Sheeps and Dogs: On “Far From the Madding Crowd”


Stephanie Bernhard in The LA Review of Books:

ADAPTING A NOVEL with a plot as unwieldy as that of Thomas Hardy’sFar From the Madding Crowd (1874) for the screen requires compromise: the film must either remove a number of scenes that appear in the novel or squeeze as many scenes as possible into a watchable span of time. Thomas Vinterberg’s recent adaptation almost always opts for the latter technique, and the result is a film that is completely dutiful, very attractive, and mostly dull.

In fairness to Vinterberg, Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd is crowded with so much confounding, brilliant, baroquely intricate action that to remove a single element from a retelling risks toppling the whole story. Hardy packs a fallen woman tale, an untimely death, a mysterious disappearance, and a feminist bildungsroman into a central romance in which not two but three suitors — the shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), the farmer William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), and the soldier Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge) — compete for the hand of Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), that wonderfully vexing, eternally modern creation for whom the phrase “fiercely independent” must have been invented. Every time she twitches, the novel quakes with great drama. Agitated, perhaps, by the novel’s inexhaustible action, Henry James famously complained that “everything human in the book strikes us as factitious and insubstantial; the only things we believe in are the sheep and the dogs.”

More on the sheep and the dogs in a moment. James may have despised the rustic, exaggerated humans of Far From the Madding Crowd, but quickly after panning the book he stole its human plot for The Portrait of a Lady (1881). He deleted the sheep and dogs and clothed his humans more fashionably, but the bones of the story are the same. A bright, beautiful, ferociously independent young woman fends off marriage proposals from two appealing men who offer to raise her social and economic status; instead, after inheriting a dazzling pile of property, she accepts the hand of a vile man who requires her to support him. In both novels, the heroine’s continuous indecision (and eventual disastrous decision) makes for a compelling drama, dense with dramatic irony.

But there is a key difference between James’s novel and Hardy’s, one crucial for filmmaking, and it involves the sheep and dogs.

More here.