Monday, January 11, 2016

Not far from the reading

I finally got around to watching Thomas Vinterberg's Far From the Madding Crowd, nearly two years after I first started anticipating it.

That anticipation started in January of 2014, in my year-end wrap-up post in which I honored Carey Mulligan for having such a good year at the movies in 2013, and noted that she'd be the star of Vinterberg's upcoming adaptation. Unfortunately, I missed it when it was in the theater (this was just before I got my critics card, and each viewing still represented a specific financial cost) and kept putting off the viewing until near my ranking deadline.

So what was it about this adaptation of a Thomas Hardy novel that was worth starting a two-year anticipation clock?

Well, two years ago was when I was actually reading the book, for reasons unrelated to the fact that there would be an upcoming movie. I discovered during the reading that Vinterberg was making a movie of it, and as soon as I was blown away by his most recent feature The Hunt not long after that, I became all the more excited. In fact, the only reason I was reading the book at all was that I had randomly picked it off of a shelf of my wife's books, having loved Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles.

I'm sure many people read books that are about to become movie adaptations much more regularly, but for me, it's somewhat rare. See, I only make it through about five books a year. That can be explained by a couple factors: 1) With the number of movies I watch, I simply don't allow myself the same amount of reading time that many people do; 2) I'm a slow reader, always have been; 3) If I'm reading something I don't like very much, it's rare that I'll give up on it entirely. Instead I'll just let it stretch out interminably over months.

When these situations do arise, though, they represent a unique opportunity for me to assess the success or failure of a screenplay. In theory, it should not matter the way an adaptation deviates from its source material, assuming those deviations are still within the logic of the world people originally fell in love with, and assuming they don't violate some essential purpose of the original book. A movie needs to stand on its own, and both a movie and a book of the same material can be very good despite being very different. (Starship Troopers is one example that comes to mind.)

But it still gives a person like me an interesting perspective on the very project of adaptation, one I will try to write about today.

For starters, I will say that I liked both the book of Far From the Madding Crowd and the movie quite a bit. But there were some interesting differences, or at the very least, ways I may have interpreted the original novel incorrectly.

Next I should say that I do plan to spoil major plot details, so turn away if you want the details of this 140-year-old story to stay a secret.

Since I'm not sure the best way to delve into this -- and since the chances are better than average that you've neither read this book nor seen this movie anyway -- I'll just kind of start in wherever and go from there. But I suppose a little plot synopsis is warranted first.

It's the story of Bathsheba Everdene (Mulligan), a headstrong young woman in the rural England of 1870, who inherits a farm from her deceased uncle. Although she has men willing to propose to her after knowing her for all of 15 minutes, she's determined that she wants to make her own way and never become the "property" of a man. One of these suitors is a kind farmer, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), whose proposal to Bathsheba is turned down even before she inherits the farm, though he does through circumstance come to work for her in a strictly platonic capacity. The next suitor is another farmer, the good and reverent William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), who might have been immune to Bathsheba's charms except for a prank Bathsheba is encouraged to play on him by an incorrigible friend, in which she sends him a valentine. The third is a handsome solider, Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge), who tries to ensnare Bathsheba with his aggressively masculine and sexual brand of seduction, but who has been responsible for the ruin of a woman (Juno Temple) he impregnated but did not marry. (Which, to be fair, he does not know at the time -- but he does certainly know he "spoiled her virtue.")

So let's talk about Mr. Troy here. For one, I'm not sure how Sturridge is supposed to be the most handsome of these three, as he looks a bit weaselly and has the cheesy mustache to match. But the really interesting thing about this character is how the movie makes him more morally complex than the book, as I understood it. In the book, I got the impression at the start that Troy had no interest in marrying Fanny Robin (Temple), though also that he did not yet know she was pregnant (nor did she at the time). The book has this comical scene where she's trying to speak to him from outside the window of his barracks, and he's pretending he does not know her. No such scene exists in the movie, and more crucially, there's a scene instead in which Troy goes to a church to be married to her, only she went to the wrong church, or the right church at the wrong time. (It's not entirely clear because even though there's cross-cutting between the two characters in this scene, Vinterberg could also be playing with time a little bit.) So instead of Troy doing Fanny wrong, he believes she's done him wrong.

This is an important difference, if it is indeed a difference. Although Troy is still a jerk and behaves amply so, eventually marrying Bathsheba more for the gambling money it will provide him than for any desire to do honest work or make an honest woman out of her, the jilting at the altar gives his back story a decidedly different tone. In fact, this is a man who might have come good entirely -- he slept with a woman out of wedlock, but then did intend to marry her -- if it hadn't been for a miscommunication. The book does show him displaying feeling for Fanny later on when he sees her again and she ultimately dies, but in the book it introduces complexity to him late in the narrative. In the movie, that complexity was present all along. At the very least it makes him less of a hissable villain. Oddly, movies are usually more interested in making villains one-dimensional rather than the reverse being true.

Then there's Fanny Robin. Perhaps because she's got someone with the name recognition of Juno Temple playing her, it seemed like she would have had more scenes in the movie, even though her role in the book is also comparatively small. The book does spend time on her making a trip to meet Troy near the end, to obtain a sort of alimony that might save her from ruin, though she's very sick and ultimately dies in childbirth -- though it seems like she succumbs to the existing sickness rather than the rigors of giving birth. This scene goes on for a number of pages in the book, but is glossed over in the movie.

Then there's William Boldwood (Sheen), whose role also feels comparatively small. Much more time is spent inside his mind in the book, and crucially, you get a sense of his building resentment toward his ultimately successful rival, Troy. In the movie, the two don't share any screen time together until the moment Boldwood kills him. Thinking Troy dead (he swam away from the beach, leaving only his uniform behind and never materializing again), Bathsheba tells Boldwood she'll answer him by Christmas whether she will consent to marry him (an arrangement that will help pay off the debts run up by her thought-deceased husband). Troy takes the opportunity of a Christmas party thrown at Boldwood's house -- which is meant to double as an engagement party, Boldwood hopes -- to show up again and lay a claim on his wife (who in the book had been mourning for something like six years, but it's more like six months here, which I totally get -- timelines often need to be collapsed in the more urgent medium of cinema). Without even going to a shot of Boldwood looking frustrated, Vinterberg has him just gun Troy down.

Let's not forget the guy we introduced to you first, Gabriel Oak (Schoenaerts). Because of his two other rivals for Bathsheba's affections, one of whom is a friendly rival (Boldwood), Oak gets pushed to the background sometimes in the book. We always remember that the narrative started on him and we do routinely check in with him, but Hardy manages to reduce in our minds the certainty that he will end up with Bathsheba. In fact, I was kind of surprised by the ending, as I thought it very possible that it would just end tragically, like Tess of the d'Urbervilles does. The movie, on the other hand, makes it impossible not to conclude that the two will ultimately be united. Not only is Schoenaerts the most handsome of the three, he's also the most good. Then there's also the fact that longing, meaningful glances, the type that telegraph that two characters will end up together, are a movie's main currency, whereas you have to kind of imagine those moments in a book.

If this seems like a lot of complaints, I'll have you know that this is still a four-star movie for me, and I even toyed with four-and-a-half stars. As I tried to indicate above, the changes from the novel are not necessarily bad -- nor are they even all necessarily changes. (In fact, checking Wikipedia now, I'm not surprised to find that it was I who misinterpreted the nature of the Troy-Fanny relationship in the novel, not Vinterberg who changed it.)

What I love most about this film are the performances of Schoenaerts and Mulligan, who are just aching with romantic chemistry and who are perfectly cast for their roles. (Actually, all the casting is spot on, except I don't think Sturridge is really handsome enough to play Troy.) Mulligan in particular deserves an adjective I have used to describe her before, which is "luminous." Having just seen and been disappointed by her in Suffragette earlier in the week (or really, disappointed by the movie), I am now reminded just what Mulligan can do with the right director and the right lighting. Although that sounds like a kind of backhanded compliment, to suggest lighting plays a role in how effective an actor is, I actually mean it as more of a straightforward compliment to the production. Vinterberg's film is distinguished by how bright it is -- the cinematography (by Charlotte Bruus Christensen) is wonderful, and the colors really pop, which is a notable change in approach from other directors, who have purposefully made Victorian England drab and dreary. In fact, that approach was used by Roman Polanski in his adaptation of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, called Tess, though I do like that movie a lot as well.

I must say I also really liked that I already knew the plot. Often that can be a drawback to a person's enjoyment of a story, since nine times out of ten you actually want to be surprised by what happens in a movie. Here I felt the opposite. Not having to work out who characters are, how they're related to each other and what their motivations are freed me up to just admire the production design and appreciate how the actors were interpreting characters I already knew. It's a bit like watching a Shakespeare adaptation in that way. I'd say it made Far From the Madding Crowd far more satisfying than if I hadn't read the novel, which is pretty much a complete reversal of my usual thoughts on seeing a movie after I've already read the book.

One thing I still don't know: the exact meaning of the title. I'm sure there are places on the interwebs that are devoted to unpacking that meaning, and I'm sure it has something to do with the damaging aspects of gossip or other ills of a social environment, but neither the book nor the movie makes the meaning of the title manifest. I guess it could just be what it literally is: in this remote agrarian environment, they really are far from the bustling of the cities.

So what film adaptation of a book I've recently read do I have to look forward to next? Funny you should ask. That would be Ready Player One, which I read about a year ago, and which Steven Spielberg will be directing for a December 2017 release. Another two years of anticipation, as it turns out -- from this point until then, anyway, though I've known about the upcoming adaptation for nearly a year now. As that book actually sort of disappointed me after a terrific beginning, that's a film adaptation I'll also be eagerly anticipating -- to see if the movie figures out how to right the things the book may have gotten wrong.

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