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Des limites de l’adaptation

Why does Farmer Boldwood keep so many time-pieces on the mantel-shelf of his dining-room in J. Schlesinger’s film adaptation of T. Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd?

Jean-Pierre Naugrette
p. 61-75

Résumé

The main purpose of this article is to try and overcome the time-worn polarity fidelity/betrayal by which the issue of film adaptation is often plagued. We would like to call viewer-response criticism the taking into account of the spectator's cultural, artistic and hermeneutic horizon of expectancy, which implies that the film adaptation of a literary text should be taken as yet another reading: “Le cinéma est une lecture” (Renaud Dumont). But it may also be argued that literary texts, in turn, contain a wealth of cinematic material, as David Lodge has shown in a ground-breaking article on Hardy. If film adaptation is a reading of its own, cinema may well be written into 19th century literary texts. A good case in point is John Schlesinger’s 1967 adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd (1874). Schlesinger's and Raphael's reshuffling of the textual economy and chronology, their introduction of replays and slow motions, especially during the Market-Place sequence where Farmer Boldwood (Peter Finch) is the key focalizer, is a means of highlighting optical devices and cinematic metaphors to be found in Hardy's text. A key scene is studied at length, that of Boldwood gazing at the Valentine on the mantel-piece of his dining-room, while so many (too many) clocks tick around the place. Schlesinger's reading and interpretation of the verb to strike and other time-related words to be found in Hardy's text thus amplify and distort the letter of the text (in which only one time-piece is mentioned), but also highlight and emphasize significant aspects of the novel, like ocular fascination and Hardy's ambivalent conception of time as striking death into human lives or, on the contrary, extending the freedom of space.

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Texte intégral

Le cinéma est une lecture.
Renaud Dumont

In memoriam, Franco La Polla, University of Bologna

  • 1 Is Heathcliff a Murderer?, Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?, Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet?, Oxford UP, “Worl (...)
  • 2 P. Bayard, Qui a tué Roger Ackroyd ?, Paris, Minuit, 1998 ; L’Affaire du Chien des Baskerville, Par (...)
  • 3 U. Eco, Les limites de l’interprétation, trad. M. Bouzaher, Paris, Grasset, 1992. See III.4.
  • 4 Stanley Cavell, “What becomes of things on film?”, Themes Out of School: Effects and Causes, Chicag (...)
  • 5 Susan Smith, Hitchcock, Suspense, Humour and Tone, London, Bfi Publishing, 2000, p. 100.
  • 6 J.-P. Naugrette, “David Hockney (1980) et David Lynch (2001), auteurs de Mulholland Drive”, Ligeia, (...)
  • 7 A. Hitchcock quoted in Sidney Gottlieb, Hitchcock on Hitchcock, Selected Writings and Interviews, U (...)

1The (rather long) title of this article is inspired by, and derived from John Sutherland’s series Puzzles in Classic Fiction1, in which he uses the magnifying lens of critical detection in order to investigate, Holmes-like, into the grey areas, unchartered textual territories of famous classic English novels. Each time, he asks a question which he sets himself to answer, like so many puzzles to be solved—a method also used by Pierre Bayard in his literary investigations into the logical, criminal economy of Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Hound of the Baskervilles2.The underlying assumption of this approach is that literary texts rely on, and provide “possible worlds”3 which, at times, verge on, or peter out into the impossible, the illogical, or the mysterious unsaid. At first sight, films provide a more reliable approach to reality—to people, objects, pieces of furniture, décor as a whole, which, by definition, seem presented before they are even represented. In films, reality is apparently obvious, not devious. Or, to put it in Stanley Cavell’s Heideggerian terms, “the worldhood of the world announcing itself” is perhaps the hallmark of filmic representation, which implies, as far as things are concerned, a “mode of sight” which “discovers objects” in “their conspicuousness, their obtrusiveness, and their obstinacy”4. At the same time, starting from and dealing as they do with this ontological material, the aesthetic, visual, musical choices operated by the director—including, of course, sound effects—imply a representation of sorts, an interpretation of reality, “putting something into the shot or scene, the impact of which can be quite transformative in shaping our responses to the films”5. If the “worldhood” of the filmic world “announces itself”, the intentional effect of cinema as a work of art includes the viewer’s reception: hence what we could call viewer-response criticism, which takes into account the spectator’s cultural, artistic and hermeneutic horizon of expectancy, what we have called “the intertextuality of reception”6. This is especially the case when (but not only when) films are carried to the extremes of effect and impact: think of Hitchcock’s deliberate use of musical scores—like Bernard Herrmann’s—to enhance the panting rhythm of suspense. A similar enhancement is to be found in Schlesinger’s adaptation (1967) of Thomas Hardy’s novel Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), when Farmer Boldwood (Peter Finch) contemplates the Valentine he has received from Bathsheba Everdene (Julie Christie), and placed on his mantel-shelf. An element of suspense and drama is introduced: as his eyes focus on the Valentine, the spectator is led to wonder what he is going to do with it. As Hitchcock himself would put it, “the best suspense drama is that which weaves commonplace people in what appears to be a routine situation, until it is revealed (and fairly early in the game) as a glamorously dangerous charade”7.

2This time, though, no need for a magnifying lens: as opposed to literary texts, in which puzzles are implicit, films tend to amplify their underlying aesthetic choices in order to emphasize meaning. The skilful use of camera movements, the focus or close-up on a specific object and the sound treatment partake of this explicit representation. The magnifying lens is already there, for the spectator to use. Paradoxically, this is perhaps even more thought-provoking than in a text: the effect is obvious, but the interpretation is lacking. The spectator is so obviously provided with the lens of Sherlock Holmes, his response is so overtly called for, that this very explicit appeal to his detective faculties and yearning for interpretation might well prove more devious than meets the cinematic eye.

From ocular indifference to fascination

  • 8 Studio Canal, Optimum Classic, 2008, OPTD1318.
  • 9 All references are to the Norton Critical Edition of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, ed. (...)

3The scene in the film where Boldwood contemplates the Valentine on the mantel-shelf (MGM, DVD8, chapt. 3) takes place just after he has been watching Bathsheba Everdene in the Market-Place while she bargains with younger merchants in order to buy some corn at a reasonable price. The same scene in the novel takes place in Chapt. XIV (“Effect of the Letter”), i.e. before Boldwood observes and watches Bathsheba “In the Market-Place” (XVII). The film thus inverts the textual sequence of events, in which Boldwood gazing/not gazing at Bathsheba is at stake. In the novel indeed, Boldwood first gazes at the Valentine (XIV) before gazing at Bathsheba (XVII): this is consistent with his previous ocular indifference or blindness to her at the Corn Exchange (XII), where self-conscious Bathsheba, while rejoicing in her ability to attract the gaze of all the men, is aware of someone who does not look at her: “Bathsheba, without looking within a right angle of him, was conscious of a black sheep among the flock” (XII, 749). While the young female farmer has been aware of “eyes everywhere”, Boldwood is thus an “exception” who never paid attention to her, an echo of her previous indifference to him, as confirmed and explained by Liddy, again in ocular terms: “That’s Farmer Boldwood—the man you couldn’t see the other day when he called” (75), an allusion to chapter IX. Note the semantic ambiguity of the phrase “couldn’t see”, which can be read as: a) “I can’t see him in this state” (IX, 61). b) “I won’t see him”. c) “I can’t see him” = “I am blind”. The novel is indeed about people being blind to, or refusing to see other people, a potential chain of tragic consequences if Boldwood’s ocular indifference is but the result of Bathsheba’s previous refusal to see him. In turn, sending the Valentine is presented as revenge in disguise, meant to attract his gaze, which it does indeed: “Here the bachelor’s gaze was continually fastening itself, till the large red seal became as a blot of blood on the retina of his eye” (XIV, 80). Characteristically, the film will focus on Boldwood’s eyes gazing at the Valentine.

  • 10 See Thomas Leitch, Film Adaptation and its Discontents — From Gone with the Wind to The Passion of (...)
  • 11 On Boldwood’s fetishistic tendencies, see Chapt. LII, vi, where he opens a “locket closet”, then a (...)

4In the film, the sequence of events is narrated the other way round, as John Schlesinger and his screenwriter Frederic Raphael “adjust”10 the chronology: Boldwood’s ocular indifference in the Market is replaced by his fascination. In novelistic equivalents, chapter XVII replaces XII and is thus placed before the contemplation of the Valentine, therefore structurally and potentially undermining the sentimental, fetishistic spell11 induced by the letter. In both, however, the scene “in the Market-Place” is seen from Boldwood’s perspective while she is aware of his gaze: “His eyes, she knew, were following him everywhere” (XVII, 94). In the film, Boldwood’s incipient fascination with Bathsheba and jealousy towards “a dashing young farmer” is materialized by the rhetorical use of replay and slow motion when Bathsheba flings a sample of corn at the young farmer’s face, an image which, as it were, is rewound and reviewed in Boldwood’s mind: a means of confirming that his subjective gaze (rendered by a subjective or point-of-view shot: only he could see Bathsheba like this) is prevailing, and also of stressing his incipient attraction to her. The use of replay and slow motion enables Schlesinger to zero in on Boldwood’s subjective gaze: his position could thus be read as that of the embedded cinematic narrator, or even director. Even if she acknowledges him by turning her head towards him (he takes off his hat as a sign of recognition), Schlesinger’s filmic rhetoric implies that the whole scene takes place in his mind, or at least that the narratorial stance coincides with his perception of her, as the use of subjective camera tends to merge both directorial and subjective angles of vision. A different technique is used in the following scene, where Boldwood gazes at the Valentine.

Conversation piece vs. time-pieces

5The camera movements in the sequence can be divided as follows:

  1. a close-up and side-shot focuses on the mantelshelf where the huge Valentine is placed in between three time-pieces or clocks which can be heard ticking loudly throughout the scene.

  2. the camera zooms out and slowly pans around the room from left to right, focussing this time on Boldwood having supper. He is alone, apart from his two Dalmatian dogs sitting obediently at his side. Behind him on a table a huge clock can be seen. The rest of the scene will be filmed through a series of shots/reverse shots.

  3. the next shot is taken from Boldwood’s near-subjective focus or point-of-view: we see the mantelpiece from a distance, i.e. his distance. The clocks are still ticking out loud.

  4. a close-up on the mantelshelf, where the Valentine is seen between the time-pieces. This is still, we may assume, Boldwood’s focus.

  5. a reverse shot shows Boldwood eating and looking up at the Valentine, the letter itself, by definition, being off-camera.

  6. a new shot and a new, closer close-up shows a pendulum swinging: the Valentine is absent this time.

  7. a reverse shot shows the two dogs, and Boldwood eating and looking up.

  8. a new shot and a new close-up on the Valentine between the clocks.

  9. a reverse shot on the two dogs who, hearing a noise outside, stand up and try to get out. Boldwood says “Stay!”, and the two dogs stay. He is still eating, and looking up at the Valentine.

  10. Boldwood eventually gets up. The camera pans from right to left, an obvious symmetrical shot compared with 2. He takes the letter, and throws it into the fire.

  11. final close-up on the burning letter: the noise of the crackling letter soon dissolves into that of the water, in whose reflection Bathsheba’s figure can be seen upside down. The next scene is that of the sheep-washing (we jump from XIV to XIX).

  • 12 Toru Sasaki, “John Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd: a Reassessment”, Literature/Film Quart (...)

6If we compare film with text, obvious differences stand out. Whereas in the text only one time-piece is mentioned on the mantel-shelf (XIV, 79), whereas the Valentine is placed “upon the eagle’s wings” of the time-piece (79-80), in the film the Valentine is simply propped against the shelf, and flanked or framed by no less than three time-pieces. The film multiplies time-pieces, as evidenced by a quick glimpse at a time-piece on a side table near the window as the camera sweeps across the room from left to right, and above all by the one behind Boldwood as he eats his lonely dinner. The shot of Boldwood eating is a kind of conversation-piece, as evidenced by the pictorial motif of the two dogs: see Gainsborough’s famous Mr and Mrs Andrews (London, National Gallery, 1748-49). The only, major difference here is that the wife is missing, or perhaps it is only symbolically present in the Valentine, with its inscription “MARRY ME”. In any case, Schlesinger stresses the tension between the mute conversation-piece of the group formed by the farmer and his two Dalmatians on the one hand, and the loud ticking of the time-pieces which are obviously related to his obsessive, focussed perception of the Valentine. The loud, oppressive beating of the time-pieces throughout the scene, their “inordinate loudness”12, the numerous close-ups on the clocks and pendulum convey a specific interpretation of the text, in which the single time-piece on the mantel-shelf simply appeared as part of the furniture.

  • 13 Perhaps an echo of E.A. Poe’s stories “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Pit and the Pendulum”. Hitchco (...)

7A similar effect (multiplication of clocks and time-pieces, “inordinate loudness”) is to be found in a short film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Four O’ Clock, for the Suspicion TV Series in 1957, based on a story by Cornell Woolrich. A jealous watchmaker, Paul Steppe (E.G. Marshall), plots against his wife Fran (Nancy Kelly), whom he suspects of deceiving him with a man who obviously visits her in the day-time, while he works away in his shop. When back home, he finds clues of his presence in such trivia and trifles as cigar ashes in a tray, a piece of cheese which both he and his wife dislike, or bottles of beer in the fridge: a kind of Holmesian fascination with details which he interprets as pointing to the presence of a man who can only be his wife’s lover. His skills as a watchmaker enable him to build a time-bomb where clocks play a crucial part. When he places his contraption under the basement stairs in order to blow his wife and her putative lover sky high, he gets caught and grabbed by a gang of thieves who gag him and tie him up in the vicinity of the staircase. The rest of the film is about his desperate (because muted) calls for help, while he overhears the conversation going on upstairs between his wife and a man who turns out to be her own… brother: like in Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1940), the film is about the dangers of overinterpretation or at least of partial deductions (he is right about the man, but wrong about his identity). The low angle shot used when he catches a glimpse of his wife about to go down the stairs to fetch her key and thus about to save him is significant: Fran appears at the top of the stairs, in front of a huge time-piece whose pendulum seems to toll the knell of his parting hopes of rescue. As the fatal hour ticks near, the clock’s tell-tale noise increases, he cries out “Stop! Stop!” as if he could stop the very mechanism he has initiated, in an agony of suspense. When the hand reaches four o’clock, nothing happens, a typical Hitchcockian coup de théâtre. Later, his wife explains that the fuse of the basement is out. In the film, Hitchcock’s repeated use of shots/reverse shots of the clock and the watchmaker’s agonized, sweating face, the gradual increase of the ticking as time draws near13 are a means of expressing the protagonist’s obsession with time as fate. In Hardy’s novel, the association between clock and face is also suggested by Cainy Ball’s idiomatic “I walked on and seed [saw] a clock with a face as big as a baking trendle” (XXXIII, 172). Like Hitchcock before him, Schlesinger uses this kind of camera movement in the scene, where a similar kind of dramatic suspense is introduced by the swift succession of shots/reverse shots on the clocks/on the farmer’s tormented face. As the relentless ticking contrasts with his silence and his obsessive gazing at the Valentine, the spectator is led to wonder what he is going to do with the Valentine: “O my darling, my darling, why do you keep me in suspense like this?” he will ask himself in the final scene of the novel (LIII, 283).

A different conception of time

  • 14 Oliver Twist, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1966, chap. 37, p. 323. At the beginning of the same chapter, (...)

8In both text and film, Boldwood is fascinated and obsessed with the letter, which looms large “on the retina of his eye” (80)—hence perhaps, in the film, the oversized letter on the mantel-shelf, an exaggeration reminiscent of similar injunctions (“READ ME”, here “MARRY ME”) in Alice in Wonderland (1865). The size of the letter can be interpreted as the objective correlative of what Dickens would call an “expansion of eye”14. It is of course because his eye focuses so much on the letter that the letter is larger than life: the whole scene in the film is indeed about projecting one’s desires and fantasies into the real world. But the film does not evince the same conception of time. In the text, the letter and its “pert injunction” set off a “disturbance” in Boldwood’s life which is compared with “those crystal substances” (80), an epistemological image reminiscent of Stendhal’s famous study and conception of the genesis of love as “crystallization” in De L’Amour (1822):

  • 15 Stendhal, De l’Amour, Paris, Garnier-Flammarion, 1965, chap. II, “De la Naissance de l’amour ”, p. (...)

Laissez travailler la tête d’un amant pendant vingt-quatre heures, et voici ce que vous trouverez:
Aux mines de sel de Salzbourg, on jette, dans les profondeurs abandonnées de la mine, un rameau d’arbre effeuillé par l’hiver ; deux ou trois mois après on le retire couvert de cristallisations brillantes: les plus petites branches, celles qui ne sont pas plus grosses que la patte d’une mésange, sont garnies d’une infinité de diamants, mobiles et éblouissants ; on ne peut plus reconnaître ce rameau primitif.
Ce que j’appelle cristallisation, c’est l’opération de l’esprit, qui tire de tout ce qui se présente la découverte que l’objet aimé a de nouvelles perfections.15

9We find a similar process at work in the text: “Boldwood had felt the symmetry of his existence to be slowly getting distorted in the direction of an ideal passion”. In other words, the text insists on the slow, protracted process of fascination and falling in love: in the same scene, when Boldwood goes to bed, he places the valentine “in the corner of the looking-glass” (80), an image edited out of the film. This chimes in with Gabriel Oak and Bathsheba’s “romance growing up” slowly (LVI, 303), as opposed to Sergeant Troy’s dashing, impetuous courtship of Bathsheba, which is consistent with his characterization in relation with time: “With him the past was yesterday ; the future, to-morrow; never, the day after” (XXV, 130). The (rather heavy) insistence on time-pieces in the film, which sound as if they were ticking away Boldwood falling in love, is a means for Schlesinger and Raphael to speed up the slow process of falling in love.

  • 16 Ibid., pp. 39-40.

10The question is why. Several answers can be suggested. Again, the effect is obvious, but the intentio operis, to use Eco’s terminology16, is not. The scene sounds a good case in point, since the title of the chapter reads “Effect of the Letter”: in the novel, the narrator’s voice-over is here to analyze the effect produced by the letter in almost scientific terms, and guide the reader in his interpretation. In the film, no voice is provided, so that the spectator is left alone to interpret the various visual clues provided—camera shots, use of objects, the signs of emotion or internal turmoil on Boldwood’s eyes and face, etc. As opposed to literary texts, the puzzle here does not bear on a remote, hidden corner in the logic of the work: this time, like in Poe’s “Purloined Letter”, it is so obvious that it would be easy to miss it, or rather miss its interpretation. In films, puzzles are everywhere: the “conspicuousness”, “obtrusiveness”, “obstinacy” of things according to Cavell-cum-Heidegger displace the puzzle from the objective to the subjective plane. The mystery does not shroud a hidden, easily missed or overlooked object, but bears on the process of interpretation itself. One can analyse an effect, but one cannot solve an interpretation. Films are hermeneutic per se.

  • 17 Ibid., p. 195.

11The first answer consists in arguing that Schlesinger wanted to emphasize Boldwood’s impatience towards time: obeying the Valentine to the letter as if it were immediately performative, he would like to marry Bathsheba at once. Sasaki’s reading of the scene stresses “the farmer’s impatient desire”17. It is true that the film portrays Boldwood as an impatient man, which the novel does not, as exemplified later on:

He tried to like the notion of waiting for her better than that of winning her at once. Boldwood felt his love to be so deep and strong and eternal, that is was possible she had never yet known its full volume, and this patience in delay would afford him an opportunity of giving sweet proof on the point. He would annihilate the six years of his life as if they were minutes—so little did he value his time on earth beside her love (XLIX, 256-57).

12In the novel, this feature is of course strongly contrasted with Troy’s conception of time. In the film, when throwing the letter into the fire, impatient Boldwood seems eager to “quicken the flight of time”, an image rather applied to Troy in the text (XVI, 92), yet another displacement or adjustment: here, meeting Bathsheba in person, as the final dissolve into the sheep-washing scene suggests. From contemplating the Valentine to proposing, Boldwood’s thoughts, rendered by a rhetoric filmic figure akin to a stream of consciousness, dissolve from one to the other, thus operating a kind of temporal and spatial ellipsis. The time-pieces do not so much record the duration of Boldwood’s “crystallization” as his jumping to conclusions. The loud ticking of the clocks can thus be read as a wish to speed up the passing of time, a traditional topos of frustrated lovers’ laments, like in the final lines of Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress”:

Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make it run.

13The ticking of clocks and time-pieces throughout the scene can also be read as a means of playing up the potential direful consequences of the Valentine. Schlesinger may have been led to this interpretation by the very images of “striking” to be found in the text, used twice by the narrator’s detached, ironic voice-over:

And such an explanation did not strike him as a possibility even. It is foreign to a mystified condition of mind to realize of the mystifier that the processes of approving a course suggested by circumstance, and of striking out a course from inner impulse, would look the same in the result (XIV, 80).

14The textual metaphor seems to have been made literal in the film by the obtrusive display of clocks, in order to interweave the Valentine, the ticking of the clocks and other related clockwork imagery to be found in the novel, like for instance during Troy’s desperate waiting for Fanny to show up in the church of All Saints’, as the striking of quarters stresses her unbearable absence:

Some persons may have noticed how extraordinarily the striking of quarters seems to quicken the flight of time. It was hardly credible that the jack had not got wrong with the minutes when the rattle began again, the puppet emerged, and the four quarters were struck fitfully as before (XVI, 92).

15The film might well suggest that Boldwood’s inner clockwork mechanism is disturbed, an image also present in the text: “hope like a sort of clockwork which the merest food and shelter are sufficient to wind up” (XLVIII, 249-50), this time for Bathsheba. Schlesinger displaces or adjusts images of quickened time into a scene where slow, long-winded process, crystallization and duration are on the contrary textually suggested, like elsewhere in the novel, where the sound of clocks is described as expanding into space, a proto-Proustian effect:

The church clock struck eleven. The air was so empty of other sounds that the whirr of the clock-work immediately before the strokes was distinct, and so was also the click of the same at their close. The notes flew forth with the usual blind obtuseness of inanimate things—flapping and rebounding among walls, undulating against the scattered clouds, spreading through their instertices into unexplored miles of space” (XXXII, 162).

16A similar perception of time is to be found in some of Henri de Régnier’s Venitian sketches, where the hearing of church clocks is described as an exhilarating means of encompassing space via time, while the sentence reverberates like so many undulations of sounds:

  • 18 H. de Régnier, Esquisses vénitiennes, Bruxelles, Éditions Complexe, 1991, pp. 36-37.

Et je vous reconnais, cloches délicieuses et diverses, cloches de Venise, cloches de bronze, d’or et de cristal que j’ai tant de fois entendues, vous qui, du haut des campaniles, retentissez chaque jour dans l’air marin et dont les voix descendent sur les “campi” déserts, chantent au tournant des “calli” étroites, se répercutent à l’angle des “rii”, ô vous, cloches vénitiennes, cloches de San Marco et de la Salute, cloches des Frari et de San Giovanni e Paolo, cloches des Gesuati et de San Sebastiano, et vous, cloches de San Giorgio Maggiore et de la Giudecca, cloches des îles de la lagune…18

  • 19 See the “dull and remote resonance of the twelve heavy strokes” of the jack in XVI, 92.
  • 20 Gaston Bachelard, L’air et les songes : Essai sur l’imagination du mouvement, Paris, José Corti, Le (...)
  • 21 R. M. Rilke, Lettres sur Cézanne, trad. Ph. Jaccottet, Paris, Seuil, 1991, pp. 45-46. Lettre du 11 (...)

17We could oppose thus two ways and conceptions of “striking” time: on the one hand ticking out loud, which implies a contraction, a deadly quickening of the ponderous, obtrusive beats19, on the other a flapping away, rebounding, undulating, spreading of sounds which connotes expansion. The first is heavy, mechanical, fateful. The second is light, human, exhilarating. The first is associated with the brutal awareness of memento mori, the second is perceived as recognition, a means of tackling the contraction of time by expansion into space. The first has to do with the heavy weight of gravity, “the suspension, of a previous motion” as Fanny, later on, is described trudging along Casterbridge Highway (XL, 203), the second with what Bachelard would call “the poetics of wings”20, or, as Rilke would put it, “quelque chose d’ouvert, de léger, de lumineux, qui semblait, tout là-bas, sortir décidément de notre monde”21. In that respect, Boldwood’s injunction to his dogs (“Stay!”) can be read as a rather desperate attempt at reasserting self-command (a contrasted echo of the disturbing and imperative “Marry Me” on the open letter), and at steadying the inexorable quickening of time.

Conclusion: why does Farmer Boldwood burn the Valentine?

18Finally, a major shift is introduced in the film when, at the end of the scene, Boldwood gets up, in a state of visible irritation, and throws the letter into the fire, in sharp contrast to what he does in the text, where he keeps the letter during the night, as a kind of keepsake: “when he awoke there was the letter justifying the dream” (81). Again, this final gesture can be read in several ways.

  • 22 Like a “blot” on Boldwood’s character. At the time, the word often referred to family atavism and d (...)
  • 23 J. Lacan, “Séminaire sur ‘La Lettre volée’ ”, Écrits I, Paris, Points-Seuil, 1966. Note that the ma (...)

19First of all, it seems that the film is more Puritan than the text: the Valentine is presented as a kind of “scarlet letter” which is synonymous with evil, and must be destroyed into the flames of hell. It is true that the connotation is present in Hardy: “Here the bachelor’s gaze was continually fastening itself, till the large red seal became as a blot of blood on the retina of his eye…” (XIV, 80). The “large red seal” dissolves into “a blot of blood”, thereby suggesting a tragic chain of events22, which will climax into his shooting Troy at the end. But the film amplifies the image by associating the red seal, the blot of blood and the fire: instead of being kept, the letter must be destroyed by this highly symbolic element. This Puritan reading is also consistent with the symbolic association conveyed by the “purloined letter” motif as analyzed by Lacan, who argues, in his reading of Poe’s story, that the letter exposed on the mantel-shelf stands for the female body23. In that sense, it is obscene, and Boldwood cannot bear gazing at the objective correlative of his infatuation any longer. Pictured as he is in a kind of conversation piece, he probably would prefer his wife to sit at his side, as his dogs already do—an image of obedience and trust. Boldwood does not care a fig for the letter: he is more interested in the person, whom he has already met in the previous scene, and whom he meets in the next.

  • 24 Sasaki, op. cit., p. 195.

20But the ironic effect of contemplating the letter is that the image of Bathsheba, the author and sender of the letter, is distorted: “Here Bathsheba is presented upside down as reflected on the water, which suggests the distorted vision Boldwood’s desire has created”24. Boldwood’s obsessive, monomaniac contemplation of the letter, and the final close-up on fire dissolving into water (the crackling of the burning letter is gradually replaced by the sound of water) create a kind of camera obscura effect, in which things are presented upside down before being set into proper focus again. Even if it jumbles the chronology, the film emphasizes images and elements to be found elsewhere in the novel: not only does the film constitute a reading of its own, but it also highlights aspects of the novel, by drawing on textual imagery and material, which it adjusts or displaces to it own ends.

  • 25 See David Lodge’s ground-breaking article, “Thomas Hardy as a Cinematic Novelist”, Working with Str (...)
  • 26 Note that the novel uses a related cinematic metaphor : “Oak had in some measure been prepared for (...)

21In Hardy, the tragedy comes indeed from people being unable to view things correctly, from the proper angle of vision. At the end, “After the Shock”, when Bathsheba declares: “Mr. Boldwood has shot my husband”, her matter-of-fact statement is read by the narrator as a means of restoring a clear vision of things: “Her statement of the fact in such quiet and simple words came with more force than a tragic declamation, and had somewhat the effect of setting the distorted images in each mind present into proper focus” (LIV, 291). This optical, potential cinematic25 image echoes a previous one: “Bathsheba, without looking within a right angle of him, was conscious of a black sheep among the flock” (XII, 74). As the letter literally and technically dissolves into the fire26 to print the upside down image of the sender on the water of the sheep-washing pool, the film thus exemplifies a crucial textual issue, that of “angles of vision” and “proper focus”. In the novel itself, the description of the sheep-washing pool, at the beginning of Chapt. XIX, echoes the image of Boldwood’s retina: “To birds on the wing its glassy surface, reflecting the light sky, must have been visible for miles around as a glistening Cyclops’s eye in a green face” (99). Whose “green face”, if not Boldwood’s, green with envy? Boldwood as a one-eyed Cyclops: in that sense, Schlesinger’s reading of “the retina of his eye” accounts for the upside down image of Bathsheba as the end result of the dissolve. In fact, her image is not so much seen on the reflection of the pool as on his retina, if the pool is compared to “a glistening Cyclops’ eye on a green face”. Even if we seem to shift from the inside of the dining-room to the outside world of the pool, from the burning fire to the swishing water, from the tunnel of the fire-place to the open space of the fields, what we see is still, of course, within Boldwood’s distorted/distorting consciousness.

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Notes

1 Is Heathcliff a Murderer?, Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?, Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet?, Oxford UP, “World’s Classics”, 1996-1999.

2 P. Bayard, Qui a tué Roger Ackroyd ?, Paris, Minuit, 1998 ; L’Affaire du Chien des Baskerville, Paris, Minuit, 2008.

3 U. Eco, Les limites de l’interprétation, trad. M. Bouzaher, Paris, Grasset, 1992. See III.4.

4 Stanley Cavell, “What becomes of things on film?”, Themes Out of School: Effects and Causes, Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 1998, p. 174.

5 Susan Smith, Hitchcock, Suspense, Humour and Tone, London, Bfi Publishing, 2000, p. 100.

6 J.-P. Naugrette, “David Hockney (1980) et David Lynch (2001), auteurs de Mulholland Drive”, Ligeia, n° 77-80, juillet-décembre 2007. Dossier “Peinture et cinéma, picturalité de l’image filmée de la toile à l’écran”.

7 A. Hitchcock quoted in Sidney Gottlieb, Hitchcock on Hitchcock, Selected Writings and Interviews, University of California Press, 1997, p. 123.

8 Studio Canal, Optimum Classic, 2008, OPTD1318.

9 All references are to the Norton Critical Edition of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, ed. Robert C. Schweik, New York & London, 1986.

10 See Thomas Leitch, Film Adaptation and its Discontents — From Gone with the Wind to The Passion of Christ, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins UP, 2007. According to him, “adjustment” is a type of adaptation which can be conceived in linguistic terms, such as a translation which modifies, compresses, fleshes out, displaces, etc. Also see Laurent Mellet & Shannon Wells-Lassagne, Étudier l’adaptation filmique, Cinéma anglais — Cinéma américain, Rennes, PUR, 2010, p. 22.

11 On Boldwood’s fetishistic tendencies, see Chapt. LII, vi, where he opens a “locket closet”, then a “locked drawer”, then “a small circular case” containing “a woman finger-ring” (280). Again, the film multiplies his potential presents to Bathsheba.

12 Toru Sasaki, “John Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd: a Reassessment”, Literature/Film Quarterly, Salisbury State University, 37: 3, 2009, p. 195.

13 Perhaps an echo of E.A. Poe’s stories “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Pit and the Pendulum”. Hitchcock was a great admirer of Poe.

14 Oliver Twist, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1966, chap. 37, p. 323. At the beginning of the same chapter, Mr Bumble is described sitting in his parlour, “with his eyes moodily fixed on the cheerless grate” (p. 322), a scene which Hardy perhaps echoes in his novel.

15 Stendhal, De l’Amour, Paris, Garnier-Flammarion, 1965, chap. II, “De la Naissance de l’amour ”, p. 34.

16 Ibid., pp. 39-40.

17 Ibid., p. 195.

18 H. de Régnier, Esquisses vénitiennes, Bruxelles, Éditions Complexe, 1991, pp. 36-37.

19 See the “dull and remote resonance of the twelve heavy strokes” of the jack in XVI, 92.

20 Gaston Bachelard, L’air et les songes : Essai sur l’imagination du mouvement, Paris, José Corti, Le Livre de Poche, “Biblio-essais, ” 1943.

21 R. M. Rilke, Lettres sur Cézanne, trad. Ph. Jaccottet, Paris, Seuil, 1991, pp. 45-46. Lettre du 11 octobre 1907.

22 Like a “blot” on Boldwood’s character. At the time, the word often referred to family atavism and diseases like madness.

23 J. Lacan, “Séminaire sur ‘La Lettre volée’ ”, Écrits I, Paris, Points-Seuil, 1966. Note that the mantel-shelf also plays a key role in Poe’s story, as stressed by Derrida in La carte postale, Paris, Flammarion, 1980.

24 Sasaki, op. cit., p. 195.

25 See David Lodge’s ground-breaking article, “Thomas Hardy as a Cinematic Novelist”, Working with Structuralism: Essays and Reviews on Nineteenth and Twentieth-century Literature, Boston, London and Henley, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981.

26 Note that the novel uses a related cinematic metaphor : “Oak had in some measure been prepared for the presence of Troy by hearing a rumour of his return before entering Boldwood’s house ; but before he had weighed that information, this fatal event had been superimposed” (LIV, 291). Chapter LII, “Converging Courses” can also be viewed a written in a kind of split-screen narration.

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Référence papier

Jean-Pierre Naugrette, « Why does Farmer Boldwood keep so many time-pieces on the mantel-shelf of his dining-room in J. Schlesinger’s film adaptation of T. Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd? », Babel, 24 | 2011, 61-75.

Référence électronique

Jean-Pierre Naugrette, « Why does Farmer Boldwood keep so many time-pieces on the mantel-shelf of his dining-room in J. Schlesinger’s film adaptation of T. Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd? », Babel [En ligne], 24 | 2011, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2012, consulté le 26 mars 2017. URL : http://babel.revues.org/148 ; DOI : 10.4000/babel.148

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Auteur

Jean-Pierre Naugrette

Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3

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Babel. Littératures plurielles est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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