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Diametrically unlike the brooding masterpieces of his mature style,
Thomas Hardys Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) is a frothy pastoral romance.
Its charming metaphoric language (A curl of wood-smoke came from the chimney and
drooped over the roof like a blue feather in a ladys hat
) signaled the
authors burgeoning talents as both a poet and a novelist. The title springs from a
line in Shakespeares As You
Like It. Hardys trademark blend of pessimistic realism is only hinted at in
the novels lightly ironic touches and wouldnt emerge in earnest until two
years later with Far
From the Madding Crowd (1874).
But theres much to be said for the uncomplicated pleasures of Under the Greenwood
The story follows two intertwining threads. First is the downward spiral of the Mellstock parish choir, a rustic ensemble of cider-fueled fiddlers threatened with obsolescence due to the parsons majestic new-fangled harmonium organ. Second is the arrival in the village of a pretty new schoolmistresswho happens also to be a crackerjack harmonium playerand the ensuing kerfuffle when three local men, including the parson and at least one member of the parish choir, vie for her hand.
The schoolmistress is named Fancy Day and is capably portrayed by actress Keeley Hawes in Masterpiece Theatres adaptation. Hawes is especially blessed with one quality essential to Thomas Hardy heroines: luscious milk-white skin that colors easily in anger or arousal. Sigmund Freud believed that Hardys writing displayed an intuitive grasp of psychoanalysis. Its no wonder. The deceptions and desires of his characters are often revealed physiologically by blood rushing to the neck and face. During a typically telling moment with Fancy Day, for example, Hardy writes, Her heart quickenedadding to and withdrawing from her cheek varying tones of red to match each varying thought.
The novel concludes with Fancy musing about a secret she would never tell. Readers of the book will recognize the secret. Viewers of the Masterpiece Theatre teleplay by Ashley Pharoah will have no idea that Fancy Day has a secret, let alone that shes intending to keep it to herself. This crucial element of the plotindeed one could argue that Fancys secret is the plothas been inexplicably gutted from the story. Other incidents, nowhere to be found in the novel, have been invented out of whole cloth and given weird prominence as central plot points. Thus were treated to elaborate but bogus set pieces such as a vindictive choir member sabotaging the harmonium by dumping a jug of hard cider into its machinery, and a drawn-out episode in which Fancy Days father is seriously injured when his ankle is caught in the metal jaws of a mantrap. Nothing remotely similar to these events occurs in the pages of Hardys novel.
We expect this kind of desecrating rewrite of classic literature when talking about Hollywood movies, but less so in regards to Masterpiece Theatre, which has a reputation for being reasonably faithful to its source material. Not that tampering on occasion hasnt led to interesting results, like Alan Bleasdales striking reconfiguration of Oliver Twist (2000). But Bleasdales teleplay was touted as a unique enterprise. Under the Greenwood Tree is being deceptively presented as business as usual. This misguided adaptation does justice neither to Thomas Hardy nor to the venerable Masterpiece Theatre franchise.
- Bob Wake