Otto Preminger’s 1958 screen version of Françoise Sagan’s first novel, Bonjour, Tristesse (Hello, Sadness, published four years earlier) was intended to be an important entrant in the distinguished series of “A” budget adaptations of serious fiction and drama that were turned out (or in this case financed) by Columbia Studios in the 1950s under the general direction of studio head Harry Cohn Transnational adaptations like Preminger’s Tristesse can be seen negatively, as acts of untoward cultural appropriation even when the obtaining of rights is perfectly legal and the filmmaker, as in this case, can be credited with a sincere and in many ways surprisingly effective effort to be “faithful” to the source’s cultural milieu and values, as this chapter aims to demonstrate. It is important to note that this was not the case with Preminger’s film, probably because of his own considerable reputation as Euro-American (a Hollywood director with a continental sophistication), and also because the film itself (and its young star) became instantly popular in France. Otto Preminger, with great finesse and respect, brought this melancholy tale to the screen, and in his creative wisdom he had the poem transformed into a haunting song, unforgettably sung on screen by one of France’s most talented chanteuses, who adopted it as one of her musical signatures. In so doing, he went beyond adaptation proper to limn unforgettably the contours of the existentialiste spirit of Sagan and her generation. One would well argue that no French-produced film of the period even attempted to do the same.
French literature on screen is a multi-author volume whose eleven chapters plus an introduction offer case histories of the screen versions of major literary works by such authors as Victor Hugo, Marcel Proust, Françoise Sagan, and George Simenon. Written by leading experts in the field, the various chapters in this volume offer insightful investigations of the artistic, cultural, and industrial processes that have made screen versions of French literary classics a central element of the national cinema. French literature on screen breaks new scholarly ground by offering the first trans-national account of this important cultural development. These film adaptations have been important in both the American and British cinemas as well. English language screen adaptations of French literature evince the complexity of the relationship between the two texts, the two media, as well as opening up new avenues to explore studio decisions to contract and distribute this particular type of ‘foreign’ cinema to American and British audiences. In many respects, the ‘foreign’ quality of master works of the French literary canon remain their appeal over the decades from the silent era to the present. The essays in this volume also address theoretical concerns about the interdependent relationship between literary and film texts; the status of the ‘author’, and the process of interpretation will be addressed in these essays, as will dialogical, intertextual, and transtextual approaches to adaptation.
This chapter surveys the general history of the adaptation of French literary texts by filmmakers working within the French, British, and American national cinemas, beginning with the silent cinema. Periods covered include the early sound era, the French New Wave, classic Hollywood, and the British heritage cycle.