by Brenda W. Clough
We can agree, right? That life is too short. There is not time — humans are not blessed with sufficient length of days — to read all the books that one really ought to read. What to do? As I mentioned last time, one fine cheat is to see the books in dramatic form. And Hollywood kindly obliges us, by occasionally bringing a classic novel to the big screen. When they released the latest iteration of Far From the Madding Crowd I knew this was my moment.
The closest I have come to Thomas Hardy is Stella Gibbons’ delightful Cold Comfort Farm. Reading this parody essentially inoculated me against Hardy for years. Therefore I have never read Madding Crowd, bad English major, even though it is praised with faint praise as the cheeriest and least depressing of Hardy’s novels. However, in the way of many bookish people I have been rolled in a good deal of oddball knowledge about the novel, without ever lifting the cover. I know about the exploding sheep (no, they really don’t go bang, such a disappointment), the unruly dog, the soldier and his phallic sword.
All of these delights are wonderfully on view in this latest film version, starring Carey Mulligan and Michael Sheen. You can submerge yourself in a story crafted by a master, beautifully pared down and presented. There was probably a lot of other stuff in the novel, but on the screen the story is sharply focused: Bathsheba Everdeen and her difficult life choices. She is torn between three suitors, who represent the three things we all are in search of in our short lives: sex, security, and companionship. Of course she chooses the very worst man of the bunch. This was a Victorian novel, and so sex is always the wrong reason to do anything you can name. (Compare to our modern point of view, in which sex is always the right reason. Don’t believe me? Did you see 50 Shades of Grey? Or, ack ick ptoo, Star Wars: The Attack of the Clones? This is a harsh thing to say, but even though there are no explosions or SFX Madding Crowd is by a country mile a better movie than Clones.)
With the author’s thumb on the scale of the plot, Bathsheba joins many other Victorian heroines in that her imprudent choice of first husband doesn’t permanently trash her life. (If she had become pregnant everything would’ve been different, and oooh yes, ever so much worse. What a very British restraint, Mr. Hardy, so unlike the working credo of our modern-day fictioneers. And an American would have made that sheep explode as well, right there on the page in a smear of mutton and gore.) I can see now what the litcrit means, when they refer to the proto-feminism of this work. A hardworking single woman who doesn’t really need a husband, Bathsheba must have electrified readers in 1874 — Hardy was a pioneer. I still don’t have time to read his novels. Life is still too short, and my TBR pile is taller than I am. But I am glad I saw this movie.
My newest novel Speak to Our Desires is out from Book View Café.