‘Far From the Madding Crowd’: How Period Romance Conventions Killed a Potentially Great Literary Adaptation

Far From the Madding Crowd, in theaters Friday, appears to have plenty going for it. It’s only the third film adaptation of the classic Thomas Hardy novel — and the first since John Schlesinger’s in 1967, though there was also a TV movie in 1998 — and its cast includes such promising names as Carey Mulligan and Michael Sheen. And it’s directed by Thomas Vinterberg, a Danish filmmaker best known for two movies that examine child sexual abuse from very different, equally unflinching perspectives: 1998’s The Celebration, which kicked off the Dogme 95 movement, and 2013’s The Hunt, which was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. He is an excellent director of actors, capable of efficiently capturing the psychological complexity of characters and their relationships — which should make him the perfect interpreter for Hardy, whose detailed internal portraiture is the centerpiece of his work. So why is Vinterberg’s Far From the Madding crowd frustratingly mediocre? 

I think it’s because there’s a widespread misapprehension, both in Hollywood and among those of us who consume its products, that it’s nigh on impossible to make an exciting film adaptation of a classic novel. Apparently classic novels, particularly classic 19th-century novels, are boring to today’s audiences. The society they describe looks remarkably different from our own (if only at first glance), and even farther from contemporary pop culture. Everyone speaks formally and wears a corset, and sex is referred to in only the most elliptical fashion. This leaves screenwriters and directors with two options: they can expand inventively on what’s universally appealing in the book they’re adapting (as Cary Fukunaga recently did in his haunting Jane Eyre, or even as Amy Heckerling did with Clueless), or they can make a movie designed to please people who particularly enjoy corsets, chaste love stories, and stilted language.

Unfortunately, Hollywood most often chooses the latter. Instead of emphasizing what remains so vital about these novels, it deadens and distances them by fetishizing their historical settings, leaving them even duller than the most uninspiring high school English teacher could. This is what Vinterberg and screenwriter David Nicholls (perhaps under studio and distributor pressure) have done with Far From the Madding Crowd: On top of the period language and costumes, which are never the chief problem with poor literary adaptations, he layers on all the clichés that have come to define this type of film. It begins with an exasperatingly expository voiceover that precludes the pleasure of slowly getting to know Mulligan’s heroine, Bathsheba Everdene. When she and one of her love interests, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), gallop urgently on horseback, the string-heavy soundtrack soars. And a long-awaited kiss is captured in a distracting 360-degree shot, with lens flare. Rather than serving Hardy’s story specifically, these choices seem aimed specifically at reminding viewers that they are watching an important literary adaptation of the period romance subgenre.

This is a particular shame in the case of Far From the Madding Crowd because the novel operates on so many levels. At the surface, and in this adaptation, it is the story of the archetypal “strong woman,” Bathsheba, and the three men who love her: the poor shepherd Oak, the wealthy farmer William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), and the rakish soldier Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge). Farther down, Hardy’s 450-page novel is not so much a love triangle with one extra member as a study of four individual personalities, and how they evolve and interact. The characters are too complex to do justice to here; Hardy often takes several pages to introduce them, in descriptions where every line is as dense and specific as this early observation about Oak:

… there is a way some men have, rural and urban alike, for which the mind is more responsible than flesh and sinew: it is a way of curtailing their dimensions by their manner of showing them. And from a quiet modesty that would have become a vestal, which seemed continually to impress upon him that he had no great claim on the world’s room, Oak walked unassumingly, and with a faintly perceptible bend, yet distinct from a bowing of the shoulders.

Bathsheba Everdene is one of the most distinctive characters in all of literature. (Yes, she also gives The Hunger Games‘ Katniss Everdeen her last name.) Her defining attribute may be her independence, but what’s more important is how she changes over the years chronicled in the novel. Gradually, Bathsheba becomes tormented by her power to hurt the men who fall in love with her; later, she’s tormented by her own unanticipated romantic vulnerability. All of this shapes this once-careless girl, still a young woman by the book’s end, into the more complete person she finally becomes.

Neither her singular qualities nor her transformation entirely come through in Vinterberg’s Far From the Madding Crowd. Part of this is because Mulligan, despite a characteristically subtle and emotionally realistic performance, is miscast. Her physical presence is too delicate to fully get across Bathsheba’s wildness in the first half of the novel, which means that the dramatic changes she undergoes don’t have the impact they should.

But the bigger problem is that by giving in to the conventions of the period romance and the preferences of that audience, Nicholls and Vinterberg end up harping on her archetypal “badass feminist” qualities, zeroing in on any dialogue from the novel that could be construed as empowering. Too often, she comes across as a type rather than a person. It would have been a greater service to feminism to just let Bathsheba be the unique, ever-evolving mass of impulses and contradictions and insights that she actually is.

The film glosses over the complexities of Boldwood and Troy, too. Though Vinterberg nails one of the sexiest and most showstopping scenes in 19th-century literature, in which Troy’s demonstration of his swordsmanship turns almost unbearably erotic and then deeply unsettling, the character should feel less like a villain and more like a force of nature. Boldwood’s deterioration should be more pronounced. Neither Sheen nor Sturridge is to blame; they do the best they can with what little they’re given. These sketchy characterizations are mostly a casualty of the film’s short, 119-minute running time, which lends a rushed quality to a story that demands a slower, more deliberate pace. (Schlesinger’s version was nearly an hour longer, and it’s easy to see why.) Only Oak comes through intact, and that has a lot to do with his consistency throughout Hardy’s novel, but is also a testament to Schoenaerts’ seemingly innate balance of stoicism and rugged charm.

That isn’t all the new adaptation gets right. Beyond the characters’ own personalities, Far From the Madding Crowd is a book that captures the cruel surprises of life on a farm, where weather and the other accidents of nature can destroy an entire livelihood. Vinterberg and his cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (who also did great work on The Hunt) capture this in viscerally jarring shots of rural hills at the edge of nothing and storms that dwarf all human life below them through sheer violence. A shot of Troy in the water gets so uncomfortably close to his point of view that it becomes almost physically painful to watch. And an awkward conversation between Oak and Boldwood is accompanied by a nervous swirl of snow out the window. This is a choice that does justice to one of the book’s essential themes without adding much length (though some of the best moments in the film comes when Christensen’s camera lingers on the landscape for longer than is strictly necessary).

At these moments, we get a glimpse of the truly great Far From the Madding Crowd Vinterberg seems fully capable of making — one that captures the spirit of the novel through fresh images and conflicts, one relatively free of genre cliché. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the corset crowd embrace this adaptation, with all its predictable romantic beats. But the novel Thomas Hardy actually wrote would have made for a much more thrilling film.