Love and Marriage in “The Madding Crowd”
You can always tell it’s a Hardy novel when fate brings horribly bad things to good and likable people: a well-meaning sheep dog runs his herd off a cliff to their death, thus ruining the fortunes of the kind farmer who herded them. A young bride gets confused and shows up at the wrong church—thus resulting in her groom’s rage and humiliation, and (eventually) her own demise. A stately gentleman receives a valentine in jest, and it turns his whole world upside down.
Far From the Madding Crowd is one of Hardy’s most interesting works: it features a strong female lead in Bathsheba Everdene (apparently the inspiration for Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games protagonist, Katniss Everdeen), several surprising plot twists, and a strong cast of supporting characters.
The new movie adaptation directed by Thomas Vinterburg is stately and Austen-esque, but—however tamed down they may be—one can’t miss those black moments of Hardy fate.
The film begins when Bathsheba (Carey Mulligan) goes to live and work with her aunt. There, she meets humble sheep farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), who becomes enamored with this independent young woman. But when Gabriel proposes, Bathsheba turns him down quickly, declaring herself too independent.
Not long after, Gabriel loses his farm and livelihood in a tragic accident—meanwhile, due to a stroke of good luck, Bathsheba inherits a farm. Thus Gabriel ends up working in Bathsheba’s employ, and has a front and center seat for all the drama that begins to unfold around her. A neighboring landowner (Michael Sheen) falls for Bathsheba after she sends him a valentine as a joke; his admiration quickly turns obsessive.
Another suitor enters the scene: Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge). The soldier is supposedly sexy and irresistible (yet, at least in my eyes, more ridiculous than convincing). Hardy’s Troy appears to have both more magnetism and more vice than his cinematic counterpart. As Lawrence Toppman puts it in the Charlotte Observer, the film’s Frank, rather than being chronic womanizer and liar, is “just a guy who makes bad choices, and the role is cut so much that he becomes a nuisance, rather than a threat to village stability.”
Throughout the story’s twists and turns, Hardy presents three choices of marriage for the young Bathsheba. First, there’s the choice that’s founded on lust, passion. Frank seduces Bathsheba, and she falls for him. It seems uncharacteristic of this strong and independent young woman—but Mulligan does a good job showing the two sides of her heroine: there’s the resourceful and independent Bathsheba, yes, but there is also the vulnerable and innocent orphan, who knows little of the world. Troy is the stereotypical “bad boy,” who promises her excitement and passion. Importantly, Bathsheba’s choice goes horribly wrong: underneath the glamor and romance, we find that Troy lacks character. He also disdains farm work, leaving Bathsheba without a partner in life.
The second marital choice presented here is Boldwood: a middle-aged and wealthy gentleman, who promises Bathsheba every comfort. In his quiet and composed proposal, he is quick to list off things such as “comfort,” “safety,” and material possessions he can give her. The opposite of Troy, he offers Bathsheba a marriage of security—but not of love. He may be more of a partner and help to her than the wild soldier, but they are mismatched in almost every other way.
So many modern marriages fall into the first trap: confusing lust with love. We make choices based on feeling, but little else. These marriages fall apart as life grows difficult, as character flaws and personal differences are revealed. Meanwhile, it seems that many classical marriages followed the pattern of the second choice: in arduous times, when one’s future comfort and security often rested on the prospects of a good marriage, many married safely. Charlotte Lucas’s marriage to Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice is perhaps one popular literary example of this.
Yet Hardy presents us with a third choice—Bathsheba’s final choice is also her first: Gabriel. They become dear friends. They rely on each other. They are partners in work, both tending the farm with devotion. Gabriel is steady, loyal, and a man of good character. And they care for each other. This match is an idealized one, certainly, but not an impossible one. In Gabriel, Bathsheba finds the perfect combination of good character, friendship, and love. They marry knowing each other’s weaknesses and strengths, already having had to forgive each other a great deal.
Mulligan brings to this movie much of the quiet intelligence and grace she portrayed in the BBC production of “Bleak House”: she’s determined, resourceful, and has a touch of tragedy in her air. This depiction is, however, not entirely true to Hardy’s Bathsheba: as Lucasta Miller notes in the Guardian, “Hardy’s heroine is a paradoxical character, designed to provoke, tease and confuse the reader just as she does her suitors. The new film, in contrast, presents a Bathsheba who is ‘hygienic’ for modern audiences: an empathetic, egalitarian modern feminist, self-empowered but not motivated by power.”
Schoenaerts and Sheen are likable and nuanced characters, though also perhaps toned down to some extent. Sturridge was the main one to disappoint, with his overly melodramatic flourishes and sleepy, emotionless expressions.
Vinterburg’s film has its modernized twists, but the bones of Hardy’s novel are still here. Compared to the rom-coms that normally appear in theaters, “Far From the Madding Crowd” possesses more honesty and candor about the mistakes we make in love—and the virtues that are necessary in order to make it worthwhile.