Sunday, 21 August 2011

Tess Of The D'Urbervilles - Comparing The Three Adaptations

The classic 19th-century novel by Thomas Hardy has been adapted for the screen a few times (but the early versions before 1979 are considered lost), and twice for television, and the surviving three are the subject of this post.  The book was very controversial upon is original publication in 1891, because it dared to portray the Victorian society of the time as hypocritical, showed how innocence can be stolen and how those who didn't fit in were shunned and fall into hardship. However, Tess Of The D'Urbervilles was hugely successful, despite Hardy's struggle to publish his original version rather than the sanitized and somewhat implausible variation of the story that first appeared in general serial magazine form.  Perhaps because of the controversy, Tess was well-received by the public, and that may have been due to Hardy's sympathetic presentation of the main character, Tess Durbeyfield, a lovely young girl from a poor family who is violated and wronged by the high society that her parents are hoping to enter through her.  Believing his clan to be of noble blood, her father John Durbeyfield believes that a wealthy family living somewhat nearby are relations, and young Tess is sent to charm them in hopes that she will gain a good matrimonial tie, although she herself is not open to such a suggestion, and in doing so, her parents unknowingly put the girl upon the path to ruin. Raped by the son of the house, she finds herself pregnant and the child dies soon after birth.  Later, her chance at real love is thwarted by fate and by the false judgments of the young man she marries. As with much of Hardy's work, tragedy is not far behind. There is no hint of misogyny on the author's part himself - he seems to have created his herione with respect and dignity, not condemning her but rather the people around her, and her noble bloodline.  His loving description of the landscape reflects his passion for his Dorset (which he refers to as Wessex in his novels and much of his poetry), and his growing sense of apprehension regarding the industrial revolution, threatening to replace the old ways of agricultural work.  So Tess is a symbol of the land, a nature goddess who instead of being maintained, loved, respected and cared for is violated and forsaken.

Let's start with the one that is the most widely remembered, praised, and in my opinion, somewhat overrated: Roman Polanski's French/British co-producton, "Tess". After fleeing the US to avoid prison time involving having sex with a minor, Polanski, having read the novel (which his tragically murdered wife, Sharon Tate, suggested would make a good film), decided to honor her by making an adaptation for the screen and dedicated the picture to her memory.  Due to extradition laws, the production had to be filmed in France, and while the landscape is breathtaking, (and the cinematography gorgeous), it simply did not have the feel of Dorset, although in some instances it certainly proves to be an interesting substitution.

Natassja Kinski, in her late teens at the time, won the role of Tess after living in England for several months and practicing her accent. Kinski's Tess is introspective, brooding, and somewhat passive.  In a film that runs over three hours, she has very little dialogue, and while her accent comes and goes, she is bewitching to look at, and certainly offers the locations of Normandy and Brittany competition for alluring beauty. However, she does look too exotic to be an English country girl.

Peter Firth, as Angel Clare, the parson's son with whom Tess falls in love, is not hard to look at either but his performance is very lackluster and at times rather stiff.  There is very little chemistry between them to suggest that they are in love, and certainly it does not create the longing on Tess's part for him to return to her.  Leigh Lawson, who had to be persuaded somewhat to do another film by his agent, makes a very solid and despicable Alec d'Urberville, the man posing as a cousin who takes advantage of Tess, impregnates her, vanishes from her life only to reappear when she and her family are in severe emotional and financial strife. Lawson seems a bit too old for the part but he does make something of a dashing rogue in his limited amount of screen time, and period costume suited him very well.

The score by Phillipe Sarde is wonderfully expressive of Tess's emotions, the changing of the seasons and the unfair harshness of the hand she has been dealt.  The controversy surrounding this production was due in large part to the statutory rape charge against Polanski and his flight from American justice.  In view of that fact, there are certain scenes that are uncomfortable to watch, especially considering the film's subject matter and Kinski's age at the time (it has been widely speculated that she and Polanski were lovers while she was underage, and let me just point out that while I enjoy his films, I do not condone Polanski's personal conduct on any level). Polanski also omits important parts of the plot that would made it easier to follow, such as Alec becoming a preacher, which is completely left out, making his discovery of Tess's problems a bit too silly to believe. It would be impossible, however,  to include every part of a novel into a film, even an epic as this one is.  The movie is enjoyable, and I think it has its own merits, I have to say that it's not my favorite of the adaptations. It's beautiful to look at, but not as moving as it could have been (in my opinion anyway).  The slow moving style does drag at times, but basking in the cinematography and music is well worth the running time.

On to the next presentation: the 1998 two-part miniseries, produced by A&E (back when they actually made and aired their own films) and the now defunct London Weekend Television.  This was the first version that I ever saw, and it made me buy and read the book.  That may contribute to some bias that I have in this being my favorite filmed version of "Tess Of The D'Urbervilles" but I've come across many other people who have the same preference.  Truer to the book in many ways, and filmed on location in Britain, this production has a very authentic feel.  Director Ian Sharp adapted from the novel and avoided watching the 1979 film so he could have his own fresh take on the story. And it succeeds tremendously.

Justine Waddell's Tess a combination of strength, vulnerability, optimism and cynicism.  Her innocence at the beginning is not in question, yet she possesses a great amount of inner strength and depth.  Waddell also seems like a homegrown country maiden with her build and coltish beauty.  Her eyes express a well of emotions that words can't fully explain; and feelings are genuinely conveyed.

Casting Oliver Milburn as Angel was a inspired choice, and the utterly right one.  Never have I seen this character, despite his weakness and hypocrisy, so wonderfully portrayed.  Milburn's gentle countenance and voice make him sympathetic in a role that lacks a significant amount of depth or pity; while it can be said that Angel has been molded by his pious family, his supposedly liberated views on religion and society turn out to be as narrow and unforgiving as the mindset he claims to despise.  The chemistry between Waddell and Milburn is electric and involving - you actually believe that Tess and Angel belong together and you can feel Tess's anguish at being separated from him and her longing for him. You can even see why she ends up doing the desperate act that she does to win him back - all the heartbreak, grief, anger and betrayal of her life just explodes in a moment of passion and you weep for her as she faces her tragic fate.  Jason Flemyng makes his Alec charming yet repulsive at the same time - no easy feat.  His stalking of Tess is unsettling yet you know he believes that he loves her, in a possessive way that leads to his doom.  Due to the constraints of a television budget, the cinematography is not as absorbing as the Polanski film, but it is very beautiful nonetheless.  A narrator, who is briefly shown in the second half, was obviously intended to be Thomas Hardy, and the score is melodic and absorbing, composed by Alan Lisk.  In short, this is the version I would recommend the most, just a moving and memorable experience.

This latest adaptation, produced by the BBC in 2008, is an interestingly flawed miniseries, once again filmed on location in Dorset.  Presented in North America by Masterpiece Theatre, this series certainly is given enough time (four episodes) to establish plot and character, and it both succeeds and fails. Once again, not enough emphasis on the landscape, but what is seen of it is memorable and pleasant to the eye.
The main flaws is the chosen scenes and dialogue in some sequences, as well as miscasting (in my opinion anyway) of the role of Angel.

                                                Gemma Arterton as Tess Durbeyfield

At first, I didn't warm up to Gemma Arterton's Tess. Maybe because she was playing younger than her age, she tried too hard to seem younger, but as the series went on she began to grow on me.  Arterton has a porcelain, English-rose like persona in period drama, and the range of emotions in this story is exhausting and amazing, and she carries it very well.  In her optimism she wants to believe that things will be all right in the end but fate is her enemy.  And although I wonder in this version if Angel is deserving of her love, Arterton makes us believe her longing.

Hans Matheson as Alec Stoke D'Urberville
This was the first time I've ever seen the character of Alec presented in something of a sympathetic light, and it works very well.  Hans Matheson, who has proven his versatility as an actor, makes his Alec vulnerable in a way that I've never seen before.  Alec here is not the one-note, swirl moustached villain (which this version has dispensed with), but a corrupted and misguided individual who was not shown love by his mother and therefore he did not know how to give it or show it in a positive way.  You get the feeling as to just how doomed he is when he first sets eyes on Tess.  He believed he loved her, and maybe he did as far as he was capable, but his inexcusable actions toward her made it impossible for him to win her love. His wealth and position is the only way he could possess her and he was aware of that, but he wanted her at almost any cost.
He caused Tess a lot of pain but he was genuinely remorseful before he returned to type. The dynamic between Tess and Alec here is something I've never seen before - I almost wanted them to be together it was so strong.  Sometimes chemistry is there and sometimes it isn't - it's not something that can be created, it just is. And these actors have it.  Matheson also has a very boyish and charismatic presence, which makes him stiff competition for Angel.  Here Alec can seem like a respectable young man.  He isn't, of course, but he can give that illusion. If Tess had loved him, would that have made him a better man? Interesting question to ponder.

Eddie Redmayne as Angel Clare
For me, Eddie Redmayne's Angel is the weakest link. He seems very miscast, and whether it was the direction, writing, Redmayne's chocies or a combination of all three, he comes across as very insipid and lifeless.  It's hard to understand why Tess and her fellow dairymaids were in love with him, nor does he seem to inspire what motivates Tess to do the unfortunate deed that she does to win him back.  I found it hard to believe that she would fall for this bumbling fool, even though Angel is supposed to be weak, he is also supposed to have some qualities that endear him to Tess - I had a hard time seeing them here.  His dialogue seemed forced and clumsy, although his emoting was very good.  As the series went on Redmayne progressed somewhat, but that's still not saying much. I've seen Redmayne in other films and enjoyed his interview on the special features of the DVD - he seems like a nice and intelligent actor, but his Angel is very bland.  His performance was for the most part passable at best.

Rob Lane's score is expressive, and the inclusion of the folk song "The Snow It Melts The Soonest" was a brilliant addition - the haunting melody sums up the aura of Tess's tragic tale.  The supporting cast was excellent and director David Blair managed to balance out the character and plot development in the last two episodes.  The second episode is the weakest due to the rushed pace of Tess and Angel's romance and bonding, the brief glimpse of Alec and the poor characterization of Angel.  The sex scene was a bit much, as was the modernization of dialogue in some sequences, but the ending, a "only if" climactic added some slightly uplifting quality to Tess's somber life. My second favorite, if I may say so.

At Stonehenge

In conclusion, all three presentation of Hardy's classic novel are worthy editions to any DVD library - each take on the story has its own interpretations, and each actress who portrayed Tess brought her own qualities and essence to the role.

A video I complied of clips of all three films together:


  1. Beautiful post, I enjoyed reading it and found it very inspiring -well written, and with beautiful and valid commentary; well done! :)

  2. Thank you very much for your great comment!

  3. I watched three of them myself, and I really enjoyed your post. I totally agree with your comment about Matheson's Alec. "If Tess had loved him, would that have made him a better man?" It's very revelational. In this version, he was dark and twisted, but didn't seem like typical womanizer who preyed on pretty girls as described in the novel, more like desperately seeking love. So my opinion, yes, there would be a good chance.

  4. Hi there, 2017 here now and just found your blog. Thank you so much for such a well thought out and comprehensive review of these three renditions of a beautifully tragic story. I read the book as a young teen, saw the Natassa Kinski version and couldn't quite connect to either. Maybe too young to appreciate Hardy as I do now! But the story makes an impression on you and you never forget reading it. So, I purchased the 2008 version and fell in love with this story. I totally agree with your thoughts on terribly miscast Angel and his dithering appearance, and the
    eerie, but powerful chemistry with Alec. Loved your question about Alec being a different/better person if Tess had forgiven and loved him. Seems very likely around the mid-point to last third of the story as Alec really seems to be trying to be the kind of person Tess could have fallen in love with. At the end, as you said, he goes back to type as a dark, twisted man who seems simply possessed with owning Tess at any cost to her or him. I wondered in this version (which would be a different book entirely of course), if Alec had of course not raped Tess, it seemed like they might have had a chance at love. If he just hadn't gone to such a dark place. Your videos were also wonderful, thank you. I'm off to pay the exhorbitant price on Amazon to see your favorite version from 1998 with Justine Waddell, a great actress IMO, and with a credible Angel too!! Thanks again & Blessings!

    1. Thank you Julianne, and I'm glad you liked my post! I get annoyed when movies and miniseries go out of print on DVD too and they become really expensive! I hope you're able to find a bargain. The 1998 version is definitely worth seeing.

  5. Hi, I was searching for information on film adaptations of Hardy's work ,and I found this fabulous blog.Not only was this truly informative ,but I loved your analysis of each film version.Thank you!!!! I agree with you about A&E.A&E was spot on with important character development and plot.On the other hand, Polanski's Tess was too bogged down with landscape and visuals rather than story development.Thank you for this beautiful blog.