The Mayor of Casterbridge (2001, 2003) on A & E Television: Sometimes Less IS Less

Philip V. Allingham, Contributing Editor, Victorian Web; Faculty of Education, Lakehead University (Canada)

David Thacker's 2001 Adaptation of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge with screenplay by Ted Whitehead was televised 17 August 2003 and released on dvd 23 September by A & E.

. . .after a pause, during which some operation seemed to be intently watched by them both, he exclaimed, 'There, now, do you taste that.'

'It's complete!--quite restored, or--well--nearly.'

'Quite enough restored to make good seconds out of it,' said the Scotchman. (Ch. VII)

decorative initial 'D'

espite the elegance of the sets, the period look of streets and houses, and the calibre of the casting "a lack of something" haunted the tightly-paced three-hour production broadcast on the Arts and Entertainment Network (A & E) in August, 2003. However, when released a month later on a single dvd the latest film adaptation of Hardy's Oedipal novel seems quite restored, although not perhaps to the fulness of Dennis Potter's 1978, six-hour adaptation, first screened on Masterpiece Theater but only recently released on dvd. Plenty of incident has been shoehorned into this latest made-for-television adaptation of Hardy's sociological novel which dramatizes the tragedy of "A Man of Character," Michael Henchard, sensitively realized by Ciaran Hinds. Unfortunately for A & E viewers on the evening of 17 August (as opposed to those who purchase the dvd), the three hours' homage to this classic late-Victorian novel included nearly an hour of commercial messages. The nuisance value of the commercial interruptions has disappeared, of course, from the dvd issued on 3 September, and in their place we have what director David Thacker had originally put there, so many of the small incidents that had been sacrificed for the television screening. On August 17, the problems with severely editing down Hardy's leisurely-paced text were all too obvious, despite some fine "local colour" offered in background shots of the countryside near Weymouth, where the film was shot for Britain's ITV network some two years before its release. The "bonus feature" available on the dvd, by the way, turns out to be a still-frame biography of Hardy that is at least accurate and pertinent to his writing the novel, but it contains nothing new for those who have read similar biographical sketches at the beginning of modern editions of his novels. However, the real "bonus" turns out to be a much fuller enactment of Hardy's incident-crammed novel.

Of course, reducing a full-length novel to 200 minutes of screen time was bound to entail certain losses--no Henchard having his rival cursed by the choir to the tune of "Old Wiltshire," no Latin for Jodhi May as Elizabeth-Jane (instead, screenwriter Ted Whitehead has given her elegant calligraphy, water-colour painting, and double-entry book-keeping), no rescuing of the ladies from the bull by Henchard, far too little of the Skimmington, and no race across the downs to have Henchard warn Farfrae of Lucetta's "illness." These cuts are neither aimless nor random, but stem from a concerted effort to render Lucetta (Polly Walker) not merely less scatter-brained and devious, but more sensible and compassionate. Her precedence over over female cast-members is established in the opening credits, in which Janet Aubrey (Susan) appears last. The result of editing Hardy is that A & E's Lucetta Templeman is a far cry from the dark Collinsian Anglo-French schemer of Hardy's original magazine serial. Such tinkering with a female antagonist seems almost inevitable in modern revisions of pre-twentieth century classics, but nevertheless is at variance with the original's intentions and effects. The 1978 mini-series had "improved" Lucetta's character, rendering her Henchard's social superior and relieving her of the deviousness that marks her Sensation Novel origins in the twenty-part serial version that ran in The Graphic from 2 January through 15 May 1886 before Hardy revised the text for volume publication. For example, she seems genuinely sympathetic when she encounters Elizabeth-Jane at Susan's grave, and is admirable when she demands her letters from a truculent Henchard and refuses to be bullied. She demands that Henchard--and we--regard her as worthy of respect despite her indiscretion. However, screenwriter Dennis Potter in the 1978 television adaptation retained enough of the volume-version vacillation and weakness in Lucetta to make her at least recognizable as the character from the 1886 novel.

What is even more disturbing in this recent production is the sizable number of cuts in minor incidents that would clearly have established and justified to the viewer Henchard's motivation for telling Newsome that Elizabeth-Jane was dead. Without scenes of Henchard engaged in acts of kindness to balance his deceit and bullying, there is nothing to create the ambivalence of reaction to Henchard's final suffering and death. This is, after all, supposed to be a tragedy, but without a dramatisation of all of Henchard's deeds and misdeeds as given in Hardy's text, there can be no proper catharsis, an Aristotelian purgation of pity and fear.

Particularly off-putting as we move to the tragic conclusion is the ineptitude evident in the screenwriter's handling of the "caged-finch" incident: if he has Henchard put the cage down before the maid has seen it, how does she later know that Henchard brought it as a gift for Elizabeth-Jane? If she knew about the bird, why didn't she rescue it? One should not, however, let such flaws and starts contaminate one's overall impression of the production: the acting and set were first-rate, and the faithfulness to Hardy's original text and intention praiseworthy. But if the inattentive viewer's gaze is not fixed on the screen, he or she will miss key components of the narrative such as the ten-second shot of a Susan immobilized in bed and coughing deeply, a fleeting scene necessary to establish Susan's tuberculosis and to prepare us for her death. Tight editing usually makes for improved pacing, but there are certainly narrative moments which deserve a more reflective treatment: Donald's introduction of the seed-drill and Elizabeth-Jane's allusion to the parable of the sower, or Lucetta's choice of a cherry dress for the season (appropriately rendered in stunning scarlet here) have significance in Hardy's text, but pass across the screen too rapidly.

Michael Henchard's will, in which in the text he liberally sprinkles ampersands throughout and spells "flowers" as a quasi-literate ex-corn-merchant naturally would--"flours," seems an act of self-flagellation even in the film, which of course lacks the print dimension to provide the necessary "ambivalence of reaction" to Henchard's demise, but compensates by having Ciaran Hinds provide it voice-over as a stricken Elizabeth-Jane is comforted by her husband as the closing credits roll. Clearly Henchard can't forgive himself for his misdeeds, including most recently fobbing Newsome off with Elizabeth-Jane's supposed death in order to avoid being supplanted in her affections. "That no man remember me" ironically refers to Elizabeth-Jane's memory of him, but is consistent with the parting utterances of the heroes of Greek tragedy, which is what Hardy seems to have intended we regard Henchard as an extension.

The evocatively read voice-over captures the self-pitying, morose quality in the Hardy's volatile protagonist character extremely well--jolly he's not, but then this is supposed to be the tragedy of "A Man of Character." What the closing of the A & E film fails to address either through dramatisation or voice-over is a highly significant passage of narration about the effect that Henchard's example and in particular the words in his will have on Elizabeth-Jane, who in a sense is the second protagonist of the novel, eclipsing the dapper and debonair Farfrae. The screen-writer, feeling the line indecorous perhaps, does not have Farfrae say, as he and his wife consider scouring the countryside for Henchard, "that will make a hole in a sovereign"--but such humour in the midst of sorrow is a hallmark of Hardy's style and an essential part of his narrative stance.

Henchard, as the novel's closing page makes clear, is simply much maligned and "misunderstood" rather than manipulative (which, going solely on the strength of the A & E movie, is what viewers might be tempted to brand him).

From this time forward Elizabeth-Jane found herself in a latitude of calm weather, kindly and grateful in itself, and doubly so after the Capharnaum in which some of her preceding years had been spent. . . . . Her experience had been of a kind to teach her, rightly or wrongly, that the doubtful honour of a brief transit through a sorry world hardly called for effusiveness, even when the path was suddenly irradiated at some half-way point by daybeams rich as hers. (Chapter 45; Penguin ed., p. 322)

Having been so fortunate as to enter the upper-middle class on two separate occasions, Elizabeth-Jane Farfrae (née Henchard, née Newsome) has achieved an appropriate catharsis, having learned from her step-father's life and death "that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain." This suitably Aristotelian sentiment, however, the ending of the A & E film fails to instill in this viewer.

The DVD in Detail

decorative initial 'D'n the first part of the video, one is struck by the sharpness of the photography, the celerity of the narrative pace, and the careful detailing--for instance, the rush basket that Michael Henchard carries over his shoulder to and from Weydon-Priors, although his respectable clothing is not fustian. Speaking in broad Dorset dialect in the opening scenes, Ciaran Hinds as Henchard is less gruff and more lean than Alan Bates, but once again we are confronted by the problem of an older actor's playing a character less than half his age. There is no attempt to render the wife-sale a flashback; the action moves in a linear rather than recursive fashion, beginning with the "stale familiarity" of the couple and ending specifically on a 16th of September with Henchard's vow on a great bible in a sunlit church interior to abstain from strong liquors. From the exchange of bank-notes and coins between the hay-trusser and a nondescript citizen (nothing about Newsome's appearance smacks of the nautical) and Susan's calmly leaving her wedding-ring on the table, we cut directly Henchard's entering the church. Has he, we wonder, awakened from a sound sleep or a drunken stupor? Hardy shows us his disbelief, but director Thacker leaves his viewers to surmise whether (despite the many tablespoons of rum dissolved in the furmity) Michael Henchard was so thoroughly inebriated as to be out of his wits, or whether (as this production implies) the sale was the coolly calculated action of a man determined to exercise control over his wife.

The superscript "19 years later" immediately follows. The interview between Susan and Mrs. Goodenough (Jean Marsh of Upstairs Downstairs television fame) occurs in the open as in the book, but out of Elizabeth-Jane's hearing--Susan's proffered coin seems to stimulate the old, lean woman's memory of that night, which she immediately connects with his announced destination: Casterbridge. Although the action proceeds in Part One much as in the book--including the introduction of Donald Farfrae and Joshua Jopp, and the overhearing of Henchard and Farfrae's "growed wheat" conversation by the women in the next room of The Three Mariners' Inn--occasionally details are supplied that clarify the narrative or serve symbolic purposes. At the reunion of the couple in the Ring, for example, Michael and Susan Henchard walk down worn stone steps, as if going on stage. And the stunning orange-red of Lucetta's chosen dress visually connects her to the story's other significant outsider, the newly-installed Mayor, Donald Farfrae, in his ceremonial robes. The Sensation Novel qualities of the original narrative are suggested by such details as Henchard's referring obliquely to youthful "deed" when being overheard by Elizabeth-Jane without specifying the wide-sale, and the Mayor's failing to identify his Jersey misalliance by name, thereby leaving both the engenues in the dark as to pasts that very much affect them.

The tenth anniversary of the birth of Prince Edward rather than the ten-year jubilee of Victoria's ascension to the throne (as in Potter's 1978 adaptation) is the cause of the municipal celebrations financed by Henchard and his protégé. Thus, the year is 1851, not (as in the book and the 1978 film) 1847, a year more closely coinciding with the repeal of the Corn Laws that have artificially inflated not merely the price of English wheat but also the importance of the cornlands of Wessex to the English economy. The failure of Henchard's entertainment and the success of Farfrae's thanks to the untimely rain storm nicely foreshadows the destruction of Henchard's plan to cut the Scotchman out of the corn trade. But it is not Henchard's indecisiveness but rather the bank-manager's lack of confidence in his client's business-sense that undoes Henchard at the crucial moment. Ironically, he refuses Lucetta's financial assistance, and seems immobilized by the news that she has just married Farfrae at Port Bredy, the bank-manager having been one of the witnesses to the ceremony.

Thus, there is, as in the book, no shortage of either irony or coincidence in Ted Whitehead's screenplay. Only after he has agreed to her departure does Henchard, finding the flowered journal full of elegant handwriting and sufficiently lady-like watercolours, realize that Elizabeth-Jane has been earnestly trying to be the daughter he wants her to be. Too late he asks her to stay, for she pleads that arrangements have already been made; as she rides off on the wagon, she mentions "High Place Hall" as her destination. The identity of Elizabeth-Jane's employer's is immediately clarified by a note from "his Lucetta" regarding her intention to marry him now that has inherited her aunt Templeman's fortune. Lucetta is more serious and intelligent than her textual counterpart as she and Farfrae shortly afterward regard the teeming life of the marketplace below her window, and Farfrae is much more quickly smitten by her, telling her at parting, "I'll see you in my thoughts. Thank you for the pleasure of this visit"--which he had originally intended for Elizabeth-Jane. At a stroke of Cupid's shaft, father and stepdaughter are cut out of their respective romances. Later, she is evasive with the man she has just offered to marry, having her maid tell Henchard to return on the morrow and behaving in a decidedly cool manner when the two finally confront one another--the subterfuge of their not already knowing each other is suggested, but she and not Henchard originates it.

When Elizabeth-Jane is called upon to witness Lucetta's verbally promising to marry Henchard, Elizabeth-Jane significantly warns her stepfather against forcing her against her will: "I've lived with her, and I know she cannot bear too much." She is able to reinforce her reason for not marrying Henchard ("changed circumstances") with the fact that he is unsuitable since the story of the old furmity-vendor has made the rounds. In the edited-for-television version, without Lucetta's confession to Elizabeth-Jane of her "friend's" marital dilemma Elizabeth-Jane had seemed less central to the plot at this phase of the story. Farfrae remains mystified by Henchard's conduct towards him: "It's more like an old-fashioned rivalry in love, although maybe business was his passion." Lucetta in the film admonishes Ciaran Hinds' Michael Henchard for a want of genuine passion as once again she refuses him, and perhaps after all that was the singular strength of Alan Bates in the 1978 version, an emotional intensity that Hinds cannot quite bring to the part.

References

Allingham, Philip V. "Robert Barnes' Illustrations for Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge as Serialised in The Graphic." Victorian Periodicals Review 28, 1 (Spring 1995) : 27-39.

Giles, David (Dir.), and Dennis Potter (Screen-writer). The Mayor of Casterbridge. (1978). BBC. Seven parts, 359 minutes. Released on VHS 4 Feb., 1991, in Great Britain (BBCV4461); re-released on DVD on 27 May, 2003, by Acorn Media, Silver Spring, MD, 368 minutes. ISBN 1-56938-611-0.

Hardy, Thomas. The Mayor of Casterbridge: The Life and Death of a Man of Character. Ed. Keith Wilson. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1997; rpt., 2003.

. The Mayor of Casterbridge. The Graphic (London). Vol. 33. Twenty parts: 2 January--15 May 1886. Pp. 17-542.

"4m Hardy TV Drama Is Shelved Yet Again." This Is Dorset and Daily Echo. http://www.thisisdorset.net/dorset/archive/2002/08.../WEYMOUTH_NEWS_NEWS04ZM.mtm

Thacker, David (dir.). The Thomas Hardy Literary Classic "The Mayor of Casterbridge". 200 mins. +. A & E, ITV, and New Video, 2003. ISBN 0-7670-5654-X. AAE-70948.


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Last modified 4 October 2003