Sunday, August 9, 2015

Far From the Madding Crowd

I am generally the last person to complain about movie adaptations. It's ridiculous to expect the same thing from two very different art forms. Personally, I don't want to sit through a seventeen hour version of The Old Man And The Sea (I don't want to sit through an hour and a half version either, but that's beside the point.) Because of that I'll forgive certain film-making conventions and shortcuts. For instance, The Great Gatsby was really good; the frame story was entirely justified and using modern music was necessary to avoid making it feel like a period piece (which would have been directly contrary to the aims of the novel.)

That said, the constraints of a given art form do not entitle anyone to butcher a beautiful (if slightly dated) story. The screenwriter is, of course, completely free to totally alter the tone, timeline, and characters, but he shouldn't expect us to be happy about it. (I'm sure David Nicholls cares deeply about my opinion. Deeply.)

Warning: Spoilers and ranting ahead.

There are some things I understand. Having Bathsheba introduce herself is jarring, but forgivable. And some things, like introducing her on the road, with its little mirror scene (which provides a contrast for her later, totally unselfconscious ride to fetch oat bran) would have been completely impractical. A detailed description of Gabriel Oak would have been likewise impossible to include. The movie's version of Gabriel "Farmer" Oak does present him as modest, diligent, and recently prosperous, but his character doesn't come across in the same way at all. Hardy's Farmer Oak is almost immediately human, and he doesn't take very long at all to go from 'real' to actively endearing. We hear about his watch, which, we are told, has a tendency to either go "too fast or not at all." The hour hand also slips. It's really only a watch "as to shape and intention." And so we learn about his stargazing, both as a way to keep time and for the sake of simple appreciation.

Then for some reason Nicholls begins messing with the characters. In the book Gabriel Oak mentions to Bathsheba's aunt that he was going to propose, and then leaves when her aunt implies that Bathsheba has multiple admirers, instead of proposing directly as he does in the movie. So he retreats, saying that he is only an "everyday sort of man" and he knew his success would have been contingent on being "first comer." Taking that into consideration though, he is still in a better position than Bathsheba, having risen in the world due to his diligence and skill. She still refuses his offer of marriage, and we like her a little for that, even though she seems a bit self-absorbed.  In the book the contrast between them is heightened by the differences in how they speak. Oak speaks with a rural accent, in painfully sincere and direct way, and Bathsheba sounds educated, but she tends to blurt things out. In fact, almost everyone speaks on the same register for the entire movie, and Hardy's use of dialect to show power differentials and cultural disparities is pretty much ignored.

So she refuses Oak and then comes a major reversal: she leaves for her uncle's farm, he loses all his sheep through no negligence of his own, and he eventually comes to her as a suppliant, asking if she needs a shepherd.

Nicholls took substantial liberties with Bathsheba's character. I do understand that not everyone is up on the social context of the 19th century, and I thought that some of the explanations/modifications were good. (A prime example would be the Sergeant Troy's kiss being turned into a 'kiss plus grope,' which doesn't really go against anything in the book and makes everything generally more clear for an audience who probably would think 'so he kissed her, what's the big deal?')

It is hard to get across the idea of how independent she is within the context of her conservative rural culture, and I admit that. An interesting thing though is that she never breaks the more explicit rules of her society -- which the less self-possessed Fanny Robin does. She breaks the rules not because she's rebellious, but because she's determined and stubborn. Another thing that doesn't come across well is how impulsive she is. She runs after Oak to correct her aunt's misinformation, she sends the valentine saying "Marry me" to Boldwood on a whim, she opens the casket etc.

Which brings me to my second point. She only considers marrying Boldwood because of how guilty she feels about her thoughtlessness in sending the valentine. She never (as the movie says) has a notion of how unbalanced Boldwood is, but she's genuinely sorry that she caused him distress, and considers marrying him out of duty and pragmatism. She did after all ask him to marry her, even though it was a joke. I'm truly not sure why that was changed. If anything, marriage is a less serious proposition now.

Which brings me to my third point. There are several shameless, and completely useless insertions and/or alterations. The valentine in the movie doesn't actually say "Marry me,"  shifting a good deal of the blame from Bathsheba, and making Boldwood seem immediately unbalanced. Then there's the insertion of Oak's dog, Old George. Which moves the story along in precisely zero ways. Worse, Movie Troy feels jilted and is portrayed as being totally ignorant of Fanny's mistake in going to the wrong church. Which is far more forgiving than Hardy's characterization, where he doesn't marry her (partly) because he was annoyed at having to stand there embarrassed at the altar. He's much less interesting and far more forgivable as result.

I'm not sure why they made this decision honestly. Sometimes there is just a clearly defined bad guy. Troy is that bad guy. He maliciously plays with Boldwood, letting him think (not unreasonably, given Troy's general character) that he bonked Bathsheba without marrying her. In 19th century England this is Very Big Deal. Boldwood is terrified for Bathsheba -- because it's typically the women who get found out, don't you know -- and offers to pay Troy to marry her. Troy toys with him a bit more and then refuses to take the money, revealing that they actually are married. At which news the reader sighs, knowing Troy to be a complete reprobate.

Oak knows this too, and tries to warn Bathsheba, but -- big surprise here -- she doesn't pay attention. Fanny appears, dies, and Troy says nasty things to Bathsheba, who for once, is entirely blameless. He swims out into the ocean and is taken for dead. Boldwood renews his suit, and it becomes apparent to certain people that he's really losing it.

Disaster ensues, during which Oak is, as always, completely devoted. Troy gets shot by Boldwood. Why the shooting scene was moved outside I'm not sure, but anyhow... Bathsheba cradles Troy's head in her lap, takes complete command of the situation and what follows are the only quotable sentences that didn't get included in the movie:
"She was of the stuff of which great men's mothers are made. She was indispensable to high generation, hated at tea parties, feared in shops, and loved at crises."
Troy dies, Boldwood gets committed, and Bathsheba lives miserably ever after. Except not, because Oak makes sure everything is settled and then informs Bathsheba that he's going to America. Bathsheba decides that she really doesn't want him to leave.

In the book, the climax is a truly nineteenth century discussion, talking about her reputation etc, and Oak admits that he was leaving because people were talking about him and her getting married, which he bitterly refers to as an "absurd" idea. But Bathsheba is now more amenable. The chief point though is that they're friends, and have suddenly become equals (chiefly because of Oak's decision to move on actually.) The movie pretty much loses that, and it ends with them kissing.

That is my issue with the movie. In trying to update and explain the original story the movie morphs the resolution into a cliche. I understand why a modern audience might not be receptive to marriage being the happy ending. But Hardy's point isn't about marriage per se, it's about devotion and independence. Oak's devotion is the same whether he's her bailiff or her husband, though his actions change.

Oak is actually in a more or less subservient position to her for the entire book, either as suitor, or shepherd, or bailiff. Towards the end there he even agrees not to leave for America on her request. It's not to say that he always obeys or agrees with her, but Hardy put him in relatively powerless, dare I say, typically "feminine" position. For example, he's described as having "a quiet modesty that would have become a vestal," and in the denouement Bathsheba says that 'it's almost as if she'd come courting him.' It's not Bathsheba's agreement to marry him that is important, but her willingness to rely on someone (though she's actually been relying on him throughout her entire time as a farmer.)

In the movie though, Oak doesn't change his mind until she shows romantic interest again. This (among other things) changes Oak's character completely, and as a result a book that was a total subversion of gender norms has been completely castrated.

Maybe it's one of those stories that just shouldn't have been adapted. Like the remake of Brian's Song, perhaps it doesn't have any impact when you take it out of context.
Note: I did watch the movie at 40,000 ft with a fever, a horrific earache and a head full of snot. So it's possible that I'm being a little unfair, and that a bit of all that carried over into my opinions on the movie. But I actually read the book when I was sick too, so I don't think that's it.

Also: throughout the book Bathsheba seemingly engages in what a less enlightened time might call "coquetry." (Due to modern advances in linguistics we now call a woman who acts in this manner a "cock-tease.") But, as with her valentine to Boldwood, she genuinely doesn't mean any harm, and she doesn't do it intentionally. (I forget the section of the novel that implies this, but it's there somewhere.)