Original vs Remake: Far from the Madding Crowd

Andrew reviews and compares the two versions of Far from the Madding Crowd.

Typically when a film is currently remade, there’s a good chance the original, previously long unavailable on DVD or Blu-Ray, will get a re-release.  Such is the case with Midnight Cowboy director John Schlesinger’s 1967 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s (no relation to Mad Max) 1874 Victorian novel, Far from the Madding Crowd.   A stark as well as intimate period drama set in the desolate region of Dorset, England, Far from the Madding Crown tells the quiet tale of Bathsheba Everdene (Julie Christie), a farm woman caught in a love triangle involving three different men: a sheep farmer, a dashing Sergeant and an elderly wealthy bachelor.  A social critique of behaviorisms of the time exacerbated by the isolated location as well as a down to Earth story of a headstrong business woman who can’t decide between who she wants and who she ought to settle down with.  A sumptuous Oscar contender in the vein of Gone with the Wind if there ever was one, the sprawling epic full of magnificent vistas was almost completely forgotten by cinemagoers for decades until Danish Dogme 95 co-founder Thomas Vinterberg (best known for The Celebration and most recently The Hunt with Mads Mikkelsen) announced he would be remaking the film with Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba.  While there have been several adaptations of Far from the Madding Crowd in both theater and film, the Schlesinger and Vinterberg renditions remain the most prominent and accomplished.  With this, the Movie Sleuth takes a concerted look at both of these solid romantic period dramas in an effort to conclude which of the two adaptations we feel is superior to the other.

The Original: 1967
"I don't need to wear protection.
I have this awesome suit."
Intended by Schlesinger and his leading lady Julie Christie (fresh from David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago) to be their ticket to the Oscars, the director’s overblown yet visually magnificent take on Thomas Hardy’s novel is something of a flawed yet beautiful epic.  Spanning three hours with an overture and intermission, Far from the Madding Crowd is best remembered for its expansive rural vistas of the beige fields and deserted grasslands overlooking cliffs and ocean fog.  Lensed by future Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth director Nicolas Roeg, this is a film so staggeringly beautiful you honestly don’t mind the leisurely pacing and lengthy wide shots of herds of sheep corralled about the plateau.  Closest to films like Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon with a hint of David Lean’s adaptation of Great Expectations, Schlesinger’s adaptation also benefits greatly from its superb casting.  Alan Bates brings humility and warmth to the impoverished but street smart sheep farmer who makes up for his simpler role in life with dedicated loyalty.  Terence Stamp nearly steals the show in a role he was born to play with Frank, part time honorable Sergeant, full time gambling freeloader whose serpentine charms woo the film’s heroine if only for a while.  Giving the cast just the right touch is the late but always great Peter Finch (best known for Sidney Lumet’s Network) as William, a wealthy but socially awkward elderly bachelor, imbuing the old figure with fascination and poignancy. 

Distinctively British in dialect with particular attention to both the grandiosity of the locations as well as the costume and set design key to the period, Far from the Madding Crowd intends to transport the viewer back in time while focusing on a modern love triangle.  Unlike the schmaltz of lovey dovey period dramas, Schlesinger’s adaptation of Hardy’s tale is surprisingly unsentimental with a certain degree of detachment.  Keeping us at arm’s length from Bathsheba, played with complexity and conviction by Julie Christie, Schlesinger uses the vastness of the open mountains and plains to evoke a sense of desolation both in a figurative and literal sense.  It isn’t so much the men in Bathsheba’s life define her as the region defines everyone’s actions, offering escape and imprisonment in equal measure. 

While effective and probably accurate, Schlesinger’s colder approach also makes it somewhat difficult for the audience to empathize with Bathsheba’s actions.  Much of the time, we can’t help but throw our arms up in frustration over the unapologetic foolishness of Bathsheba’s decision making.  Roger Ebert correctly asserted in his somewhat dismissive review Schlesinger missed the mark by withholding understanding of her plight.  Though we spend three hours with this woman and manage to oversee every aspect of her life, we still emerge feeling like we’re on the outside looking in, never really getting inside the character.  On the one hand you have to laud Schlesinger’s lack of compromise by making Bathsheba an open book even if we’re often in disagreement with her.  On the other hand, that openness also makes it somewhat difficult to invest in emotionally.  Overall Schlesinger’s period drama is a sincere effort with many glorious images overpowering the screen.  It doesn’t get everything right but you can’t fault him for trying.  Ultimately neither Christie nor Schlesinger achieved the critical or commercial acclaim they hoped they would with Far from the Madding Crowd, but to Schlesinger’s credit he did make the Best Picture winning X rated feature Midnight Cowboy immediately afterwards.

The Remake: 2015
Over the years Hardy’s novel found itself readapted for the stage and television scene.  Circa forty eight years later, now here is the latest full-fledged cinematic adaptation of Hardy’s novel, this time starring Drive muse Carey Mulligan in the role of Bathsheba.  Directed by Thomas Vinterberg, better known as the other half of Lars Von Trier, this understated newly released adaptation utilizes all the same high points of the novel, including locations, set pieces and similar shot arrangements from the 1967 version.  Although you can’t change how the region appears on camera, I was surprised just how much the remake followed in the footsteps of the original in terms of set pieces.  Besides running at a tighter length of just under an hour and a half, what sets apart this newer version is Mulligan and Vinterberg’s take on Bathsheba.  If there’s one thing Schlesinger’s adaptation didn’t do, it was provide empathy for its central protagonist, something the remake does surprisingly well despite connecting all the same dots as its predecessor.  In short, I liked and understood Mulligan’s Bathsheba far better than Christie’s.  It also says something to tell the same story greater by taking out the sprawl of the original in favor of a more grounded, minimalist approach. Where the first film was all about the high notes, the new film deliberately goes for lower ones and in so doing achieves a wisdom about the material not present in the first.

"I forgot to bring protection.
I'll just use this awesome suit."
For instance, Mulligan and Christie’s take on Bathsheba comes across as headstrong but Mulligan gets extra plaudits for allowing Bathsheba collected composure instead of leaping from one knee jerk emotion to the next.  When Bathsheba gets more involved than she soon realizes she should have with the dashing Sergeant, she expresses regret here where Christie is either oblivious or refuses to admit it to herself.  Other little bits that are subtle in execution but significant in context help to soup up Bathsheba’s reputation, such as including scenes of her actually helping in the physical work of the farm as opposed to the carefree frolicking of Julie Christie.  In a pivotal scene where a herd of dying sheep forces her to overcome her misjudgment of Gabriel (Matthias Schoenaerts) and renew his position of employment, Mulligan’s Bathsheba actually goes to retrieve him herself as opposed to just passing the task onto one of her servants.  Mulligan’s emotional control of the character also creates a greater degree of respect for Bathsheba, who was an emotional basket case when played by Christie. 

The only area that’s somewhat lacking involve her other two suitors, Frank (Tom Sturridge) and William (Michael Sheen).  While good, Tom Sturridge doesn’t hold a candle to Terence Stamp in terms of how arresting his sergeant is to Bathsheba.  We still gather he’s a freeloading schmuck but when you’ve got Terence Stamp as that guy, he’s understandably a bit harder for women to resist.  And then there’s the age difference between Bathsheba and William, downplayed here by Michael Sheen who also makes him far more sociable than Peter Finch did.  The age difference felt greater with Peter Finch and thus made Bathsheba’s indecision with whether or not to wed her elder a bit easier to understand.  On a visual scale, Vinterberg’s film lies somewhere between honoring Schlesinger’s images before applying his own Dogme 95 style to certain scenes, notably with Frank’s seduction of Bathsheba.  While nowhere near the operatic grandeur of Schlesinger’s images, Vinterberg’s take on Hardy actually surpasses the original for allowing viewers to warm up to Bathsheba, making her a smarter, worldlier woman than the 1967 film ever did.

The Verdict

Though I much prefer the almost David Lean-esque scope of John Schlesinger’s version, The Movie Sleuth has to go with the most recent 2015 adaptation by Thomas Vinterberg for simply giving viewers a better Bathsheba as well as tightening the belt.  While the original was never boring or tedious, it could have used a bit more editing in some areas that tend to meander.  Vinterberg manages to tell the identical story as Schlesinger did but with greater brevity and clarity.  The splendor of Schlesinger’s vision is as undeniable as it is overwhelming, but we’re not always sure of what he thinks about the material.  With Vinterberg, he declares himself by making Bathsheba a multi-dimensional character with reserve and composure.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the cast of Schlesinger’s version and might actually prefer it to the Vinterberg version.  Objectively speaking though, I felt detached from Bathsheba in the original where in contrast I was engaged by her in the remake.  In the newer version, you actually came away feeling as if you knew Bathsheba and could manage to relate to her actions however na├»ve they may overtly seem.

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-Andrew Kotwicki