Thomas Hardy wrote Far From the Madding Crowd in 1874, 14 years before Louis Le Prince shot the world's first motion picture. So he would certainly be perplexed by the current debate surrounding his first great novel, which has little to do with his writing and all to do with which film is better: the 1967 John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man) version starring Julie Christie or the new one with Carey Mulligan. But for those who have no knowledge of book or film, let's recap.
In rural southern England, the young Bathsheba Everdene has just transitioned from farmhand to a woman of wealth and power thanks to the inheritance of her uncle's estate. But, belying its title, this is a story not of peaceful country living, but of Bathsheba's frenzied struggles to keep her farm afloat amid fires and storms of both literal and romantic kinds. For she is pursued by three vastly different suitors: William Boldwood, the wealthy and mature landowner; Frank Troy, the dashing but selfish military sergeant; and Gabriel Oak, the kind and loyal, but poor, shepherd. And equally prominent are two additional struggles, those of class and gender inequalities in the late 19th century.
Obsessing over plot differences between novel and films is a trivial exercise. Only slightly more absurd would be a comparison of Hardy's novel to the 1751 Thomas Gray poem that inspired it. If you want the novel, read the novel, but if you want a visual representation of the mood, themes and spirit of the book, pick a flick.
The new version, directed by Thomas Vinterberg (co-founder of Dogme95 and the director of The Hunt), is a competent production that hits many right notes, particularly in the first half, thanks to its sweeping vistas and nice pacing. It stars Carey Mulligan, who can't match Christie's beauty or screen presence but does bring a new self-assured, liberated quality to the role. Backing her up are Michael Sheen as William, Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel and Tom Sturridge as Frank. Yet only Sheen (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) captures the requisite passion and heartbreak. In contrast, Schoenaerts carries a coldness and muddled dialect that keep his character at a distance, while Sturridge rarely connects, perhaps partially because of faults in editing or David Nicholls' screenplay. Alan Bates' performance as Gabriel in the older version wasn't necessarily stronger than Schoenaerts', but he did have help from Frederic Raphael's script and the superb Terence Stamp as Frank.
Though both films stray from the novel and offer fascinatingly different interpretations of characters' relationships, it's the three-hour 1967 adaptation, complete with overture and intermission, that stays truer to Hardy while delivering a grander, more sensual, more heartrending experience. Though the two-hour Vinterberg film manages a subtler, more effective ending, it rushes its second half to fit its two-hour runtime, thereby keeping us on the emotional periphery, content to watch rather than becoming immersed.
Still, the current Crowd, which is a nice diversion from the summer's CGI extravaganza, should be a crowd pleaser. I even heard audience members at the screening I attended proclaim, in disgustingly non-19th-century speak, "It's awesome!" Ah, the madding crowd.