The Truest Tess

On Film / Essays — Feb 27, 2014

Adaptation is nearly as old as storytelling itself. The Athenian dramatists retold the stories of the Trojan War; Shakespeare and the rest of the Elizabethans retold the stories of Greece and Rome. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century, when modern capitalism created a real market for writing and an audience for books, that people began demanding and devouring new, novel stories and adaptation came to be considered a debased form. Nowhere was this cultural devaluation more obvious than in the relation between literature and the theater. Novelists like Charles Dickens made fortunes from the dramatization of their work, but no one considered these plays to be of cultural significance. When film arrived in the twentieth century, it began to devour stories from both novels and plays, giving rise to a new kind of adaptation, one that did claim cultural prestige—in part because the new medium was considered inferior to the older ones and could hope to gain some reflected glory from them. The film adaptation of a Shakespeare play or a Jane Austen book or a recent hit novel was judged by its faithfulness to its source.

It was the great French critic André Bazin who originally remarked on the significance of this new form of adaptation, in which fidelity to the source text became, for the first time in the Western tradition, an important aesthetic goal. When François Truffaut, in his famous 1954 manifesto, proclaimed the director to be the real author of a film, he was drawing on Bazin’s arguments about adaptation to make a case for what distinguished a genuine auteur from a cultural hack. True cinematic adaptation, true fidelity, according to Truffaut, came not from the slavish translation of material from page to screen but from a director’s using the resources of the cinema to intensify the themes and concerns of the source in ways that no literary text could accomplish.

Roman Polanski’s Tess (1979) is one of the greatest of such adaptations, both retaining all of the essentials of the Thomas Hardy novel on which it is based, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and using the capabilities of film and a changed moral universe to develop Hardy’s world in ways that one imagines would have found favor with the Victorian novelist. It is clear that Hardy hated the constraints imposed on his depiction of sexuality by current norms. Indeed, this may be one of the most important reasons that he abandoned writing novels four years after Tess was published. One could fancifully imagine Hardy in 1891 longing for the medium that Polanski used in 1979—one that could represent sex without much fear of the censors. But if Hardy could not have been writing for the postsixties cinema, he did write the novel with adaptation for the 1890s stage in mind. Thus the novel is full of dramatic sequences that adapt easily to cinematic form, and there have been no fewer than eight movie versions, including two silent ones, now lost.

Polanski is perhaps the most famous graduate of the most famous film school in the world, the one based at ?ódz, in Poland. It is this superlative training that enables him to turn his hand to such varied forms, from the perfect stylized neo-noir of Chinatown (1974) to the realities of the Warsaw ghetto in The Pianist (2002). The director begins his projects by assembling his materials, including a perfectly crafted script (in his 1971 adaptation of Macbeth, for instance, he turns a minor character into a major one without adding a line of dialogue), and then trains on them an eye that knows better than that of any other filmmaker how to frame a scene. For Tess, he delved into Hardy’s novel and the rural past with his customary attention to cast, location, design, and cinematography.

The story of Tess Durbeyfield is the story of a young woman who is destroyed by the double standard of Victorian life that required virginity in a woman as a condition of marriage but permitted a man his visits to the brothel. Tess is raped by one man, Alec d’Urberville, but is then destroyed by the man she loves and marries, Angel Clare, who cannot forgive her sexual history, despite the fact that he has a sexual episode in his own past. Tess’s ruin is due as much to her class as her gender, however. The Durbeyfields are small traders living alongside a peasant class from which they are not much distinguished, but it is the news that they may in fact be the descendants of the aristocratic d’Urbervilles that sets the story’s tragedy in motion. Tess’s family urges her to go and “claim kin” from a neighboring branch of the d’Urbervilles. But the family she goes to has no right to the name. They have bought it as part of a transition from their lives as wealthy industrialists in the north of England to a feigned membership in the old landed aristocracy of the rural southwest of the country. Alec d’Urberville, the heir to this industrial fortune, has also adopted the view that his ancient feudal rights include preying on young local girls. Tess is thus a victim of both the old and the new dominant class.

Hardy’s novel is simultaneously a story of tragic love and a picture of the English countryside as the effects of industrialization begin to destroy its centuries-old way of life. Polanski’s adaptation is faithful to both aspects of the novel. He retains, for example, the scene where Angel and Tess watch milk from the dairy farm where they work being taken by the newly introduced train up to anonymous consumers in London. Despite the fact that the scene does not advance the narrative, it is crucial in linking the characters’ agricultural world to the vast new industrial cities. Even more crucial is the illustration of the beginning of the mechanization of agriculture. The scene where Alec tries to win Tess back against the backdrop of a threshing machine is one of the triumphs of the film. Cinema is able to show what a novel can only ponderously tell: the way manual labor is submitted to the inflexible rhythm of machines. The first glimpse we have of the field where Tess and others are working with the new steam-driven thresher, framed from Alec’s perspective as he approaches by a narrow lane, suggests that the machine occupies the whole of this rural space. However, as we move into the field, Polanski uses the frame to hold in constant tension the three elements of the scene: Alec’s impassioned plea to Tess and Tess’s reaction, the laborers’ subjugation to the thresher, and the prurient interest of the farmer and the friend with whom he is gossiping near the machine. Polanski is thus able, through the use of sound and image (the sound of the thresher is used as expertly as the frame of the camera), to bring into direct juxtaposition three elements that Hardy can treat only separately.

This sequence also contains Polanski’s most significant deviation from the novel. Hardy stages Tess’s second encounter with Alec d’Urberville in the religious and political context of the late nineteenth century. Alec has embraced a militant Christianity that is part of the mix that will go on to produce a workers’ party in the early twentieth century. Encountering Tess causes him to shed his newfound Christianity, as desire for her becomes his dominant preoccupation. Alec’s conversion fits into a part of the book, centered on Angel’s father, that deals with the different forms of religion within and without the established Church of England. One could argue that Polanski dropped this aspect of the novel because it is simply too deeply mired in history, inexplicable to a modern audience without footnotes and glosses. There is, however, a better reason—Hardy, in his desire to cover the full range of society in Victorian England, loses his own plot. Alec is desperately unconvincing as a militant social Christian, and Polanski’s decision to keep him the same socially poised and predatory character throughout the story makes the film stronger than the novel.

The most obvious area in which Polanski uses cinema to develop the novel is in the treatment of sex. So absolute was the Victorian interdiction against the representation of a woman as sexually active that, in the novel, when Tess is raped, she is asleep. And the long-delayed consummation of Tess and Angel’s marriage is conveyed through the eyes of a cleaning woman, who discovers the couple sleeping in the empty house in which they have sought shelter. It should be said that even this was too much for the publishers of the time. Novels were often serialized in magazines before appearing as books, and this prepublication was an important part of a novelist’s income. The magazine publishers forced Hardy to cut the rape scene and the subsequent pregnancy in favor of a sham marriage, so that, although Tess has lost her virginity, it is because she thought she was married. Polanski is bound by no such Victorian prohibitions. The scene of the rape is a horrifying violation, the one between Angel and Tess fully charged physically. Both sections of the film are clearly superior to their self-bowdlerized counterparts in the novel. Perhaps even more effective is the final scene between Tess and Alec. Hardy’s self-censorship meant that he could not represent directly the sexual relationship Tess is having with Alec. In the novel, what we see of this scene is from the viewpoint of the landlady peering through the keyhole. Polanski takes us directly to the d’Urberville breakfast table. By subtly altering the dialogue, the film makes the murderous row that ensues the last in a long series, as Alec torments Tess about Angel. We see the real brutality of their relationship in a way that the novel can only hint at.

Polanski’s developments of Hardy’s sexual themes may not be surprising—any director working in the relative freedom of the 1970s would likely have attempted to draw out what Hardy had written—but his decision to cast a young German actress, Nastassja Kinski, undoubtedly was. The risk was of provoking ridicule as a foreign speaker stumbled through one of the most English of stories. However, there is nothing ridiculous in Kinski’s magnificent performance. The traces of German and international English vowels in her speech have the effect of underscoring the fact that Tess is a stranger in a world she can never quite understand. It is this element of Kinski’s performance that allows Polanski, while remaining true to Hardy’s social vision, to emphasize the fate of Tess as the tragedy of sexuality, the impossibility of aligning desire and object. This is most obvious in the film’s ending. In the novel, after Tess has been apprehended at Stonehenge, there is a final scene in which Angel and Tess’s younger sister look down on the town, watching for the black flag that will signal Tess’s execution. In one of her last conversations with Angel, Tess has begged him to marry her sister and have the life that they should have had together. Hardy’s closing scene endorses Tess’s wish. Polanski’s much bleaker and more effective ending, in which Tess’s death is conveyed in a caption over an image of her walking between her captors, offers no such false consolation. Almost all critics of the novel have found Hardy’s ending unsatisfactory, but Polanski’s view of life, perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who was touched by both the Holocaust and the Manson murders, is among the bleakest in the cinema, and he could not have accepted a happy ending to this story. It is reminiscent of his much more difficult decision several years earlier, against the whole weight of studio and writer, to insist on an ending to Chinatown that held out no hope whatsoever. As with Chinatown, Polanski’s dark vision in Tess ended up being appreciated by audiences and critics, and the film won Oscars for cinematography, art direction, and costume design, as well as, in France, a César for Polanski.

Nowhere is Polanski’s willingness to alter and invent to deepen Hardy’s vision more obvious than in his decision to use Normandy and Brittany to double for Dorset. There is no writer in English who is so intimately linked to the countryside he represents as Hardy is to the imaginary Wessex that maps the real Dorset. To change location was brave indeed. This choice must have had many components, including economic and legal considerations, but it seems safe to say that Polanski, working on a project so close to his heart, would not have settled for anything he considered remotely second best. In fact, the French countryside, visually similar but not identical to Hardy country, functions in the same way that Kinski does. Both bring to bear a certain distance from the text and, while retaining all the necessary specificity of the original novel, give it a much more universal perspective.