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13 November 2014

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Thomas Hardy

You are in: Dorset > Entertainment > Thomas Hardy > Adapting Hardy's Tess

Tess and Alec

Tess and Alec

Adapting Hardy's Tess

It was screen writer David Nicholls' job to adapt Thomas Hardy's classic novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles into four one hour scripts suitable for BBC One prime time TV. Here he explains some of the thinking that went into the process.

Writer David Nicholls first read Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles when he was a 16 year-old schoolboy, but when reading it again 25 years later he was surprised to find it remained as powerful and moving as he'd remembered.

Some scenes were shot on Dancing Ledge coast, near Swanage

Scenes were shot on Dancing Ledge

He says: "It seemed to cry out for a new screen adaptation and I'm delighted with our final version, BBC TV's first ever adaptation of the work, which I hope faithfully captures the light and shade of Hardy's masterpiece.

"It's commonplace to talk of classic novels as being surprisingly 'modern', but this seems especially true of Tess.

"The pleasure, and occasional frustration, of many classic novels is that they revolve around unspoken passions but, in Tess, everything is expressed.

The character of Tess

"It's a wonderfully emotionally-charged story, both intensely romantic and startlingly violent."

Much has been written over the years about Hardy's apparent love for his creation, Tess. David's opinion backs up this view:

He says: "Perhaps Hardy's greatest achievement is his heroine. It's unusual to read a book where the author is so clearly in love with his creation, and Hardy devises a series of extraordinary highs and lows for her, from giddying romantic love and prosperity to terrible degradation and suffering.

"There is no single personification of "Tess"; she is a schoolgirl, a mother, a lover, a wife, a slave-labourer, a prisoner, a rebel, a courtesan, a criminal, and yet throughout her remarkable journey she never loses her integrity or her capacity for life.

"This Tess is not just a passive victim, but an active, forceful, opinionated young working-class woman."

Such a character presented a challenge for the actress who brought her to life, and David describes Gemma Arterton's performance as 'extraordinary'.

He says: "In four hours of television she is off-screen for perhaps 20 minutes, and yet she maintains a clarity and intensity that is remarkable in such a young actress."

Angel Clare. "The courtship of Angel and Tess contains some delightful, sensual love scenes" says David.

Angel Clare, played by Eddie Redmayne

'Young people in love'

"In our adaptation we were keen to emphasise that this is very much a novel about young people in love – Tess is 17 when we first meet her, her rival lovers are men in their mid-twenties, even Tess's mother is only in her mid-thirties – and I hope we've captured some of that youth and freshness in the casting."

"To my mind, Tess and Angel's farewell in the morning light at Stonehenge is the most moving scene in English literature, so to be able to recreate it, at dawn, on location at the correct time of year, has been tremendously exciting."

Capturing Hardy's landscape

The four episodes were shot on high quality 35mm film (television drama today is more often shot on digital video), to give it a richer, deeper appearance which does justice to the location-heavy shoot, and helping to capture Hardy's evocative atmosphere.

David says: "In Hardy, people tend not to sit in front of drawing room fires; they stand in landscapes, frequently in the rain or snow, and shooting outdoors through a particularly unpredictable English spring made great demands on the production team.

"Any adaptation of Hardy has to capture the beauty of his nature writing without forgetting that this is a brutal, unforgiving landscape too and director David Blair, who works a great deal with contemporary writers like Jimmy McGovern and Donna Franceschild, has brought a toughness and authenticity to the world and the performances.

"We set out on this adaptation with various aims in mind. The production should be beautiful but not 'pretty'; it should be about characters in a landscape, not just the landscape."

"It should grip like a thriller, but also move the audience deeply.

"Tess Of The D'Urbervilles is a romantic epic, one of the great love stories but a cruel and violent saga too, and I hope we've faithfully captured that high emotion, the mix of light and shade that makes Hardy's novel so compelling and sublime."

Tess of the D'Urbervilles, BBC One, Sunday 9pm, or on BBC iPlayer

last updated: 24/10/2008 at 15:15
created: 24/09/2008

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