Interview: Oxford grad adapts Hardy’s Tess2nd October 2013
Jessica Benhamou graduated from Oxford in 2012, and has since worked predominantly in journalism. Among other things, this afforded her the opportunity of interviewing filmmakers such as Cosmopolis director David Cronenberg. Jessica is now happy to be producing her own short film, The Maiden, which has just wrapped filming. The Maiden is inspired by (and in fact takes its title from) Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
Jessica’s screenplay relocates Hardy’s story to the modern-day, and focuses on a short but crucial episode in which the impoverished Tess, commissioned by her parents to visit wealthier relatives in the hope of financial support, is raped (or seduced as some would have it) by her alleged cousin, Alec Stoke-Durberville. The OxStu caught up with Jessica to hear about her thoughts on the novel and what inspired her to adapt it.
Have you ever adapted a literary work for the screen before?
“Not at all. This was my first attempt at screenwriting. I rarely let anyone, besides a few close friends, read my fictional work in general. You tend to put more of yourself into fiction than journalism.”
When did you first read Hardy’s novel, and what was your first reaction to the way Tess is treated by the men in her life?
“The first time I read Tess I was about 15 and had never been in a relationship. Angel, therefore, pulled the wool over my eyes in much the same way as he does to Tess. His unforgiveable hypocrisy and conceit went completely over my head. Re-reading the novel this summer, I found Angel far more distasteful than Alec. I have more respect for the man who is bad and knows he is bad than the man who is bad, but thinks he is good.”
The rape/seduction of Hardy’s novel is a critical issue which has been debated for years, and each new film or TV adaptation must take a stance. The BBC’s 2008 adaptation, starring Gemma Arterton as Tess, somewhat skirted the issue by cloaking the scene in mist, retaining some of Hardy’s ambiguity. However, even here the actions of the actors strongly suggest a narrative of rape rather than consensual sex. Jessica was inspired to adapt Hardy’s text due to feeling that “all the adaptations have misinterpreted that pivotal rape scene between Alec and Tess. While it is strongly implied to have been rape, there is nothing to suggest Alec physically attacks Tess. Rape doesn’t have to involve physical abuse or threats. What Hardy tells us is that Alec plies Tess with alcohol and makes her feel obliged to him for financially assisting her family.”
The Maiden recognizes a parallel with the plot of Hardy’s novel and the problematic nature of sexual consent in modern day cases, and Jessica “wanted to focus on this event and reinforce the idea that violation does not necessarily involve violence. Tess was seduced by a powerful figure when she was incapable of giving her consent. How is it that Hardy, writing over a century ago, is unswerving in his compassion for Tess when young girls are told today they were “asking for it” for having a couple of mojitos on a night out?”
In this new version, Hardy’s Angel is translated into AC, the man who Tess loves, and Alec becomes Alex. However, it’s not just names and the era that have been changed. A quick glance at the cast information for The Maiden lists a potentially unrecognisable character, Carrie. Jessica tells us more… “Carrie is based on a minor character in the novel called Car, who works with Tess at the D’Urberville mansion. Everyone forgets about Car, until she blazes onto the screen and lunges at Tess. I didn’t feel obliged to make her character true to the novel. I’m not even sure what she is supposed to look like. In the short, she is fiery, drunk and enraged.”
Although the response to Hardy’s text that The Maiden will give presents Alec/Alex as a villain, the original novel also suggests that other parties may be partially culpable for Tess’ ‘fall’. A chain of events began by Mr Durbeyfield’s drunkenness places Tess in her vulnerable position with Alec.
Arguably, in the novel Tess’ parents are to blame for some of her misfortune. Will Tess’ family play a part in your version of the story?
“It’s very interesting that you mention the parents, because, yet again, I feel that the family drama hasn’t been untangled as much as it could have been in the various adaptations. The only reason I have left out her family is because I am making a short film. If I had the budget to adapt a full, modern Tess, her parents would indeed feature very heavily. In the novel, Tess challenges her mother and chastises her for knowingly sending her into danger. Her mother knows full well what Alec is like and hopes that if he knocks up her daughter he will have to marry her.”
It’s clear that adapting a classic novel for the screen is a work of interpretation as well as creation. The Maiden will bring together one interpretation of the thorny issue at the centre of Hardy’s plot, whilst making intelligent connections to similar concerns in our own culture.
Finally, Jessica offered some advice for others aspiring to work in the film industry, such as interning in order to “explore the different roles or areas available”, and meeting others in the industry: “It helps to find people a little older than yourself who can serve as role models. They enable you to get a clear idea of where you want to be heading and how your career could develop.”
The Maiden is being made by a team of young graduates hoping to get a start in the film industry. You can find out more about the film and its cast and crew, watch the trailer, or support the team while there’s still time at
Photos// stills supplied by Jessica Benhamou.