This 1994 Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie The Return of the Native is the only filmed adaption of Thomas Hardy’s 1878 novel of the same name. It’s one of my favorite of Hardy’s novels, due to the elegant, slightly overwrought prose and the melodramatic main character Eustacia Vye. Here, she’s played by Catherine Zeta-Jones at the height of her historical-costume prowess. Zeta-Jones’ Eustacia spends the movie going back and forth between her dueling love interests of bad-boy Damon Wildeve (Clive Owen) and goody-two-shoes Clym Yeobright (Ray Stevenson).
Let me start by admitting the costumes are not spectacular here. They aren’t bad in terms of historical accuracy, but there’s nothing particularly elaborate or very fancy. The period is about 1840s or 1850s rural England, and that’s barely evident in the costumes. Eustacia wears the same dress style through the whole movie, just in different colors/fabrics and sometimes changed up with a new lace collar. There’s exactly one dress, worn by Clym Yeobright’s cousin Thomasin, that I could pin down to a specific era, and it has a fan-front pleated bodice that’s typical of the 1840s.
Also, a note about Eustacia’s hair. You may be tempted to say “somebody needs some hairpins” because she does wear her hair down for about half the flick. However, I think this is done purposefully to reflect the many passages in the novel where Hardy describes the character’s hair and how it’s part of her wild personality. As Eustacia’s described in chapter VII of The Return of the Native:
To see her hair was to fancy that a whole winter did not contain darkness enough to form its shadow: it closed over her forehead like nightfall extinguishing the western glow. Her nerves extended into those tresses, and her temper could always be softened by stroking them down. When her hair was brushed she would instantly sink into stillness and look like the Sphinx. If, in passing under one of the Egdon banks, any of its thick skeins were caught, as they sometimes were, by a prickly tuft of the large Ulex Europaeus — which will act as a sort of hairbrush — she would go back a few steps, and pass it a second time.
Still, there are plenty of scenes where Eustacia’s hair is styled and worn up in period style, including at church and visiting with Clym’s mother (who’s played by the always-excellent Joan Plowright). Speaking of headgear, that may be the most interesting thing costume-wise — of note, Thomasin is always wearing a very proper bonnet or lacy cap (if you’re into that kind of thing).
One problem in adapting Thomas Hardy’s work for the screen is how easily it is to lose the subtleties. Of course that often happens in book adaptions, but Hardy’s novels are especially difficult because he wrote in critique of Victorian morality, and the basic plotlines don’t convey that in the way his prose does. The action in The Return of the Native is essentially a love-triangle with a woman frustrated by circumstances at the center, and this movie adaption tells basically that story. But Hardy aimed to tell more than just a romance; he wrote a grand, yet ironic tragedy that shows a pagan protagonist in conflict with both society and nature. Whether Eustacia’s death (spoiler alert!) is an accident or suicide is unclear in the novel and has been the subject of critical analysis every since its publication. These multiple layers of meaning don’t come through in this only filmed version of the book, and it kind of makes me wonder if that’s why there hasn’t been more attempts. Maybe The Return of the Native is too tricky to adapt for the screen?
Has your favorite historical novel been adapted for film? Did it work out well or not?