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From drawing-rooms to Wessex wilds

Catherine Pepinster sees Austen make way for Hardy on television
IT IS one of those books that grows in the mind with every reading. The Return of the Native is the turbulent tale of headstrong Eustacia Vye, her hedonistic lover Damon Wildeve, and the man with whom she falls in love, the returning native, Clym Yeobright. There is the blasted heath of Egdon, and Thomas Hardy's characteristic absorption with chance, fate and cruel decline. But is it enough to oust Jane Austen from her top slot as dramatist of the screen?

Tonight BBC2 broadcasts its pounds 3m film adaptation of The Return of the Native, starring Catherine Zeta Jones, Clive Owen and Joan Plowright. It marks the start of a year of Hardy drama. Just as 1995, with its phenomenally successful adaptations of Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice, and the filmings of Emma and Sense and Sensibility was the year of Austen, so 1996 will be the year of the Wessex novelist and poet.

As well as the BBC's New Year's Eve production, two more Hardy novels will hit the screen next year. Jude the Obscure, the story of ill-fated lovers pursuing happiness against a background of poverty and convention in Victorian Britain, which the BBC is co-funding, will be given a cinema release in the autumn. Starring Christopher Eccleston and Kate Winslet, it is the story of Jude Fawley, a stonemason with intellectual aspirations who is seduced into marriage. When his wife, Arabella, abandons him, he falls in love with Sue Bridehead, already married to a schoolmaster. But she runs away to join Jude in an illicit union that ends in tragedy.

Also in the autumn, a pounds 4m production of the less well-known Hardy novel The Woodlanders is due for release, starring young heart-throb actors Linus Roache and Rufus Sewell.

The dramatisation of classic novels, which for years was dropped in favour of more contemporary drama, has made a remarkable comeback in recent years. The BBC's versions of George Eliot's Middlemarch and Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit both gained huge audiences. But the most successful of all was the corporation's version of Pride and Prejudice, which, with its dashing hero Darcy and the self-possessed Elizabeth Bennet, caught the nation's imagination.

The contrast between Hardy and Austen could not be more marked. While Austen uses wit to devastating effect in the drawing rooms of England, Hardy wrote of man's deepest passions, amid the remarkable countryside of Wessex, far from the fashionable concerns of the metropolis.

Judith Stinton, an expert on Hardy, believes the author can win the hearts of the viewing public with his accounts of young people who are often dealt a cruel hand by fate just as they think all that life offers is within their grasp.

"They are atmospheric, well-constructed and visually very strong novels," she said. "Powerful female characters like Eustacia Vye will, I'm sure, appeal to the viewing public."

Andrew Eaton, producer of Jude the Obscure, says he and director Michael Winterbottom were drawn to the book by its strong plot and essentially modern concerns. "The whole issue of getting an education to better oneself, as Jude does, is as relevant a theme today as it was in Hardy's time," he said.

A clear difference between these latest films of Hardy novels and the Austen productions is that film-makers have turned to Hardy's less well- known works.

Hardy's poetry has remained appreciated by poets and public alike, and his work is steadily in print. Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Far from the Madding Crowd are among libraries' most frequently borrowed novels, and were made into successful movies by John Schlesinger and Roman Polanski.

However, Jude, The Return of the Native and The Woodlanders are not as well known to the average reader, even though they are highly regarded.

"We only sell 25 copies a year of these novels," said Simon Key of the Waterstone's bookshop in London's Charing Cross Road. "But the same was true of Pride and Prejudice. Since it was on television and so many people fell for Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, we have sold between 500 and 600 copies in this one shop alone."