Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd, is perfectly suited for television adaptation - this gives us a strong yet simple narrative of suble dimensions, with the rich Wessex landscapes as its setting. And this Granada Television production of 1998 does the novel proud.
There are firm adherents of the outstanding John Schlesinger movie of 1967, with Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp. Those adherents will allow no competition. And yes, that movie was special. With Nicolas Roeg behind the camera, the cinematography too was of the highest calibre. It must be a candidate for DVD release very soon.
But this adaptation is, I think, more faithful to the novel. The lead character, Bathsheba Everdene, is played with wondrous skill by the young Paloma Baeza, who is far more convincing in the role than Julie Christie. And Nathaniel Parker as the faithful Gabriel Oaks manages to at least equal Alan Bates's portrayal. Some might even find more depth in his characterisation.
Bathsheba is a strong-willed woman determined to stay mistress of her own destiny. She is wooed by young country farmer Gabriel Oaks, but rejects his impetuous advances as she neither knows nor loves him.
She inherits a rural property in Wessex, and Gabriel, who has lost his farm and all his assets, takes up work for her as shepherd. Still in love, but far beneath her station in life, he watches helplessly as she is first wooed by the elderly and infatuated neighbouring gentleman-farmer Mr Boldwood, and then by the headstrong and dashing soldier, Frank Troy. The resolute, independent Bathsheba mistakes passion for love, and in a moment of rash impetuosity, she marries Troy.
That is the setting. If you have neither read the novel nor seen the earlier movie, anything more would be revealing too much. Enough to say that you will find this 201-minute long adaptation an exhilarating journey through multi-dimensional characters who are realistically depicted and splendidly acted - the entire quartet of Paloma Baeze, Nathaniel Parker, Nigel Terry as Mr Boldwood and Jonathan Firth (yes, Colin's brother) as Sergeant Troy are perfectly cast.
The only weak link is the acting of Natasha Little as Sergeant Troy's former love, Fanny. Hers is the true tragedy of the story. But either director Nicholas Renton or Natasha Little let pathos descend to bathos at the crucial moment. For that moment only, Thomas Hardy moves into the melodramatic world of Charles Dickens. But this is a very short weak link in an otherwise outstandingly successful adaptation.
Even when comparing this to the 1967 version, I think this Granada production stands well in its own right. And that is rare for productions coming after outstanding earlier versions. Think of the very latest television productions of Love in a Cold Climate, Cold Comfort Farm and Vanity Fair. Each was markedly inferior to the previous adaptation. Granada obviously set out to create a production of dramatic verity, which served the novel as well as it could, while yielding nothing to the earlier film adaptation. Granada succeeded brilliantly.
This is a full-screen transfer. I cannot find any Internet reference to the film's original ratio, but most major television dramas of this period were being shot in widescreen, which would have greatly heightened this production's value on DVD.
Ratio aspect aside, the film transfer quality is superb. Colours are full and rich, and tonal detail, including very dark interior and night scenes, is excellent.
Although this is only two-channel, there is a great illusion of spatial depth created, especially when the music by John Keane comes to the fore.
Dialogue is crisp and clear, and the sound recording is brilliantly detailed - while the main characters talk, a vibrantly realistic sound-stage is being created as villagers chat and dogs bark. For two channels, this is exceptional.
A feature on Thomas Hardy Country would have been appreciated, to place this novel in the context of his other works, and in the context of the Wessex rural landscape he made his.
But this adaptation is worth having, even in this barebones presentation. Get the John Schlesinger film version too when it finally appears - these productions will complement each other.