You may not remember the last attempt to turn Thomas Hardys novel Far From the Madding Crowd into a movie. In 1967, John Schlesinger directed Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Peter Finch, and Terence Stamp in an adaptation by Frederic Raphael. The cinematographer was Nicolas Roeg, than whom Christie has no more passionate admirer except maybe me. That such a cast and crew could make a film nobody wanted to see is still a mystery to Leonard Maltin. The problem, as Pauline Kael among several others would point out, was that Hardy took a long while, including a marriage and a murder, to get to the final clinch. And John Schlesinger was far too sophisticated to resort to the usual Hollywood shorthand of dissolves and/or montages to signal the passing of collapsed time. So the melodramatic passions, the obsessions and the compulsions, seemed to arrive by ambush, like a sucker punch. Besides which, some of us found it impossible to imagine Julie Christie farming sheep.
The new version for Mobil Masterpiece Theatre (Sundays, May 10 and 17; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) has four hours to play around, with a week off between halves for us to contemplate the domestic blisslessness of sexpot Bathsheba Everdene (Paloma Baeza) and regimental bounder Frank Troy (Jonathan Firth), before the erupting of libidinal seethe from a repressed Mr. Boldwood (Nigel Terry), which clears the way in Hardys Wessex for the return of noble yeoman Gabriel Oak (Nathaniel Parker). There is longitude and there is lassitude, not to mention lots of rocks and a lot of weather. Rustic humors punctuate and leaven the boxlike patterns of the plot, which gathers itself before each action as if for an aria. That Parker, Terry, and Firth should fall so hard for Baeza is no more mysterious than that Bates, Finch, Stamp, Roeg, Maltin, and the rest of us should have fallen so hard for Christie. In downtown black, by turns diffident, mischievous, impulsive, even arrogant, shes scrumptious, and the sheep arent.
Im not about to make hyperbolic claims for Far From the Madding Crowd as a novel or a mini-series. It was a young mans book, published when Hardy was 34 years old and rather more comfortable with village tradition and resourcefulness than he would be when he so fatefully discovered despair -- when he would obscure Jude. Compared with DUrbervilles Tess, Bathsheba is a teenybopper. But she will grow up, from one Sunday to the next, as if to earn the devotions of her sturdy Oak. And while we are left to suspect that Gabriel will run her farm, at least he wont be paying protection money to the Wessex mob.