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Thomas Hardy in the 1920s
Minnie Maddern Fiske, star of the 1913 film, Tess of the D'Urbervilles
Florence Turner, star of Far from the Madding Crowd (1915)
Blanche Sweet, who played Tess in the 1924 film
Alan Bates as Gabriel and Julie Christie as Bathsheba in Far from the Madding Crowd (1967)
John Schlesinger, left, with Peter Finch on the set of Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971)
Roman Polanski directs Nastassja Kinski on the set of Tess (1979)
Catherine Zeta-Jones and Clive Owen in The Return of the Native (1994)
Kate Winslet and Christopher Eccleston in Jude (1996)
Peter Mullan as Daniel Dillon, the equivalent character to Henchard, in The Claim (2000)
For almost as long as there has been Cinema, there have been film adaptations of Thomas Hardy’s novels and stories. His works have attracted some of the world’s most admired filmmakers, and his characters have been portrayed by many of the finest screen performers of the twentieth century. The films based on Hardy’s works provide a glimpse into the multitudes of ways Hardy has been interpreted and understood, and the best of them succeed as rewarding and enjoyable cinematic experiences.1
Unlike most other writers who are commonly considered "Victorians," Hardy lived to negotiate screen rights with movie producers and to see his novels put before the camera. Hardy often expressed puzzlement and diffidence over this new medium–a “scientific toy,” as he once called it–but early on he grasped the potential of film to expand his readership into new areas. When he was approached by a film company about selling the rights to Tess of the d’Urbervilles in 1911, Hardy told his publisher, “I should imagine that an exhibition of successive scenes from Tess. . .could do no harm to the book, & might possibly advertise it among a new class.” Off and on for the rest of his life, Hardy would have dealings with producers and directors who were eager to bring his novels to the screen; and though Hardy would show enthusiasm for the commercial possibilities of the new medium, a certain wariness toward film began to color his judgment. Eventually Hardy came to feel that movie versions of his novels could potentially damage the original works. When he sold the film rights to The Mayor of Casterbridge in 1921, Hardy requested that the filmmakers do nothing to “burlesque or otherwise misinterpret the general character of the novel.”
The first known film adaptation of a Hardy novel is Tess of the D’Urbervilles, produced in America by Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players Company (the forerunner of today’s Paramount Pictures) in 1913. The film starred the popular stage actress Minnie Maddern Fiske, and much of the production was apparently shot at her own home. We cannot be entirely sure what this movie was like, but stills from it remain, and Hardy’s description of a motion picture as “an exhibition of successive scenes” may be appropriate here. Most movies at the time that were based on works of literature were essentially filmed tableaux, preceded by title cards that explained what the scene represents. Hardy is known to have seen this film and to have been disappointed by it; this perhaps led to his fear of his novels being distorted by motion pictures.
Some sources erroneously list a 1909 Edison production entitled Far from the Madding Crowd as the first film version of a Hardy novel. However, this is a slapstick comedy that has nothing to do with Hardy’s work. A legitimate adaptation of Crowd did emerge in 1915; produced by the Turner Film Company and starring its cofounder Florence Turner as Bathsheba, this was the first adaptation of a Hardy work to be filmed in and around Dorset, in authentic “Wessex” locales. Hardy, who considered the earlier Tess film to be too “Americanized,” found this production much more to his liking. The next movie based on a Hardy novel, Progress Film Company’s The Mayor of Casterbridge (1921), was not only shot in “Wessex,” but Hardy himself was on hand to witness a day of filming. He met the actors and eventually said of his day on the set, "It is a strange business to be engaged in."
The last film version of a Hardy work that was shot entirely in the silent era--and during Hardy's lifetime--was the Metro-Goldwyn Company’s ambitious Tess of the D’Urbervilles of 1924. Though an American production, it too was shot in Dorset locations, though the action of the drama was moved from the late Victorian era to the Jazz Age. This Tess was also released with two different endings: one in which Tess is hanged, another in which she is reprieved. Theater owners were allowed to decide which ending to show. There are no full prints of this film in existence; its loss is considered one of the tragedies of cinema.
In 1929, just one year after Hardy’s death, a film was released based on his first popular success, Under the Greenwood Tree. This was the first all-talking film made in Britain (Hitchcock’s Blackmail, which usually is credited with being the first British sound film, is actually a silent with some sound sequences), and it made extensive use of folk songs to further exploit the new medium. Unfortunately, by all accounts, the film was laughable; and, though no doubt a coincidence, it marked the last time one of Hardy’s works would be adapted to film for nearly twenty-five years.
From time to time throughout the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, producers would express interest in bringing a Hardy novel to the screen. David O. Selznick dearly wished to film Tess with his wife, Jennifer Jones, in the lead, but the production never emerged; and in 1949 the Associated British Picture Corporation started work on The Mayor of Casterbridge, only to scuttle the plans based on expense and a perceived lack of appeal to Americans. The only English-language film with a Hardy source to emerge between 1929 and 1967 was 1953's The Secret Cave, an hour-long British production intended for children and based on Hardy’s story “Our Exploits at West Poley.”
The first major adaptation of a Hardy novel in nearly forty years was Far from the Madding Crowd (1967). Shot on an epic scale by director John Schlesinger, boasting a script by Frederic Raphael, and starring Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Peter Finch, and Terence Stamp, the film was warmly received in its native Britain, but was perceived as something of a disaster in America. Crowd’s failure in the U.S. is thought to have discouraged producers from embarking on other large-scale films derived from Hardy sources; and to this day Hardy fans and scholars are divided about the merits of this adaptation.
Though Hardy’s appeal at the box office might have been limited, producers soon discovered that British television was an amenable home for his works. On Boxing Day 1969, BBC-2 telecast a 50-minute adaptation of Hardy’s story The Distracted Preacher. This was followed in 1970 by a four-part serial version of The Woodlanders, and in 1971 by the six-part Jude the Obscure. The latter serial was eventually broadcast on America’s Masterpiece Theatre program, making the first exposure of many Americans to Hardy’s works. The BBC next brought to the screen six adaptations of Hardy’s short stories. Produced under the umbrella title Wessex Tales (1973), the series boasted scripts by such writers as Dennis Potter and William Trevor, and gave Mike Newell one of his first directing assignments.
The year 1978 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Hardy’s death. To commemorate the event, BBC-2 broadcast a seven-part serial version of The Mayor of Casterbridge. The production was entirely written by Dennis Potter and starred Alan Bates, who’d previously played Gabriel Oak in Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd. Like BBC’s Jude, this serial aired on Masterpiece Theatre and was a success with Americans. 1978 also marked the year when controversial director Roman Polanski began work on his film of Tess. Released throughout the world in 1979 and 1980, the film has been hailed as a masterwork, but it has also attracted criticism–often from those who are disgusted by Polanski’s conviction in the U.S. for statutory rape and who see the film as Polanski’s justification for his actions.
Since the release of Tess, Hardy has made periodic returns to both film and television. In 1985, a new adaptation of Our Exploits at West Poley (featuring a young Sean Bean as “Scarface”) was filmed, but British television didn’t air it until 1990; and in 1987 BBC telecast The Day After the Fair, based on Frank Harvey’s stage adaptation of “On the Western Circuit.” In 1994, America’s Hallmark Hall of Fame series broadcast a 100-minute version of The Return of the Native. Two largely unknown performers, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Clive Owen, were cast as the doomed couple Eustacia Vye and Damon Wildeve.
From 1996 to 2000, film and television screens were fairly bombarded by adaptations of Hardy. In 1996, the mercurial filmmaker Michael Winterbottom released Jude, a dour, grittily realistic adaptation of Jude the Obscure. The film won almost unanimous praise for the performances of Christopher Eccleston as Jude and Kate Winslet as Sue, but–much like the reactions to the novel that inspired it–audiences and critics have expressed mixed views on whether Jude is great art or an exercise in nihilism and sordidness. Just over one year later, a film of The Woodlanders, starring Rufus Sewell and Emily Woof, premiered in British theaters; however, poor distribution doomed the movie, and it remained unseen in the United States until its release on DVD in 2006.
Three separate Hardy adaptations were released in 1998. Britain’s London Weekend Television, in cooperation with America’s Arts and Entertainment network, broadcast a new serial version of Tess of the D’Urbervilles; and Granada Television, working with Boston’s station WGBH–the parent of Masterpiece Theatre–aired a miniseries based on Far from the Madding Crowd. In a handful of British theaters, The Scarlet Tunic made a brief run. Loosely based on Hardy’s story “The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion,” the film provokes more laughs than anything else–most are generated by Simon Callow’s campy and sadistic commandant–and has largely settled into obscurity.
Over the past few years, the number of Hardy adaptations have trickled to just a few. One of the most unorthodox is Michael Winterbottom’s The Claim (2000), a film that translates the basic story of The Mayor of Casterbridge to a wintry California boom town in the 1860s. A straightforward TV miniseries of the Mayor was undertaken by Britain’s ITV network and America’s A & E and announced to air in 2002. However, budget problems at ITV forced the broadcast to be delayed until the end of 2003; in America it was screened in a confusing, badly-edited version. The most recent Hardy adaptation to date is the BBC/WGBH coproduction of Under the Greenwood Tree. Starring Keeley Hawes and James Murray, this telefilm aired on Boxing Day, 2005, in Britain; and on Arbor Day, 2006, on America’s Masterpiece Theatre.
As of this writing (March 2008), a new television serial of Tess of the d'Urbervilles is in production with the BBC, and two other productions are rumored. The appeal and durability of Hardy’s novels and stories assure us that there will always be a place for him on the screen.
Filmmaking at Shoreham Studios (later purchased by Progress), the hub of British filmmaking before 1925
Adolph Zukor, founder of the Famous Players studio
Sidney Morgan, whose Progress Film Company would film The Mayor of Casterbridge in 1921
David O. Selznick with Jennifer Jones
Fiona Walker and Robert Powell as Sue and Jude in Jude the Obscure (1971)
Anne Stallybrass as Susan and Alan Bates as Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge (1978)
Phil Agland directs Emily Woof in The Woodlanders (1998)
Jodhi May as Elizabeth- Jane and Ciaran Hinds as Henchard in the 2002 version of The Mayor of Casterbridge
|1 All information on this page comes from my book, Seeing Hardy: Film and Television Adaptations of the Fiction of Thomas Hardy.|
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