schlesinger’s film has the benefit of some history and a couple of his key players, at least, have earned a reputation and a place in Hollywood lore. Julie Christie, Terence Stamp, Peter Finch and Alan Bates make a pretty impressive group and all of them perform excellently in this movie. Christie is typically radiant and strong as protagonist Bathsheba Everdene and Bates is also particularly good as the stoical and dependable Gabriel Oak.
As it is though I think Vinterberg’s line up takes it. There is more depth and subtlety to Carey Mulligan’s heroine and she is more believable as a real person. The character is obviously trying hard to manage responsibilities she does not have the experience for while having to hold her own as a female in a patriarchal domain. You can see the struggle in Mulligan’s face, alongside the pressure and determination, and she is a more knowingly flawed, complex, vulnerable and spirited woman than she was with Christie. The famous line levelled at Everdene in the book says ‘You’ve never seen you through a man’s eyes. It’s like not being able to think.’ and while both leading ladies have this captivating nature with Mulligan’s characterisation this is based on more than just looks.
This new film also has Michael Sheen as the man Finch previously portrayed; neighbouring farm owner William Boldwood. You could see the man slowly unravelling with Peter Finch but only in the tiniest almost imperceptible way. Sheen, like Mulligan, beautifully plays the conflict his role demands and you sympathise with him much more because of it.
The new Far From the Madding Crowd’s trump card though might be Matthias Schoenaerts. The Belgian actor has impressed in a number of smaller films from Rust and Bone to last month’s A Little Chaos and he is really becoming a man to watch. His portrayal of Oak is the romantic backbone of the movie and his presence is felt in the whole story far more than Alan Bates’ was.
The possible weak link is Tom Sturridge as Sergeant Frank Troy, the Terrance Stamp role. He is fine but he doesn’t have quite the same swagger and confidence.
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The Writing and Direction
Clearly the same narrative was set in place for these two films a hundred years ago. Young Bathsheba Everdene and single Farmer Gabriel Oak live nearby to one another in coastal Dorset becoming friends, although he feels more for her than she for him. Events then transpire to move them in opposite directions along the social scale when Oak loses his farm and Everdene inherits one. He ends up working for her while two other men appear and start to fight for her affections.
Inevitably there are key scenes that play out almost identically in both movies but the stories do differ in some significant ways. This is most evident in the representation of the protagonist and this is clearly down to the the writers and directors as much as it is Carey Mulligan and Julie Christie.
2015’s screenplay, written by author David Nicholls, downplays the flirty and playful side of Bathsheba which turns out to bring mixed success. This straighter characterisation does allow the audience to sympathise with her more but it makes a few of her actions more jarring. The motivations of this Bathsheba are less clear and totally unlike her when she sends a joke Valentine to the buttoned up Boldwood and some of her romantic choices seem odd in a way they don’t in Schlesinger’s version.
There are nice touches to the action though, many of which increase the drama. I don’t wish to give too much away but there are particular moments when the film makers choose to have the army man Troy in uniform, adding weight to the events that transpire. 
The 1967 film follows the popular reading of Everdene’s character which does work better but there are other aspects that prove problematic. Some events are not explained for example (it isn’t clear to anyone but a season shepherd why the sheep swell up and start dying) and Troy’s famous demonstration of his swordplay is frankly ridiculous.
The older movie is also a little heavy on the symbolism in places if you noticed the beach entertainer speaking of dancing girls and human sacrifice. There are also some obvious clocks ticking away as people talk about the progression of time and growing older. I’m not a fan of this laboured mise-en-scène.
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The Setting and Cinematography
There isn’t much in it here. Both the 2015 and 1967 films make great use of the Dorset countryside and look fantastic.

Schlesinger’s movie had Nicholas Roeg as the director of photography and the framing is great. This new version is also beautiful though with the sun breaking through trees and the expansive cliffs stretching out dramatically around the players. Rolling hills, 1960s style   2015 sunlight

The Presentation of Women
Thomas Hardy always had strong female characters and Everdene could well be the most feminist. Let’s not forget, after all, that the main character in empowerment parable The Hunger Games is named after her.
Certainly there is much in her circumstances that hold her up as a good gender equality role model. She runs a business in a massively male dominated world and finds success and respect doing so. Other things undermine this but for the time it was written it does paint a largely positive picture of women.
By not giving real and tangible depth to Bathsheba the 1967 movie does not play on this as much as it could. There is ambiguity in the character here, as in the book, but it is possible to see her as little more than an impetuous lucky girl with a pretty face. If you look at her this way her weaker moments carry greater significance. They are not lapses in judgement as much of indications of who she truly is. No such reading of the character is possible in Vinterberg and Nicholls’ film and this definitely makes her a stronger heroine.
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The Omissions
What then does each feature miss from the original novel? For Vinterberg the omissions in the narrative are largely linked to the picture they are creating of the lead character. There are things in the novel that make Everdene seem meaner, particularly to Oak, and many of these are expelled from the story. In the book Bathsheba moves away from her home partly to distance herself from Oak’s advances but this is not the case in the film. Her selfish and overwhelming jealousy of Fanny Robbin, Troy’s other love, is stripped out too; probably for much the same reason. Losing these things makes Bathsheba more likable.
Outside of Bathsheba’s immediate story the biggest cut concerns the early relations and taunting between Troy and Boldwood and their resolution is quite unexpected as a result, even more so than in Hardy’s prose.
Frank’s time in the circus has sensibly been cut too because this is a little bizarre when played out on screen in the 60s movie.
Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd loses less of the book and is forty minutes longer as a result. That film’s greatest loss is in the detail of some of the resolutions. You never find out what happens to Boldwood, for example, and the end of Bathsheba and Gabriel’s journey is awfully rushed too. This is in keeping with the rest of the film that marginalises Gabriel Oak on several occasions. This movie seems more interested in the soldier suitor than the farmer and actually it suffers because of it.
Which then is the better film? It may sound as though I am sitting on the fence here, finding encouraging words for both attempts, but I think one is the better adaptation and the other the better movie. Schlesinger’s picture adheres more closely to the entirety of Hardy’s work and should be applauded for how much of the tale it tells but by concentrating on one key relationship, that of Bathsheba Everdene and Mr. Oak, this new version is probably a more involving and more satisfying film.
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