Pen and pictures no. 1: Thomas Hardy

Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1913), from

Time for a new series, I think. And its theme is the crossover between literature and film, looking at how the silent cinema tackled the works of assorted authors – and how authors came to terms with this strange new medium, which challenged their claims upon the popular imagination, frequently mangled their works as screen entertainments, yet also offered riches, either through selling the rights or through contributing their own screenplays. It’s an engrossing history, where every author’s experience is just that little different to anyone else’s. And we’ll start with Thomas Hardy.

Hardy seems so much a Victorian (if late Victorian) author, that it comes as a bit of surprise to release that he lived long into the era of film – long enough to see, somewhat to his bemusement, his novels adapted as films. There were four silent films made of Hardy’s work: Tess of the D’Urbervilles (US 1913), Far from the Madding Crowd (UK 1916), The Mayor of Casterbridge (UK 1921) and Tess of the D’Urbervilles (US 1924). Details of each can be found in the ‘Lost Hardy Adaptations’ section of the website Thomas Hardy: The Films Page.

The entertaining story of Hardy’s personal engagement with film is told in Matthew Sweet’s book Inventing the Victorians. Hardy was first approached by a film company in 1911. The Warwick Trading Company, a British business, wanted to film Tess of the D’Urbervilles, offering Hardy ten per cent of the gross turnover. Hardy told his agent:

I should imagine that an exhibition of successive scenes from Tess (which is, I suppose, what is meant), could do no harm to the book, & might possibly advertise it among a new class.

Scarcely overwhelming enthusiasm at the prospect of seeing his work filmed, though Hardy did sign the contract (the film did not get made). He also accepted money from Hubert von Herkomer, the artist turned filmmaker, who wanted to film Far from the Madding Crowd and The Mayor of Castebridge. Neither was produced, and Hardy was onto a nice little earner without a film having made it to the screen.

It was the Americans who first put Hardy on the screen. Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players produced Tess of the D’Urbervilles in 1913, with Broadway actress Minnie Maddern Fiske as a somewhat mature Tess – she had first played the role on stage in 1895 – David Torrence as Alec and Raymond Bond as Angel Clare. The film was shot in New England, and generally given an American look throughout, as well as having a softened ending (Tess goes to prison rather than being hanged). Hardy attended a press screening of the film at Pyke’s Cinematograph Theatre in London’s Cambridge Circus (today a fashionable bar named after its former cinema owner, the Montagu Pyke) on 21 October 1913. Matthew Sweet records Hardy’s bemused reaction:

It was a curious production, & I was interested in it as a scientific toy; but I can say nothing as to its relation to, or rendering of, the story.

In other words, the movies had produced some kind of bewildering aberation (at least as far as his work was concerned), but it was hard to complain about the money.

The clash between old arts world and new continued with Far from the Madding Crowd, made in 1916 as a five-reel feature by the British company Turner Films, whose great star was the American actress Florence Turner. Turner played Bathsheba Everdene, and her regular co-star Henry Edwards was Gabriel Oak. As with all other Hardy silents, the film is lost, and all we can glean from reviews is that the film did not look like it was filmed in Wessex. This was undoubtedly true, but films of literary properties needed to be true to their own medium first, not to the printed page, a lesson that was starting to be learned as films grew longer and the movie industry grew more assertive, and became richer.

Such riches, and such attitudes, were evidenced by Metro Pictures, which optioned Tess for an astonishing $50,000, but the next Hardy film came from a far humbler source, the Progress Film Company of Shoreham-by-Sea on England’s south coast. The tale of the artist/theatrical community in what was affectionately known as ‘Bungalow Town’ is charmingly told on the Bungalow Town website. The Mayor of Casterbidge was made there in 1921, directed by Sidney Morgan and starring Fred Groves as Michael Henchard. Hardy was receiving more and more offers from film companies, and seems to have selected according to the degree to which the treatment indicated a sympathetic understanding of his original. For the Progress proposal he wrote:

The general arrangement seems as good as is compatible with presentation with cinemas.

Hardy was invited to see the film in production (it was filmed in Dorset, which may have helped secure his approval), and so enjoyed the peculiar experience of seeing his characters come to life, as it were, writing in a letter:

This morning we have had an odd experience. The film-makers are here doing scenes for “The Mayor of C” and they asked us to come as see the process. The result is that I have been talking to the Mayor, Mrs Henchard, Eliz. Jane, & the rest, in the flesh … It is a strange business to be engaged in.

The last film to be made of his work while Hardy was still alive was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, in 1924. This was a top-notch Hollywood effort (evidenced by that $50,000 payment for the rights), with Blanche Sweet as Tess, Conrad Nagel as Angel Clare and Stuart Holmes as Alec. Scenes were filmed in Dorechester, but Hardy never saw the film. Given that the film updated much of the action to the 1920s, with motor cars and nightclubs, it is perhaps best that he did not. Interestingly, it seems to have been made with two endings, exhibitors being given the option whether to choose Tess being hanged or Tess escaping the gallows.

And that’s Thomas Hardy and film. He displayed an intriguing tension in his letters between keenness to profit from the film rights and concern over how his work was represented. In Hardy’s personal engagement with the motion picture industry we see films move from being a peculiar distraction which might help book sales, to a medium which challenged the author’s hold upon the work of his imagination. Meeting the Mayor of Casterbridge in the flesh must have been an unsettling experience – evidence that the creative work had a life outside the printed page on which it first appeared.

None of the Hardy silent films are known to exist (there are rumours of a surviving fragment of the Progress Mayor of Casterbridge). Apart from Matthew Sweet’s book and, check out T.R. Wright’s Thomas Hardy on Screen or Paul J. Neimeyer’s Seeing Hardy: Film and Television Adaptations of the Fiction of Thomas Hardy, each of which tells much the same story about the silent films.

Despite having lived until 1928, Hardy does not seem to have been filmed himself. The nearest we get is film of his funeral, which you can see on

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