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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most