Martha Bayles: July 2006 Archives
There's an old peasant saying: "Life is beautiful - and hard." In America we tend to reverse the emphasis: "Life is hard - but beautiful." That's what William Dean Howells meant when he said, "What the American audience really wants is a tragedy with a happy ending." We don't mind watching fictional characters suffer, as long they are somehow redeemed by it.
Working the middle ground between beauty and hardness was one of my favorite novelists (and poets), Thomas Hardy. And one of his favorites among his own books, reportedly, was The Woodlanders, about a young woman from a rural village whose father sends her away to school to "better" herself, then marries her to a "better" prospect than the woodsman she has loved all her life, only to discover that some living things are not improved by being pulled up by the roots.
Full confession: it's been years since I read The Woodlanders, and the glue holding my paperback copy together has long since turned to dust. But I recently saw a little known film based on the novel that makes me want to buy a new copy: not the 1970 BBC production, but the 1997 Arts Council of England production, made in cooperation with Channel Four, Pathé Productions, and River Films. (If you are lucky you will find one in your video store, hiding in the bottom rack.)
A two-hour film of a 300-page novel must strip things down, of course. But here the result is a separate and freestanding work of art: a simple, fast-paced tale of true love thwarted, not by wickedness but by a father's affection and ambition. The ending isn't happy in the Hollywood sense, but it is satisfying in the sense of containing a much needed note of justice. Without being sentimental or pretty, The Woodlanders is beyond being a gem (that's a cliche anyway). It's a diamond. Every facet - the writing, the acting, the production itself - is pure, clear, and (here's a word I almost never use) perfect.