Thomas Hardy’s book may have been groundbreaking in 1874 but we’ve seen plenty of films telling a similar story since its release. In this third remake of Hardy’s novel, Carey Mulligan plays protagonist Bathsheba Everdene, a beautiful, independent woman in Victorian England who stands against societal norms of the day. Women at the time are not meant to be tending to their own farm or selling crops in the market like Bathsheba. She causes a stir wherever she goes with her free spirit and stunning beauty. Over the course of the movie’s timeline (which may take place over six months, two years, or twenty), Bathsheba attracts the attention of three very different men: Gabriel Oak, a once wealthy man who lost his fortune in a crazy dog vs sheep tragedy; William Boldwood, a wealthy older gentleman whose farm abuts Bathsheba’s; and Sgt. Francis Troy, a creepy soldier who bounces back from a vapid wedding day insult with surprising ease. Each of the men hold tragedy in their past and each fall for Bathsheba instantly and without second thought.
The film follows Bathsheba’s life in several acts which reflect back on themselves. First she meets Gabriel and spurns his advances. Next she teases Boldwood with an anonymous love letter that he sleuths out with zero difficulty. Finally she meets the creepy soldier who impresses her by showing off his sword skills like a high-school boy showing Cindy from next door how many push-ups he can do. We are never able to spend enough time with each character. With a run time of only two hours it is next to impossible to give the plot enough time to breath. Instead we shift from one deus ex machina tragedy to another similar solution. Wealthy Gabriel proposes to Bathsheba, gets rejected, then boom his sheep go cliff diving and he’s suddenly poor and in need of a job. Then Boldwood shows up, looks at her once, and is dumbfounded by his own affection. Things get messy quickly but wrap up even quicker.
Gone With the Wind, one of the best films of all time, tackled very similar storylines but took *twice as long to tell the story. In that film, Vivien Leigh stars as Scarlett O’Hara, a beautiful southern belle who charms a soldier, an older gentleman, and a third man who society would frown upon as a suitor. O’Hara’s story unfolds over many years, starting with her youthful crush on the (less creepy) soldier and following her through the tragedies of war and its aftermath. Leigh’s character has infinite more depth than Mulligan’s which has less to do with acting and more to do with space permitted to act. These complexities lead to a richer story and far more relatability. And while their plot trajectories track similarly, the two movies arrive at different destinations. The finales are set up with remarkable similarity. With two suitors out of the picture, both O’Hara and Bathsheba watch as the third and final suitor make ready to leave forever. Both women protest (one vehemently and one sheepishly) and wonder aloud “what shall I do?” In the older film, Clark Gable responds to the pleading with one of cinema’s most famous lines: “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” (By the way, that line was voted the best quote of all time by the American Film Institute). In the newer film, Bathsheba quietly asks for her suitor to stay. Throughout the film these more intense moments play out with near insincerity and rely on us to understand their importance rather than convince us of the stakes. The response to Bathsheba’s pleading may be more pleasing superficially but it feels hollow.
Here’s an insane fun fact: Thomas Hardy’s book Far From the Madding Crowd was published in 1874. Gone With the Wind was released in 1939. Which means that Gone With the Wind is closer chronologically to Hardy’s book (65 year difference) than it is to us today (74 year difference).