Tuesday, 23 August 2011

The Return Of The Native - Book To Film

 Continuing on my Thomas Hardy kick, his 1878 novel The Return Of The Native, while not considered his best by many, is a very interesting commentary on the role of fate in life, choices that lead individuals down questionable paths, and ultimately, how a person's refusal to live by the standards of society find themselves outcasts and the subjects of gossip and superstition.  Debated among readers, the native of the title is Clym Yeobright, certainly one of the dullest central characters to be featured so prominently in a novel, his idealism seemingly the forefront trait of his colorless personality. But it is that very idealism that draws in Eustacia Vye, the beautiful, willful and unconventional young woman who had come to Egdon Heath (another part of Hardy's fictional Wessex) to live with her former seafaring grandfather. Eustacia is looked down on by the townspeople, referred to as a witch because of the young men of the community being smitten with her - one such man being Damon Wildeve, a failed engineer and innkeeper of The Quiet Woman Inn. Wildeve is something of a rogue and a "lady killer" who has a strong desire and bond with Eustacia but is pledged to marry the fair Thomasin Yeobright.  Eustacia finds Damon exciting but feels that he is somehow beneath her, although he shares with her the disdain for the heath and promises to take her away, and she shifts her attentions when Thomasin's cousin Clym returns from Paris, where he had been successful in the jewelry business.  Believing Clym to be her ticket out of England, Hardy's heroine breaks things off with Damon and sets out to win Yeobright's heart.  Wildeve marries Thomasin out of spite, arousing the concern of reddleman Diggory Venn, who loves Thomasin unselfishly and will do anything to see her happy.  Clym's mother is opposed to both the marriages of her son and her niece, and Eustacia begins to realize that Clym has no intention of going back to Paris and is content with working as a furze-cutter. Miserable in a union that she thought would take her away from the world she despises, Eustacia finds herself drawn to Damon again (who has since inherited a large sum of money), he is also unhappy in his marriage, leading to emotional storms, misunderstandings and ultimately tragedy.  Hardy examines the limited choices of women in the Victorian society and Eustacia's refusal to conform yet she cannot avoid the trappings of the era she was born in - she fixates on men as an escape, since travel on her own would be difficult and nearly impossible - it seems nothing is enough for her. Wildeve too, longs to leave Egdon but is bound there almost by a force of Mother Nature, making it seem that they are part of the heath and are destined to remain so. At the novel's conclusion, Clym is left a broken man with failed eyesight finding solace in preaching (Hardy cleverly interweaves inspirations from Greek tragedies), Thomasin marries the selfless Venn, and her child with Damon, Eustacia Clementine Wildeve, suggests that the namesake of the book's three main characters may escape the curse of her forbears. The novel almost seems inspired somewhat by Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights but with Hardy's ideology and style. That doesn't deter from the book's merits, it is very much essential Hardy. Not as well-loved as some of his other works, it nonetheless captivates the reader with its mix of the ethereal and the harsh reality of the times, as well as the role that nature plays.

The Hallmark Hall Of Fame was the first to produce a film adaptation of the novel in 1994.  Made for television, directed by Jack Gold, the constraints of such a budget limits the quality of the cinematography, but it is very arresting nonetheless. For some reason, the producers opted to shoot the movie in Exmoor National Park, in Dorset's neighboring county, Devon. A rather ironic choice, as the landscape is quite rugged, and R.D. Blackmore's Lorna Doone (for which the setting is Exmoor) is often filmed in more mountainous areas (as the 2001 A&E production shows, having been shot predominately in Wales).  Not that it doesn't work well, but one wonders how Dorset locations may have worked as the location. Since it was a two-hour television movie, much had to be omitted, including Wildeve and Thomasin's child, and the cause of Mrs. Yeobright's death was altered, which may upset fans of the book.  Perhaps they didn't have enough time go into it, but this is still a pretty good presentation given the running time.

As the central female character, a young and then a relatively unknown Catherine Zeta-Jones, in her natural beauty before Hollywood came calling, is an ideal choice for Eustacia Vye. Not only does she fit the bill physically (black-haired, with dark "pagan" eyes), but she embodies the tragic heroine with both vulnerability and selfishness. It's understandable why so many of the young men of the community are drawn to her, and also why some of the other townspeople, particularly the older women, regard her suspiciously and superstitiously. Eustacia is a victim of prejudice but also of her own fickle and passionate nature.  Perhaps that is why she is drawn to the excitement that Wildeve embodies but also longs for the idealistic principles of Yeobright.  The conflict within herself also symbolizes the constant battle in Hardy's work of rural versus urban, pagan versus Christianity, and unconventionality versus conformity.

The primary triangle shows this conflict as well, on a perhaps more subtle level.  The lesser triangle between Wildeve, Thomasin (Claire Skinner, very believable) and Venn (Steven Mackintosh, an absorbing understated performance) also has these ingredients, but unlike Eustacia, Thomasin has managed to adapt to her surroundings and society's rules, and, as unhappy as she is in her marriage to Damon, she continues to love him despite his womanizing ways and indifferent behavior toward her. Thomasin is also far better-suited to the solid, selfless qualities of Diggory, whereas Eustacia, especially at the beginning of the story, is a better match for Damon's wild and passionate nature than to Clym's stolid reliability. Eustacia wonders as her marriage doesn't live to her expectations (when she realizes that Clym has no intention of returning to Paris, so her longing to be free of Egdon will not materialize as she hoped), if she made a mistake in discarding Damon, who ignites a flame within her that Clym cannot, despite the gentle love for him she feels.  Which will bring her freedom, and what way of life to choose - the mundane but stable lifestyle, or the wild and passionate one? She cannot have it both ways, and it seems that nothing and no man is enough.

Clive Owen, who along with Jones, was not widely known outside of the UK at the time, plays a very convincing Damon Wildeve, with his chunky body yet ruggedly boyish face and deep voice. He and Jones make a striking couple, and the chemistry is very apparent. Of course, this personally just re-enforced my opinion that Eustacia and Damon are the star-crossed lovers who are fated to die alongside each other. Although in later editions Hardy made Wildeve to be more devious in his motives toward Eustacia, Owen makes Damon's intentions seem a mixture of desire for her and wanting her for himself, but the Romeo and Juliet type of conclusion of their lives suggest that they ill-fated and doomed to die together in the place they both hoped to escape.

Ray Stevenson (who was also a newcomer at the time), plays the thankless role of Clym, and while he is somewhat likable, he remains a rather uninteresting character. Apart from his idealism and gentleness, it is hard to understand what Eustacia saw in him. He is quite weak, but not detestable - just not very compelling.  I guess since I never found him to be anything other than bland in the book, it was hard for me to see where Eustacia's conflict of heart came from over him.  She "lived on promises that he never made" and he was too busy trying to become a schoolmaster, and later struggling with his loss of sight (another symbol as to his not wanting to see what is really there), to realize how trapped Eustacia feels in Egdon Heath.

The other main conflict of the story is with Clym and his mother over his marriage to Eustacia and his future career plans. Mrs. Yeobright (played by the great Joan Plowright), hopes her son will go back to Paris and resume his successful business work there, but his decision to remain at Egdon as a schoolmaster and later as a furze-cutter displeases her, but not as much as Eustacia being her son's wife. Like many of the other people in town, she dislikes her new daughter-in-law and feels on some level that she has bewitched her son and ruined his life. They are estranged for most of the last half, and her thwarted attempt to reconcile with her son has a tragic consequence for everyone involved, and sets the fateful events of the climax in motion.  The only happy ending is that of the marriage of Thomasin and Diggory, who has gone back to the more respectable profession of dairy farming. Eustacia and Damon achieved their escape in death, and Clym contents himself by spreading the word of God to others.

So far, this being the only adaptation of The Return Of The Native (although I have heard there may be another one in the works), this one, as condensed as it is, is a very watchable if intriguingly flawed piece.  It's also fun to see Catherine and Clive so young and early in their careers - and see them light up the screen although it would have been nice to see more of their characters' relationship onscreen.

This video was not put together by me.  Wonderfully done by a youtube user.

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