Far From the Madding Crowd is probably best described as a love story, albeit a love story where three men fall for the same woman, Bathsheba Everdene (what a name!), and she toys with each of their affections in turn. It’s a very atmospheric novel with a fair amount of drama, and lots of rugged scenes of sheep shearing and hay rick building with an exciting storm or two thrown in for good measure. There’s a lot of heartache and competitive rivalry between the suitors, who couldn’t be more different. Gabriel Oak had his own sheep farm until a particularly brutal mishap resulted in all of his sheep being steered to their deaths over the side of a quarry. Forced to take work as a jobbing shepherd and farmhand, he finds himself hired by Bathsheba (after she’d already rejected his marriage proposal) and becomes her farm manager. Sergeant Troy has a slight air of mystery about him (to Bathsheba at least, his affairs are much more obvious to the reader), but runs into Bathsheba by chance late at night, when the hem of her dress becomes tangled in the spurs of his boot (seriously). Farmer Boldwood is Bathsheba’s neighbouring estate owner, who instantly falls for Bathsheba when she sends him a Valentine’s Day card as a joke. Bathsheba spends the majority of the book playing these men off against each other and trying to decide which of them she could bring herself to love, while all three men are driven to distraction by her presence.
To be honest, I wasn’t desperately enamoured with Thomas Hardy’s writing style, and at times I found it to be verging on the pretentious side – when he described something as having the colours of a Turner painting, for example. I also wasn’t mad keen on the way he writes women. Bathsheba seems to have very little characterisation on her own merit, but is more often portrayed by the reactions she evokes in the men around her, all of whom seem to be head over heels with her at the drop of a hat. This is somewhat surprising, as the brief picture we’re painted of Bathsheba shows her to be vain, proud, selfish, thoughtless, and completely manipulative of the male characters’ feelings. In short, she’s a bit of a bitch. And yet, each relationship she developed with Gabriel Oak, Sergeant Troy and Farmer Boldwood, could only be described as ‘insta-love’. Each man is overcome with the urge to marry her after only meeting her once or twice or, in the case of Farmer Boldwood, progressing from a state of indifference to one of wild passions the minute he receives the joke valentine. Insta-love has always been a particular bugbear of mine, although I can overlook it if I feel it’s well developed or supported by the rest of the novel. But for it to happen three times in one book really pushes against my tolerance levels, because it means that I don’t find any of the relationships to be believable or well thought through. It’s tiring to read about a character who has men constantly falling at her feet through absolutely no effort on her part. It’s known as the ‘Mary-Sue’ trope in fanfiction, where a female character is universally found to be attractive and is absolutely adored by everybody, and I feel that’s what Hardy is verging on here. It’s frustrating because I’d like to have seen more depth and characterisation of Bathsheba herself, rather than Bathsheba as seen through the eyes of men.
I suppose there must have been some slight development of her character as I did find myself sympathising with Bathsheba after her disastrous marriage to Sergeant Troy, but at the same time I wanted her to stand up for herself more and be a bit more proactive, because she brought it all on herself. She absolutely didn’t deserve the treatment she received from Troy, and I couldn’t help but feel for her when she learnt about Fanny Robin and her baby, but she was responsible for some truly terrible decisions which really swayed her fate. If only she’d swallowed her pride and accepted lovely Gabriel Oak in the first place, she’d have saved herself a whole lot of heartache and bother! I have to say I was kind of disappointed with the ending though. I liked that everything wrapped up neatly and in a way I was glad that Bathsheba finally got together with Gabriel, but at the same time I really didn’t want that to happen because Gabriel always deserved better. She treated him like shit a lot of the time, she really manipulated his feelings and went out of her way to make him jealous, and used his love for her to completely take advantage of him. I was thrilled when he finally upped and left, I wanted Bathsheba to really suffer for missing him and properly repent of the way she’d treated him, but then she won him back over with a click of her fingers. Then, just to rub salt into the wound, after she’s finally condescended to marry Gabriel (which is all he ever wanted), Hardy makes some comment about how she rarely smiled and never laughed again. It looks like it’s a happy ever after for Gabriel, but then Hardy makes it miserable! It’s a bit below the belt if you ask me.
I’ll admit I did find Far From the Madding Crowd a bit hard-going at first, because I found it hard to connect with any of the characters and I just didn’t find myself getting drawn into the story at all. This may partly have been due to the fact that I was reading it online over at Project Gutenburg (which is a brilliant resource for accessing works in the public domain), and so I found it harder to read for as prolonged a period on the computer as I can read physical books. I’m not saying I disliked the story, but I felt completely indifferent to it and wasn’t particularly motivated to pick it up again once I’d put it down. However, once I’d reached around the halfway point, I found I was actually getting rather hooked on the story, and was keen to find out what happened. There were some rather dramatic twists and turns that I didn’t see coming, and I actually started to find it rather gripping! It was pretty bleak and depressing in places (Gabriel Oak’s sheep calamity springs to mind), but now that I’m reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles I can say that bleak and depressing just seems to be Thomas Hardy’s way.
Overall, I thought the film adaptation of the novel was actually really rather good. I really liked all of the casting choices for Bathsheba and her three beaus, and I thought they all played their roles really well. I particularly enjoyed Matthias Shoenaerts’ portrayal of Gabriel Oak, he was exactly as I’d imagined him, and had made quite a dramatic physical transformation from the other film roles I’ve seen him in this year! I don’t know how Bathsheba’s head could be turned by Tom Sturridge’s dodgy Troy moustache when he’s got Gabriel’s powerful, muscley arms to contend with! Michael Sheen was also very good as a slightly awkward but very polite and proper Boldwood, and I thought Carey Mulligan did very well at adding a slightly more vulnerable side to Bathsheba than Hardy credited her with.
In terms of the actual story, the film was amazingly accurate. It perhaps didn’t emphasise Boldwood’s obsession/insanity as much as the book, and I would have liked to have seen more of Bathsheba’s decision to bury Troy alongside Fanny and the baby because I found that to be quite touching in the novel. There’s a scene where she’s tending the grave as Gabriel’s entering the church, and I could see the names of Troy and Fanny on the gravestone in the background, but I’d have liked it to be shown explicitly. Troy’s gravestone dedication to Fanny was a really hurtful and probably humiliating event for Bathsheba, so I found it quite moving for her to have him buried alongside the woman she knew he loved most. It would also have been quite a nice touch to include the scene in the book where Troy’s trying to plant flowers around Fanny’s grave, but the film was already fairly long trying to include all the other necessary details, so I can see why that particular scene would have been expendable. On the whole I thought it was really well done though. Cinematically, I found everything from the settings to the costumes really visually appealing, and the soundtrack was beautiful with lots of swelling strings to stir the old emotions. It’s definitely worth a watch, although I suppose it is a bit slow-going at times (much like the book). If you’ve read the book I think you’d find a lot to appreciate in the film, and if you haven’t read it I think it’s still a really strong portrayal of a good story, which stands up perfectly well on its own.