Far from the Madding Crowd; Feminine, Free, & Faithful; Theology of the Body; and Some Social Commentary

SPOILER ALERT. If you have not read/watched Far from the Madding Crowd [2015] and intend to do so at some point in your future, kindly set this post aside for a future read.

That being said…

Let me begin by saying that, as usual, the movie does not do the book justice. But I would like to note to the world that this is the second instance in which have found that I liked aspects of the movie much better than the book. [The first instance was in comparing the book and movie versions respectively of A Room With A View.]

I have to say that the most refreshing thing about Far from the Madding Crowd is that it is written by a man. When one sees the he’s-better-in-books memes praising Austen and Bronte, one wonders if men lament what might appear to be a determination to make men out to be as complicated as women, and prefer them to be so, resulting in an inevitable disappointment in reality. But I don’t think that “complicated” is the right term at all, because I hardly think of men as simple; and it would be offensive and equally inaccurate to use the slightly closer term, “deep,” as if real men were, by contrast, shallow. So, forgive me if I cannot find the correct word, and please believe that I don’t subscribe to the current general stereotype that women are complicated and men are oblivious. What I mean, in this particular instance, is, I think, best exemplified by the character of Boldwood. One might be tempted to cast up his passionate nature to a woman’s imagination of what must be going on in an [ideal] man’s mind. It is comforting to me, then, to know that the words were penned by a man, and have no reason to suppose that he did so as a deliberate disservice to his fellow men. The passion, irrationality, and complexity of Boldwood’s character encourages me to protest the stereotype that men are less complicated and more oblivious than women.

With regards to the movie, my main complaint is that the pacing is very bad, and one has no idea of the actual length of time passing between the numerous highly significant and terribly dramatic events. Much necessary character development is lost in this, and I think the worst instance is exemplified by the fact that Troy was actually missing for over a year before Bathsheba could be prevailed upon to agree to marry Boldwood – and not for five or six years yet, at that. But I’m getting slightly ahead of myself… and, at any rate, I have no suggestions on how this might have been improved.

I hate to say that I think that the most injustice was actually done to Bathsheba’s character. She was played on screen as more impertinent, less sensitive, and more superficial than in the book. It seems, in the movie, as if she had used three men rather badly in the grand scheme of things, which resulted in several hilarious, “Go [insert what-she-should-do command], you stupid girl!” comments from myself and the three other occupants of the theater – Mum, and then two perfect strangers who were clearly kindred spirits – but which, upon reading the book, were really rather unfair. The movie makes Bathsheba’s life seem like such a rollercoaster [but which ended up being mostly in her favour], but the book shows her long-suffering, usually more careful, honestly attempting prudence, and really often thwarted less by impulsivity [as it would seem in the movie] and more by a weakened, occasionally lazy, but more often worn-down will.

The movie shows considerably less of the opposition Bathsheba was facing. The “I shall astonish you all” line was said much more humbly, and not with the intent of scandalizing anyone or making a spectacle of herself. Independent and wanting to prove capable, yes, but not out to scrap the social norms of the time altogether. For example, book Bathsheba is mortified to know that Gabriel saw her riding astride, having done her best to assure herself of the lack of an audience before switching from riding side-saddle. We read,

His want of tact had deeply offended her — not by seeing what he could not help, but by letting her know that he had seen it. For, as without law there is no sin, without eyes there is no indecorum; and she appeared to feel that Gabriel’s espial had made her an indecorous woman without her own connivance.

And again, in the movie, she seems to be doing a very stupid thing by going out to the hollow amid the ferns, but she had actually asked Troy if she might bring Liddy with her for the sword demonstration, and verbally declared that she intended to stay, to view said demonstration, for less than five minutes. The movie bombards us with a [P]DA that Bathsheba seems to rather like, but in the book, that particular chapter closes with,

It had brought upon her a stroke resulting, as did that of Moses in Horeb, in a liquid stream — here a stream of tears. She felt like one who has sinned a great sin.

[…] He had kissed her.

The movie suggests that Troy is actually a much more honorable and therefore also much more pitiable man, believing that he is jilted by his one true love and therefore made reckless and desperate by this unwarranted disappointment. But the truth of it is that he is, through and through, a man without conscience, as Oak puts it. He is not anywhere near as eager to marry Fanny as she is to marry him. In the movie, we see almost-tears from an unintentionally-jilted-at-the-altar Troy. In the book, we get,

‘Is it Sergeant Troy?’ said the blurred spot in the snow, tremulously.

This person was so much like a mere shade upon the earth, and the other speaker so much a part of the building, that one would have said the wall was holding a conversation with the snow.

‘Yes,’ came suspiciously from the shadow. ‘What girl are you?’

‘O, Frank — don’t you know me?’ said the spot. ‘Your wife, Fanny Robin.’

‘Fanny!’ said the wall, in utter astonishment.

‘Yes,’ said the girl, with a half-suppressed gasp of emotion.

There was something in the woman’s tone which is not that of the wife, and
there was a manner in the man which is rarely a husband’s. The dialogue went on:

‘How did you come here?’

‘I asked which was your window. Forgive me!’

‘I did not expect you to-night. Indeed, I did not think you would come at all. It was a wonder you found me here. I am orderly to-morrow.’

‘You said I was to come.’

‘Well — I said that you might.’

Moreover, in the book, Troy meets Fanny immediately after missing her in the church, her mistake is quickly explained – and he is in absolutely no rush to reschedule the wedding. Troy is far crueler and more heartless than Willoughby; closer to Wickham, I think.

And, I am sorry to say, book Boldwood is almost as cruel as Troy in some ways. In the movie, he seems such a mild and fairly practical person. Well… and then he goes and shoots Troy. We are thus led – perhaps even encouraged – to suppose that this event [in the movie] is an unpredictable breach of his generally prudent character, but this is not so. Book Baldwood is more obsessed with Bathsheba than book Bathsheba is ever obsessed with Troy. We see Baldwood very deliberately taking advantage of Bathseba’s grief – much like we see Richard Armitage, in his portrayal of Guy of Gisborne, attempting to take advantage of Marion’s grief over the murder of her father in the 2006 BBC TV series version of Robin Hood.

Anyway…

My last little gripe is that while I’m sure that all the womenfolk, at least, will be swept away by the happily-ever-after of the movie, it’s actually pretty inaccurate. Did I say, after walking out of the theater, that while Emma is a comedy, Far from the Madding Crowd is not? I take it back. That is, there are parts of the book which are really quite funny, and I mention this now, because the end – as I read it – is a chuckling end and not a grateful-sob end.

‘Bathsheba,’ he said, tenderly and in surprise, and coming closer: ‘if I only knew one thing — whether you would allow me to love you and win you, and marry you after all — if I only knew that!’

‘But you never will know,’ she murmured.

‘Why?’

‘Because you never ask.’

is the only truly accurate part of the movie dialogue. Ladies and gents, it is very significant that Oak did not leave the day after he had announced that he was leaving, and in fact, three weeks passed before Bathsheba was made aware that he had changed his mind and had no intention of leaving at all… and therefore, there was never any girl-running-after-the-guy scene. Nope. Totally a figment of totally modern imagination. It’s a wonder that they didn’t go so far with the artistic license as to make it thunder-storming or dawn-just-breaking. But the book ending is equally satisfying, in spite of not ending with a shocking[-at-the-time] kiss. The ending reads,

Why Gabriel,’ she said, with a slight laugh, as they went to the door, ‘it seems exactly as if I had come courting you — how dreadful!’

‘And quite right too,’ said Oak. ‘I’ve danced at your skittish heels, my beautiful Bathsheba, for many a long mile, and many a long day; and it is hard to begrudge me this one visit.’

He accompanied her up the hill, explaining to her the details of his forthcoming tenure of the other farm. They spoke very little of their mutual feeling; pretty phrases and warm expressions being probably unnecessary between such tried friends. Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other’s character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality. This good-fellowship — camaraderie — usually occurring through similarity of pursuits, is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate, not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death — that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.

Now, lest anyone suppose that I am attempting to paint Bathsheba to be faultless in all of these matters, I wish to say: she is fortunate to be a fictional character, subject to all sorts of extraordinary circumstances [which we will not call Divine Providence] that free her from the life-long consequences of her immature decisions, and necessarily work very well together to constitute her very satisfactory fictional happily-ever-after. It is extraordinary that a character like Troy, aside from his interest in the money involved, could care enough about the censure of the world to marry her, and return after over a year with the intention of continuing in the married state. It is extraordinary that a character like Boldwood should be so passionate about Bathsheba as to murder her husband, sparing her a lifetime of neglect and probably abuse, and further sparing her a marriage agreed to out of a weary and misplaced sense of duty. And perhaps most extraordinary of all is that Oak, who is clearly thought handsome by all and highly esteemed by the community, should not, in the course of the  storied years, meet a woman who is more immediately appreciative of his fine qualities and is more immediately willing to be his helpmate for forever than Bathsheba. She’s a lucky girl, no doubt.

And now, for some of my own social commentary.

I’m sure that there are many good ToB points that one could pull out of both the book and the movie. The one that I would like to focus on briefly is that of head and heart, probably because I’ve been meditating on it an awful lot of late.

In Bathsheba’s character, we see three responses to three different men.

She responds to Troy’s forwardness with heart only and no head; her heart is made to respond to his advances, but her head acknowledges that she married him out of something “between jealousy and distraction.”

She is worn down into responding to Boldwood’s persistence with all head and no heart; she acknowledges that she has never cared for him in any romantic manner, but feels obliged to agree to marry him out of guilt for the trick that she played with the valentine, which had prompted his obsession.

Only with Gabriel do we see a[n eventually] balanced response of both head and heart; two examples: the sensibility of her determination to not lose the sheep overrules the pride in her heart, and the loving and honest desire to not lose a true friendship drives her to put aside the impropriety of calling on him alone (that is, a thing rendered improper by the times, and not by any unchecked passion or real temptation towards immorality on either of their parts).

We see what “free and mutual consent” truly means for those discerning marriage; that it is not truly given if “given” in rampant passion or weary defeat. It is not warranted merely because it is passionate, but neither is it prudent or wise simply because it is passionless.

I think justice is done to the fact that a wife ought not merely be about pleasing her husband, and that a husband ought not merely be about ruling his wife. Troy expects to be obeyed without any interest in what is truly good for his wife. Baldwood is begging/demanding to be pleased without asking if pleasing him would truly bring any pleasure to her. Oak and Bathsheba draw authentic masculinity and authentic femininity out of each other. Oak does not deny that Bathsheba is capable of [servant] leadership, nor does he try to suppress her healthy independence. Bathsheba finds that she can very willingly submit to Oak because he is truly focused on what is best for her, even at his own expense.

Focusing a little more on authentic femininity, especially in light of having just finished reading Dr. Rhonda Chervin’s Feminine, Free, & Faithful, I love that Oak, through his steady standards and selfless friendship, draws out of Bathsheba her genuine charm, compassion, tenderness, courage, and warmth; enables her to be vulnerable with him; while gently but firmly discouraging her pettiness, stubbornness, coldness, and thoughtlessness. He does an excellent job facilitating her discernment between what it means to be “free from” something versus “free to [do]” something, as Dr. Chervin talks about. I think that with regards to this social commentary on authentic femininity and what freedom really means for a woman, the movie does better than the book.

In short, I am content to enjoy the book and movie versions of Far from the Madding Crowd for different purposes, and ruminate on different matters to which their respective strengths in variation of medium speak.

I think that this might be a watch-ALL-the-movie-versions thing, like Jane Eyre was for Mother and myself.

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