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Top 20 Film Adaptations of Classic Lit, Part III

April 16, 2012

10.) Far from the Madding Crowd -1967  (directed by John Schlesinger, based on Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy)

Schlesinger’s 1967 film showcases the stunning beauty of actress Julie Christie and cool blond haughtiness of her character, the young and tempestuous Bathsheba Everdene.  Bathsheba is caught in a classic love quadrangle.  At the beginning of the novel, she is courted by the honest and hard-working farmer, Gabriel Oak (a handsome Alan Bates).  She rejects him out of pride and youth.  She suddenly comes to inherit her aunt’s farm, and discovers she has a head for management and business.  Here, she crosses paths with Gabriel again and hires him as her unofficial baliff.  Now a wealthy woman, she is determined that Gabriel understand she is above him in station.  She earns the admiration of a local landowner, Farmer Boldwood, who is older and becomes obsessed with Bathsheba’s beauty.  Determined to have her for a wife, he pursues her relentlessly, only to see her heart stolen by the faithless soldier, Frank Troy.  Troy marries Bathsheba, but when his destitute and pregnant fiancée shows up, he realizes his heart belonged somewhere else after all.   Much madness, murder and mayhem ensues until Bathsheba ends up with the loyal and faithful Gabriel Oak, the man whom she should have married in the beginning.  Christie gives a performance heavy on Bathsheba’s vanity but light on her other talents, but Alan Bates is a handsome and effective Gabriel Oak, and Terence Stamp, as the dim and tortured Frank Troy, gives the best performance of the character on film.  The movie itself is a love letter to the rolling hills of Hardy’s fictional Wessex (Salisbury and its surrounding plains in England), although it is colder and more distant than the novel itself, never quite catching the fire of Bathsheba’s inner turmoil.

9.)Sense and Sensibility – 1995 (directed by Ang Lee, based on Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen)

Ang Lee has never made sheep look more gorgeous.  The real star of the film is its cinematography, which manages to make the green and lush hills of England, along with the region’s  rapid weather changes, a metaphor for the personality of sensitive sister Marianne (Kate Winslet).  Sense and Sensibility, as Austen’s first complete novel, is the tale of two sisters, Elinor (Emma Thompson), the practical and solemn one, who tolerates even the most ridiculous members of early 19th century society, and Marianne, the poetic and vibrant one, who cannot fathom why one shouldn’t shout one’s feelings to the rooftops.  Except for Winslet, all the leads in the film are about 15 years too old, but that doesn’t detract from the magic of the movie’s appeal.  Emma Thompson brings a wise and tired look to Elinor that changes when she is in the company of her soul mate,  the retiring future parson Edward (Hugh Grant).  Meanwhile, Marianne spends much of the movie fawning over the dashing but volatile Willoughby (Emma Thompson’s real-life partner, Greg Wise) before realizing that the steadfast Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman) is the man who deserves her heart.   Sense and Sensibility isn’t the deepest or the most intriguing Austen novel, but it is still one of my favorites thanks to its core ideas about staying true to one’s own sense of self, regardless of what the mucky mucks say.  Thompson’s screenplay brightens up the dialogue and adds more of a feminist coda to the story (Marianne isn’t as “tamed” by Brandon as she is in the novel), but she keeps the essence of that Austen charm intact.

8.) Clueless -1995 (directed by Amy Heckerling, based on Emma by Jane Austen)

More Austen, this time in the guise of 1990s parody.  Heckerling takes the pages of heroine Emma Woodhouse’s tale and sets them in early 90s L.A., a land so fraught with peril that only the strong will survive.  Here, the Emma figure is Cher (Alicia Silverstone), who, much like the original heroine, goes from self-centered society grand dame to enlightened queen bee thanks to the help of her friends and love interest Josh (Paul Rudd).  Clueless is a sharp satire on the material girl attitudes of the late 80s and early 90s, but it makes even the most ruthless characters likable and easy to relate to as an audience.  It’s fun and its breezy attitude is still watchable today, although audiences twenty years from now may wonder what the heck those crazy teenagers were even saying.  As if.

7.) The Wings of the Dove1997 (directed by Iain Softley, based on The Wings of the Dove by Henry James)

Softley’s adaptation of one of James’ most polarizing novels makes the book’s villain, the scheming Kate (Helena Bonham Carter), into much more of a sympathetic central focus.  The story centers around Kate, a girl with an alcoholic father raised in obscurity, who is adopted by a wealthy aunt.  Kate falls for the middle-class journalist Merton Densher(Linus Roach), but will be disinherited by her aunt unless she marries a more appropriate aristocrat.  At a dinner party, Kate meets and is drawn to an American heiress, the kind and beautiful Millie (Allison Elliot), who is suffering from a terminal illness.  Millie and Kate set off for a grand trip to Venice, and Kate hatches an ungodly plan that would ensure her and Merton’s future together, all the while knowing that Millie has fallen in love with Merton, as well.  Softley’s Kate is a much more complex creature than in the novel; you feel her torn between her love for Merton and her friendship with Millie.  The choices each character makes are all centered around that elusive idea of sacrifice.  The final scene of the film shows the horrific, middle-class tragedy that Kate’s plan has wrought, and Roach and Bonham Cater pull it off to perfection.

6.) Howards End -1992 (directed by James Ivory, based on the novella Howards End by E.M. Forster)

Rather than pen a lengthy ode to one of my favorite films, I’ll direct you instead to its Truly Great Movie entry, which pretty much sums up why Howards End is a masterpiece of mood and design.

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