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Reading Poetry Foundation's page on Thomas Hardy, I came across this description of his epic drama The Dynasts, set during the Napoleonic Wars and published in 1904-1908:

Hardy also pioneered a new kind of verse. According to John Wain’s introduction to the 1965 St. Martin’s Press edition of the dramatic poem, in composing The Dynasts Hardy took “one of those sudden jumps which characterize the man of genius. ... He wrote his huge work in accordance with conventions of an art that had not yet been invented: the art of cinema.” The Dynasts, following this view, is “neither a poem, nor a play, nor a story. It is a shooting-script.”

What about the writing of this story makes it so distinctive? In what sense is it cinematic? What exactly makes it so different from other poems, plays, and stories of the time?

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The Dynasts is written in the form of a play, but it is immensely long (“three parts, nineteen acts, and one hundred and thirty scenes”) and is written without any consideration for the practicalities involved in staging: Hardy’s own Preface says that it is “intended simply for mental performance, and not for the stage”. For example, part one, act first, scene IV would present a considerable challenge to a set designer:

THE HARBOUR OF BOULOGNE

The morning breaks, radiant with early sunlight. The French Army of Invasion is disclosed. On the hills on either side of the town and behind appear large military camps formed of timber huts. Lower down are other camps of more or less permanent kind, the whole affording accommodation for one hundred and fifty thousand men.

South of the town is an extensive basin surrounded by quays, the heaps of fresh soil around showing it to be a recent excavation from the banks of the Liane. The basin is crowded with the flotilla, consisting of hundreds of vessels of sundry kinds: flat-bottomed brigs with guns and two masts; boats of one mast, carrying each an artillery waggon, two guns, and a two-stalled horse-box; transports with three low masts; and long narrow pinnaces arranged for many oars.

Timber, saw-mills, and new-cut planks spread in profusion around, and many of the town residences are seen to be adapted for warehouses and infirmaries.

This impracticality by itself doesn’t make The Dynasts distinctively cinematic, as in this respect the work falls into the genre of ‘closet drama’: that is, poetic works written in dramatic form but intended for reading rather than staging, such as Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound or Browning’s Pippa Passes. Poets were forced to adopt the ‘closet drama’ approach as theatres ceased to stage new plays in verse in the 19th century.

The features of The Dynasts that anticipate the cinematic form are the frequent use of the phrases “point of view” and “point of observation” in the stage directions; and the emphasis on what can be seen by an observer rather than what exists. With the application of hindsight we can interpret Hardy’s stage directions as tracking shots:

The reception-chamber is shut over by the night without, and the point of view rapidly recedes south, London and its streets and lights diminishing till they are lost in the distance, and its noises being succeeded by the babble of the Channel and Biscay waves.

as crane shots:

The point of observation now descends close to the scene.

as fade-outs and dissolves:

The silent insect-creep of the Austrian columns towards the banks of the Inn continues to be seen till the view fades to nebulousness and dissolves.

as aerial shots:

A view of the country from mid-air, at a point south of the River Inn, which is seen as a silver thread, winding northward between its junction with the Salza and the Danube, and forming the boundaries of the two countries.

and as other camera movements and effects.

Similar descriptive features have been identified in Hardy’s novels:

Hardy uses verbal description as a film director uses the lens of his camera, to select, highlight, distort, and enhance, creating a visualized world that is both recognizable and yet more vivid, intense, and dramatically charged than actuality. The methods he uses can be readily analyzed in cinematic terms: long shot, close-up, wide-angle, telephoto, zoom, etc. […]

The invocation of a hypothetical or unspecified observer in description is one of the signatures of Hardy’s narrative style. His novels are full of phrases like, “An observer would have remarked,” “a loiterer in this place might have speculated,” or verbs of perception, often in the passive voice (“it was seen,” “it was felt,” etc.) that are not attached to any specified subject.

David Lodge (1974). ‘Thomas Hardy and Cinematographic Form’. NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 7:3, p. 249–250.

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