Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel Far from the Madding Crowd opens with a “pastoral tragedy”: farmer Gabriel Oak loses his livelihood when his overenthusiastic sheepdog herds Gabriel’s entire flock right off a cliff. Gabriel is forced to shoot the dog—called Young George, not to be confused with his father, expert herding dog Old George—in what Hardy calls “an instance of that untoward fate which so often attends dogs and philosophers who follow out a train of reasoning to its logical conclusion, and attempt perfectly consistent conduct in a world made up so largely of compromise.”
Consistency and compromise, much as in shepherding and philosophizing, are the twin scourges of film adaptation. Far from the Madding Crowd, the novel, presents an especially difficult challenge to adapting filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt): a beloved and brilliant classic (already boasting a beloved and brilliant classic adaptation, John Schlesinger’s 1967 three-hour epic starring Julie Christie), it demands a degree of thematic and narrative fidelity that Game of Thrones does not. The tightrope act of compromising faithfulness to the novel and to a director’s cinematic sensibility, however, is where so many filmmakers have pushed movies right off a cliff before.
The novel and film open with Gabriel’s loss, but the real hero is Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), who finds herself the mistress of a large farm when her uncle passes away. When Gabriel loses his flock and then, consequently, his own farm, Bathsheba hires him as her new shepherd. He falls in love with her right away, and is soon joined by two other suitors: the wealthy and imposing Mr. Boldwood and the dashing soldier Sergeant Troy. It’s pretty clear (even just based on the characters’ names) which of the men deserves Bathsheba, but our lively and strong-willed heroine has no interest in marriage, insisting that she never wants to compromise her independence. Eventually, of course, one of them persuades her.
Bathsheba is thorny and difficult and complex, but the film makes her digestible for an audience so familiar with another, much more shallowly feminist Everdeen: The Hunger Games’ Katniss. Mulligan is radiant, but Vinterberg and screenwriter David Nicholls reduce her too much to an independent spirit who gets wrapped up in romance against her will—a decidedly contemporary notion. Modern viewers are wont to cry antifeminism if a heroine shows too much of a conscious interest in the opposite sex; love is only allowed, anymore, when it takes young women completely by surprise. (Schlesinger’s adaptation, too, is very 1870s by way of 1967—Christie’s hair and makeup hardly being the least of it.)
Bathsheba is in fact a rather vain, impetuous girl who persistently rejects male attention while also thriving on it; over the course of the story, however, she grows to value other people for their own worth rather than for how well they reflect hers. Nicholls and Vinterberg perhaps sterilize her a bit too much—first making her too fiercely (in fact, falsely) independent, and then making that hideous rom-com question of who she will “end up with” the central intrigue. Hardy’s novel is not a love story, but rather the story of Bathsheba’s relationship with herself, and how she learns (the hard way, naturally) to navigate the world around her.
The brilliant Mulligan shares irresistible chemistry with Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, an utterly devastating Gabriel. Michael Sheen, too, is particularly admirable as Mr. Boldwood. Tom Sturridge was perhaps miscast as Sergeant Troy—I absolutely could not comprehend Bathsheba’s attraction to him in the film—but he and Sheen both suffered from having very little to work with; following the emphasis on Bathsheba and Gabriel’s relationship, everyone else was sadly underwritten. The adaptation was perhaps too neatly streamlined into a romantic epic, but the film is endlessly watchable—the first half in particular—and buoyed by fine performances. I don’t envy any screenwriter adapting a Hardy novel; his prose is almost too perfect to translate to the screen.
I also don’t envy the cinematographer tasked with shooting a Hardy adaptation. Wessex, the fictional English county that provides the brilliantly dynamic setting for all of his major novels, is a stunning, sprawling creation, as great a presence in his books as any of his characters. DP Charlotte Bruus Christensen rose to the challenge beautifully—her Wessex is a lushly textured backdrop to Vinterberg’s well-acted drama.
When it comes down to it, these complaints are small disappointments (certainly nothing compared to Joe Wright’s evisceration of everything wonderful about Pride and Prejudice). It’s a beautiful and well-acted film, but it remains that Vinterberg and Nicholls, like so many dogs and philosophers before them, would have done well to check some of their instincts.