Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)

A few weeks ago, there was a lot of journalistic handwringing over the Twitter bots behind the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut “movement”, following reports that at least 13% of the accounts behind that online uproar were 100% fake.  I’m not sure what part of that revelation was supposed to be a shock, except that maybe 13% feels like a low-end estimate.  Anyone who’s ever been tortured by a Twitter-feed algorithm should be well used to seeing a nonstop flood of automated, incoherent “opinions” posted by fake accounts.  That’s especially true when it comes to superhero movie discourse, which I’m convinced alone accounts for at least 13% of all non-pornographic internet traffic.  It’s much more shocking when that kind of organized bot-posting swells up around something that doesn’t involve superheroes, like the out-of-nowhere outrage over 2020’s Cuties or the more recent, even more preposterous outrage over the Jane Austen adaptation Persuasion.  When the trailer for Netflix’s cheeky, modernized version of Persuasion was released, there were plenty of sincere (even if hyperbolic) complaints about how it bungled the tone of the source material, marketing one of Austen’s most heartbreaking dramas as a Clueless-style comedy for Zoomers.  That Austen Fan Club outrage must’ve “done some numbers,” because every third post on my Twitter feed for weeks was labeled “Trending: Dakota Johnson”, with hundreds of accounts named “AustenFreak347492947” complaining that Austen didn’t know what a playlist was, so she would not have written that screenplay.  I’m not going to weigh in on whether Johnson’s flippant zingers about playlists & exes are appropriately respectful to the source material, since I have neither seen the film nor read the novel.  I just think it’s bizarre that any Austen adaptation could generate the same kind of widespread, automated online outrage as a $300mil superhero epic, much less something as insubstantial as a Netflix Original.

If there’s anything to be learned from the Austen & Snyder debacles—both real & fake—it’s that creators do not need to listen to The Fans.  Maybe the hardcore Persuasionheads out there had a genuine point about how that specific work was inappropriate for a playfully modern, Fleabag-style update.  That sentiment quickly backslid into inane, astroturfed discourse about how any straying from the tone & text of any movie’s source material is somehow shameful.  It’s the same pedantic, close-minded thinking that sends comic book nerds into belligerent rages about “faithfulness”, except this time it’s dressed up in lacy bodices instead of spandex & capes.  Worse, it leads to boring, unimaginative movies.  I happened to watch the 2015 adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel Far from the Madding Crowd around the time of the Austen Bot invasion, and it was heavily weighed down by faithfulness.  Determined to hit every plot point of the novel, Thomas Vinterberg plows through the events of the text like a video game speed run, cramming decades of love & loss into what appears to be two page turns of a calendar.  It’s a prolonged, episodic storytelling style that feels more at home in a BBC miniseries than a mid-budget Oscar contender. Bot outrage over movie adaptations taking creative liberties with their source texts feels just as juvenile as complaints about sex scenes that don’t “advance the plot”.  If that kind of indulgence bothers you, I promise you’d be much happier just watching TV instead of movies.  At its best, cinema is streamlined & poetically expressive; it also says just as much about the time when it’s made as it does about the time when it’s set.  Maybe the new Persuasion movie didn’t update & reinterpret Austen’s novel especially well, but the attempt to do so shouldn’t be an offense in itself.  At least, I found myself wishing Vinterberg had shaken up Hardy’s novel a little himself, instead of carefully coloring within the lines drawn out a century earlier.

All that said, the central conflict of Far from the Madding Crowd is compelling even without embellishment, and it’s obvious enough why it’s been adapted several times over the decades.  Usually, in these literary costume dramas our heroine has to choose between two potential beaus: one that looks good on paper and one that feels right in her heart.  Hardy explodes that template by throwing in a third wild card option that fucks everything up for everyone involved.  Carey Mulligan stars as an independently wealthy landowner who’s reluctant to become “some man’s property” through marriage.  Michael Sheen plays her potential mate who looks best on paper, proposing to merge their two adjacent estates into one enormous, profitable empire.  Matthias Schoenaerts is the beau who feels right in her heart – a once-independent farmer who falls on hard times and dedicates the rest of his life in service of her success instead of his own, patiently waiting for her to admit to herself that she loves him.  And then there’s Tom Sturridge as the toxic fuckboy military man who breaks up that classic love triangle with a sudden rush of sex & chaos, challenging Mulligan’s self-image as a strong, independent thinker by directly appealing to her libido.  It’s all very well performed and narratively engaging (especially if you aren’t already familiar with where it’s going), but it doesn’t offer much in the way of interpretation or personalization.  If anything, Vinterberg is outright stubborn in his refusal to modernize, shooting this traditionally lit & costumed drama through a modern digital grain that feels like a tug of war between form & content.  The 2015 version of Far from the Madding Crowd is perfectly serviceable if you’re looking for any old costume drama to fill up your Sunday afternoon, but there’s nothing especially urgent or unique about what it has to offer within that genre outside illustrating the scene-to-scene events of its source text.

Of course, the two most exciting elements of Vinterberg’s Far from the Madding Crowd are the ones where he does modernize the novel.  There’s something thrilling about Mulligan’s wardrobe in particular, which conveys her badass girlboss independence by toughening up her 19th Century fashions with leather, denim, and pants.  The hypegirl sidekick she adopts when she first starts running her own farm is also a distinctly modern thrill, played with flippant Gen-Z sass by The End of the Fucking World‘s Jessica Barden.  Hardy’s novel is already packed with enough sex, death, and cruelty to feel freshly modern in comparison to buttoned-up costume dramas of the past, but Mulligan’s heavy denim dress and Barden’s aggressive brattiness are really what brings the film up to date.  Personally, I’m a sucker for that kind of modern intrusion into historical settings.  When Sofia Coppola snuck some Chucks into Marie Antoinette’s shoe closet, I was cheering while the most boring nerds in the room were rolling their eyes.  The very best Austen adaptations of my lifetime have all been cheekily modern, like Autumn De Wild’s Emma., Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship and, of course, Amy Heckerling’s Clueless.  I’m sure there are plenty of very real people who had very legitimate reasons for balking at that Persuasion trailer, but I would also like to think, for my own sanity, that most of the ones complaining that Jane Austen didn’t know about playlists were the softer side of Snyder bots.  There has to be more to movies than just faithfully illustrating the literal events of their source texts as they were written.  Otherwise, we’ve completely lost the dividing line between art & content, a thought too grim to bear.

-Brandon Ledet

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