IF I were a bookmaker taking bets on the next 19th-century novelist to make it big, I'd start Thomas Hardy at odds-on. We've poked about Dickens's London, surveyed Eliot's Midlands and trotted about Austen's shires. Where next on the adaptor's coach tour? Wessex, I'll be bound.

As a feat of second-guessing it was canny of David Bintley to choose to do Far From the Madding Crowd as a three-act ballet. For the new artistic director of Birmingham Royal Ballet it was also a way of setting out his stall as our leading maker of grand story-ballets, a successor to the great Kenneth MacMillan. It was certainly ambitious.

Where many would blench at reducing a long and well-known novel to the sort of plot that works in dumb-show, Bintley wades merrily in, dashing off Hardy's first 100 pages in the first five minutes and compressing a painstaking study of character into a sequence of cinematic tableaux. The hiring fair, the sheep-shearing, the harvest supper, the seaside burlesque, serial wooings and two violent deaths provide wonderful grist to Bintley's mill, but solid characterisation seems to have been thrown out with the husks.

One could almost believe the point of departure was not Hardy's novel but a bluffer's guide. Protagonists: Gabriel Oak, dependable; Mr Boldwood, persistent; Sergeant Troy, dashing; Bathsheba Everdene, forward, flighty. It certainly keeps things neat and accessible but suggests a failure of belief in ballet to deal with any complexity.

At times Bintley's decisions are perverse. Why open the work with a frolicsome duet when even the dimmest recollection of the book is that tongue-tied Gabriel made his stiff and hopeless proposal to Bathsheba before he even knew her? Bintley could easily have opened with a solo, offering in passing some insight into the vanity (a crucial trait entirely overlooked) of a girl who it was rumoured would "check the angle of her nightcap in the glass before retiring".

Leticia Muller, BRB's newest star, makes a stunningly handsome Bathsheba, but Bintley's dances succeed only in portraying her as a flirt, not as Hardy's strong-minded young woman, mortified to discover the effect she has on men. Her flamboyant look-at-me-damn-you solo at the corn exchange is Bintley's most flagrant divergence from the text.

More interesting efforts to build up character through movement are found in the men's style of partnering. Gabriel (beautifully danced by Michael O'Hare) is all courtly concern, while Boldwood (Jo- seph Cipolla) engages in awkward manoeuvres with a vicious grip that leaves no doubt of his violent potential. Wolfgang Stollwitzer as a fleet-footed Troy supplies the choreograph- ic fireworks, dispatching quad- ruple spins with the nonchalance of an out-and-out cad. All good stuff, as far as it goes.

The best moments are the big set-pieces - the scenes of rustic jollity that clearly attracted Bintley at the outset. On Hayden Griffin's grandly simple set - a wide trellis of oak beams backlit with misty suggestions of Dorset views - Hardy's rum assortment of baggy-trousered shepherds, thatchers, dairymaids and farmhands cavort in a series of riotous hoe- downs, almost wearisome in their energy. The shearing scene is brought off with panache despite the absence of sheep.

It was a nice touch to place a violinist on stage for the barn dances (Hardy himself was a fiddler of local repute) and Paul Reade's ambitious orchestral score, though conventional and Hollywoodish in places, plays the winsome-pastoral card with due restraint. If parts of it sound familiar, they are. Sly quotes from other works, such as Britten's Peter Grimes (when Troy's clothes are hauled up on the beach), are there for those who care to find them.

If Bintley was looking for a box-office hit to launch his reign in Birmingham, he's probably found one. A director who can pull off a scene in which a fire-eater, a three-legged Scotsman and a horse that's also a bicycle compete simultaneously with a sombre proposal of marriage is a master indeed. Bintley's showmanship is never in doubt. What slightly disappoints is the lightness of his touch overall. Is this a romance or a tragedy? It's just possible Hardy didn't know, either.

Birmingham Hippodrome (0121 622 7486), to 2 Mar, and touring.