Dumas’s enduringly popular novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, adapts well to cinema, having been created in a tradition of visual storytelling that developed in complexity as the cinematic medium evolved in parallel form. The picaresque adventures of the protagonist, Edmond Dantès provided narrative spectacle that was matched by advances in camerawork and editing in each decade of the cinematic century. As a time-based revelation of a latent image, the spectacle of Edmond Dantès develops in a series of identities or portraits by way of the alchemy of revenge in both text and cinema.
Jennifer L. Jenkins
A tale of three women, if not more
R. Barton Palmer
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.
One novel, two films
Before considering the two film adaptations of François Mauriac’s novel Thérèse Desqueyroux (1927) and because it stands as a fulcrum of so many narrating voices, themselves constructed out of obsession, desire, repression, suffocation and a sense of futility, it behoves us to lift the layers away one by one, as one would uncover a palimpsest, to understand these meanings, first, before proceeding further. There have been two film adaptations of Thérèse Desqueyroux; one in 1962 by Georges Franju, in which the script was co-authored between the director and Mauriac; the second, in 2012, by Claude Miller in which the script was co-authored between director and Natalie Carter (who had already written two other adaptations with Miller). The lack of mystery and ambiguity surrounding Miller’s interpretation of Thérèse’s character is undoubtedly the weakness of his film. His simplification of the narrative (going from light to darkness as he put it) meant that he also reduced his other characters to two-dimensions. Anne in this instance is yet another clear example. Mauriac’s Anne, as Thérèse, is an unruly female; not, as Miller’s version would have us believe, one who belongs to ‘la race implacable des simples’. She will become so, because the family eventually wins the struggle and she marries Deghuilem; but she has known love, something none of the others have experienced. Until she is made to come to heel (by her parents and Bernard) she is a free spirit, quite wild (her love of shooting, her passion for Jean). The manner in which she kills the bird in front of Thérèse is particularly revealing when we compare Miller’s to Franju’s version. In the former, Anne snaps the wood-pigeon’s neck in a swift brutal gesture (much as Bernard would). In the latter, Anne gently strokes the little bird (a stonechat?), then slowly applies pressure on its throat to slowly extinguish life. In Miller’s version, Anne appears unambiguously hard. Franju’s Anne appears a complex contradiction, both sentimental and cruel. So, even as Thérèse assures us she is pure and innocent, an ambiguity arises.
Stardom and literary adaptation
One of the most prolific and successful francophone writers of the twentieth century, Georges Simenon is also one of the most frequently adapted to the screen. His legendary output includes 436 novels published between 1931 and 1972, as well as many essays and autobiographical pieces of writing. Seventy-five of them are devoted to the author’s most popular hero, Chief Inspector Maigret, a senior policeman in Paris. The first Maigret novel, Pietr-le-letton, was published in 1931. Others followed at a phenomenal rate until 1934, when Simenon attempted to put a stop to them in order to concentrate on what he considered his more serious romans durs. However, public demand and financial reward were hard to resist; the Maigret series resumed and continued until 1972. Barely a year elapsed between the publication of the first Maigret novel and the first film version, La Nuit du carrefour, directed by Jean Renoir in 1932. Many others followed, with altogether more than 300 films and television series. At least thirty actors have incarnated the character. ‘Maigret’ describes his relationship with the author who created him, while the latter explains that he deliberately drew the policeman as a simplified, instantly recognizable silhouette ‘that gradually became fleshed out with details’.
Screening French literature
Homer B. Pettey and R. Barton Palmer
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.
This essay reconsiders efforts to adapt the Recherche to the screen, exploring they contribute to a critical understanding of relations between prose fiction and film. Adaptation draws on memory and reading transposed from written word to the audiovisual medium of cinema. In conjunction with the possibility of a Proustian cinema that might draw on formal as well as narrative elements of the Recherche, I conclude with remarks on Chantal Akerman’s 2000 feature film, La Captive, inspired by the section of Proust’s novel known as La Prisonnière. Full disclosure, I state from the start that I consider efforts to film the Recherche less in terms of failure or success in conjunction with fidelity to the Proustian source text than as experiments or exercises worthy of exploration on their own. Critical accounts since 2000 by Martine Beugnet, Marion Schmid, and Pascal Ifri have renewed debate surrounding cinematic adaptations of the Recherche. For Ifri, a major challenge faced by filmmakers is how to contend with resistance among readers for whom the Recherche is an extreme demonstration of the degree to which representations of time are less malleable on the movie screen than on paper. This is the case, Ifri argues, less in conjunction with linear duration than with the singular complexity of the novel’s depiction of psychology, affect, and emotion. Adapting the Recherche to film is also complicated by the novel’s length, the absence of a traditional plot, its verbal style, and descriptions of painting and music, some of which Ifri describes as un-cinematic. Because Proust’s novel explores what lies behind visible reality and because that reality is reputedly the only one cinema can show, adapting the Recherche to the screen is extremely problematic.
Staging Carmen’s death
There have been some eighty film adaptations of the Carmen story since 1895 (excluding over thirty TV films), based either on Prosper Mérimée’s novella (1845) or on Georges Bizet’s opera (1875), or on a combination of both. It is one of the most adapted stories in cinema history, and the most adapted classical literature in French cinema. Those adaptations range across national cinemas: the USA is the most prominent (27), followed by France (10), Spain (9), UK (8), Italy (6), Germany (4), Brazil (2), Russia (2), and there are Argentinian, Austrian, Czech, Dutch, Mexican, Senegalese, Slovenian, South African, Swedish, and Venezuelan versions. The Carmen story has unsurprisingly then been the focus of considerable academic attention. In this chapter I will focus on the climax of the story, the ritualistic murder of the threatening femme fatale represented by Carmen in her irreducible difference. In most cases, Carmen’s death takes place either in the wild countryside of Mérimée’s novella, or in the urbanized bullring of Bizet’s opera. A majority of film versions construct the death scene as a ritual performance where the location is an enclosed and generally non-realist stage, especially when the rest of the film has been relatively realist in its use of locations. Using Foucault’s theory of heterotopia as ‘other’ contested place, I argue that the reason for this staging is to provide a segregated ritual space which retrospectively legitimizes the narrative as a performance of excessive sexualities, at the same time as, paradoxically, it contains that excess by staging it as a performance.
Edited by: Homer B. Pettey and R. Barton Palmer
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.
Madame Bovary and Les Misérables in 1934
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.
Homer B. Pettey
While the primary subject of Paul Verhoven’s Elle (2016) remains an examination of rape, the film places rape within a dark satire of contemporary French bourgeois life: the technological usurpation of emotions and sexuality; the uncertain future of a new generation of slacker male children; the shallowness of casual marital infidelity; and even the comically violent frustrations over the lack of parking in Paris. Elle especially addresses rape in contrast to a current culture of unquestioned feminist assumptions. Indeed, Elle provokes feminist paradigms that have foregrounded much of the discussion of gender and sexuality in both literary and film studies. Elle takes the subject of rape and radically alters conventional, popular, and academic assumptions about woman’s agency, undercutting as it critiques the several waves of feminism. In doing so, Elle eschews and at times mocks feminist grand narratives of oppressive patriarchy and pervasive misogyny with their repeated subtext of women trapped within a dominant rape culture. Instead, Elle formulates a satiric counter-narrative that affirms female agency and examines the ambiguities of feminine desire. Elle problematizes feminist polemics against the voyeurism and scopophilia of cinematic portrayals of rape and their reducing of woman to a victim status under the domination of the male gaze. In doing so, Elle does not dismiss feminism outrightly, but rather adapts a new text that does not need to be faithful to that original theoretical text. Based upon Philippe Djian’s novel ‘Oh …’, Elle also calls into question the process of adaptation, which for Elle involves movement not only between literary and cinematic forms, but also among transmedial forms of computers, video games, and messaging systems. The subject of these intertextual forms of adaptation always remains rape and its consequences. These provocations reveal how Elle admirably, if quite disturbingly, plays with conventions of contemporary femininity by taking the emotionally and politically fraught subject of violent sexual assault and rendering it graphically and satirically. Elle, then, serves an outré, contemporary model for the process of adaptation.