For the first time on screen together

Madame Bovary and Les Misérables in 1934

in French literature on screen
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In the winter of 1934 two highly anticipated titles premiered just weeks apart on Paris screens: Jean Renoir’s Madame Bovary (13 January) and Raymond Bernard’s Les Misérables (3 February). Evidently they were so different in style and tone that virtually no one remarked on this coincidence at the time. But from what did that difference stem? The styles of the directors or of the books they took on? My brief is to use these adaptations to examine style and tone, turning this actual coincidence into a potential encounter. When sound film had definitively saturated the country in the early 1930s, these novels imposed themselves as ripe for adaptation. At a moment when Hollywood was running roughshod over a particularly weak French industry, Jean Valjean and Emma Bovary appeared as heroes, and not just of their respective novels. What could be more appealing to a national audience than hearing exalted actors speak the language of Hugo or Flaubert and on actual French landscapes? To their presumably sure-fire domestic reception could be added educated viewers everywhere on the planet, ensuring sizeable export potential for French classics everyone had heard of.

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