- Hardy on Screen
Shortly before reading Thomas Hardy on Screen, an anthology dedicated to the proposition that film adaptations of Hardy's fiction are legitimate fodder for critical essays, I attended an odd evening at one of the theatres at my university. A touring Canadian ballet company had put together a number of strenuous dance exercises that ostensibly served as visual note taking on Mozart's The Magic Flute. I found it easier to applaud the intention of the dancers than to identify consistent links between what the audience saw on the stage and what the recorded music insisted I should remember from having witnessed any performance of Mozart's opera. The dancers were evidently deliriously happy in doing their thing. Mozart's music, alas, proved largely irrelevant to their acrobatics. [End Page 103]
T. R. Wright has assembled thirteen essays that review a fairly long history—indeed, a full century—of attempts to translate Hardy's novels and short stories to film or television media. We should recall that Hardy's sincere interest in the theatre, his multiple projects leading either to full-bodied scripts or active collaboration with stage producers and directors, and his keen-eyed observation of the ways in which actors and actresses achieved their effects have attracted serious attention from several generations of biographers, critics, and theatre historians. Nevertheless, in this anthology the casual allusions to the ways in which film scripts borrowed from texts of plays do not render justice to the relationship. For example, Peter Widdowson's aggressively argued claim that D. W. Griffith's Way Down East reworks Tess of the d'Urbervilles stands almost alone in considering the possibility that a film adaptation is based upon a stage production, in this case Lottie Blair Parker's popular original, a decade-long hit first copyrighted in 1897. Widdowson's contempt for her work, which he describes as "a run-of-the-mill piece of American 'cornball comedy,'" is partly rendered nugatory by the fact that the only copy of the play he could find was an undated typescript of the version, one that had been expanded and significantly changed by the play doctor Joseph R. Grismer. Since we do not know what Parker wrote, or how Grisner changed her text, generalizations about the play's quality should be more cautiously phrased.
Other than Widdowson, Wright's contributors downplay the relationship between Hardy's interest in the theatre and film adaptations of his works, though the linkage is real and well worth study. Moreover, the one work of Hardy which, more than any other, has stimulated serious considerations of cinematic technique, namely The Dynasts, is alluded to but not rethought as Hardy's most ambitious attempt to share with the reader a "camera eye." Harley Granville Barker, in his commercially successful adaptation for the London stage, had several intense discussions with Hardy about possible new techniques of enticing an audience to think globally as they reviewed Napoleon's years of military glory and eventual failure.
The famous description in the Fore Scene, instructing a reader how to look at Europe ("a prone and emaciated figure, the Alps shaping like a backbone, and the branching mountain-chains like ribs, the peninsular plateau of Spain forming a head ...") is much closer to the grandeur of the view photographed by an astronaut several hundred miles above the earth than to any conventional image that might be conjured up by an earthbound reader. The resources of photography had barely begun [End Page 104] to be developed at the time when Hardy was writing such passages (and there were many of them); he was, in brief, imagining grandly as a photographer of his epic drama.
A problem quite common in criticism of film scripts based on literary texts has to do with the praise lavished on moments when a director or cameraman simplifies the wordiness of a particular passage (one that describes a setting, the thoughts of characters that provide more solid evidence of why particular statements are made, or the editorial musings of...