Thursday, September 8, 2022

Literary Movie Church Adaptations Volume 2: Tess of d'Ubervilles


Let’s just get this out of the way now. I have problems with the creators of this work, Tess.

The film is based on Tess of the d’Ubervilles, a novel by Thomas Hardy. We had to read Hardy’s The Return of the Native in high school. I always read the assigned novels, and I usually enjoyed them. Hardy's novel drove me crazy because of his use of “fate.”

Throughout the novel, characters would try their best, but unlikely circumstances would draw them from one horror to another. They were unable to escape their “fate” and their “fate” was always tragic. As I read through the novel, though, I was always aware that the impersonal forces of “fate” weren't driving characters. Rather, the quite obvious manipulations of the author were. It was annoying as could be. This same use of “fate” is found in the film Tess (and, I assume, in the novel. I haven't read it because the other novel was so irritating).

Polanski & Kinski

As for the director of the film, Roman Polanski: I admire him very much as a filmmaker. Chinatown is renowned as the greatest detective film. The Pianist is a moving story about the Holocaust, made even more powerful since it mirrored the experiences of Polanski’s youth in Poland. 

But there are many things about Polanski’s real life that are reprehensible. During his days in Hollywood, he confessed to drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl; he fled to the country to avoid serving his prison term. Knowing this about Polankski makes for difficult viewing because a key plot point involves young heroine Tess being raped by her older “cousin.”

This month, we're looking at film adaptions of novels, so it doesn’t really matter what my feelings are about the source or the filmmaker. We’re just here to look at the churches and clergy in the film, and a clergyman makes an early appearance in this 1979 film, setting the plot in motion.

The film opens in the English countryside in the 1880’s. Pastor Tringham (Tony Church -- yes, the actor’s name is “Church”) encounters a poor farmer by the name of John Durbeyfield (John Collin). He tells John that his lineage is a noble one that goes back to the time of William the Conquerer, but that unfortunately, his ancestors wasted their fortune and sold their property. This leads John to seek out relatives, and he sends his daughter Tess (Nastassja Kinski) to seek employment at the property of Alec d’Uberville. It is Alec who rapes Tess. She becomes pregnant and returns to her parents’ home.

Tess gives birth to her bastard child and goes back to working on the family farm. She tells her sisters that she wishes her child was dead in the churchyard and that she was alongside it, but Tess’s mother assures her other daughters that Tess loves her child.

But the child becomes very ill. The local vicar (Robert Pearson) hears about the child’s illness and goes to the Durbeyfields’ home. John Durbeyfield meets him at the door and asks, “What is your business?”

“What else but the child? I must baptize it before the Lord gathers it to his bosom,” the vicar replies.

Durbeyfield says, “All my children are baptized.”

“Don’t play games with the Almighty!” Vicar responds.

Tess’ mother calls from in the house, “The child is dying, let the vicar in!”

“He’s not coming in," John says.

Tess's mother frantically asks again that the vicar be allowed in.  

"Over my dead body!” John says, “There’s enough disgrace on this house.”

The vicar doesn’t enter the house. The child dies.

The next day, Tess goes to the vicar’s house and finds him beekeeping.

Tess tells him that she baptized the child herself. ”I woke my brothers and sisters and asked them to kneel down and pray. Liza-Lu held the prayer book open, and I lit a candle. I held my child like this over the basin. And I poured water over his forehead, and I said, 'I baptize thee in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost.’”

The vicar asks, “Did you make the sign of the cross?”

“Yes, I did that, too.” Tess answers, “Will it be just the same as if you baptized it? In the sight of God, I mean.”

Tess registers great relief when the priest assures her, “Yes, my dear, it will be the same.”

She asks, “Then you’ll give him a Christian burial?”

The clergyman responds, “That’s another matter. That would concern the village as a whole, and not just the two of us, you understand?” He tells her it is out of the question to bury an illegitimate child in the graveyard because the people of the village wouldn’t understand.

Tess is visibly crushed and tells the vicar, “Then I don’t like you. I shall never come to your church again. Never!”

Tess buries her child beside the churchyard and makes a little cross. She decides to leave her village.

Tess goes to work at a dairy run by a godly family. She falls in love with Angel, the son of the owner, and he falls in love with her. They marry. but on their wedding night, Angel confesses to his bride that he has been with another woman in the past. Tess seems to take comfort in this confession. She tells Angel her story, about being raped and mothering a child. This is too much for Angel, who leaves her.

Tess struggles to find work to support herself but eventually returns to her purported cousin Alec as her only hope. Meanwhile, Angel has gone to South America as a missionary, where he became ill and almost dies. He returns to England to find that Tess has murdered Alec. They try to run off together, but they are caught by the police. We are assured this is all due to “fate.”

This movie deepened my dislike for Hardy along with my loathing for Polanski. But they don’t get Movie Church ratings (which would be pretty darn low). 

The Vicar of Marlott, on the other hand, did show concern for Tess and her son, so he doesn’t get our lowest church rating. He was more concerned with his image in the village than with doing what God was calling him to do, so he receives a Two out of Four Steeple Rating.

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