The translation of any work of literature into another medium, even one apparently so closely aligned with the written word as film, is always a chancy proposition. While literature and film focus themselves on the same targets within the minds of their audiences; that of completing an organic connection between the conception and the reception of an idea, the very natures of the two disciplines demand different things of the person who is reading or watching the material. As exciting and enveloping as the best film experience may be, it is still, in its essence a passive experience; every action is already determined, "painted," and set in celluloid by the filmmaker. On the other hand, literature demands much more of its audience. Even when a writer devotes paragraphs to descriptions of various characters or activities, the reader still plays an integral part in the final realization of every story. To describe every detail and nuance of a scene lasting a minute on-screen would require perhaps a dozen printed pages, and how many people would read 2000-page novels?
This does not mean that one form is inherently superior to the other, however. Talented directors, script writers, and actors can work together to produce an effort that transcends its written origins. A simple, pulp-styled, unproduced play like "Everybody Comes to Rick's" evolves into one of the most beloved motion pictures of all time as Casablanca, while a wordy, mannered, very long novel called The Poseidon Adventure is stripped to its basic structure with such skill that it revitalizes an entire genre of movies and remains extremely popular 30 years following its release.
Of course, examples of failed adaptations are too numerous for the purposes of this paper; Dune, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and Parnell, are just a few films which should have been much better than they proved to be. While the happy exceptions like The Godfather and Gone With the Wind seem to be all too rare.
The works of French author Emile Zola possess virtually every quality necessary to powerful filmmaking, and they have been adapted to the screen with varying degrees of success for more than 60 years. Three novels in particular represented, in their time, bold steps forward in the realistic depiction of human desire, frailty, and suffering in Western literature, and have been filmed over the decades by a trio of important French directors.
The adaptations are: La Bete Humain (a.k.a., The Beast In Man, published in 1890, filmed in 1938, directed by Jean Renoir); Therese Raquin (published in 1867, filmed in 1953, directed by Marcel Carne); and Germinal (published in 1885, filmed in 1993, directed by Claude Berri).
The essential question to be addressed by this exercise has to do with the suffering, both physical and psychic, of Zola's primary characters and how it was transferred to the screen by these directors. Since so much of the essence of Zola's work is revealed through the suffering of its actors, this would seem to be an essential element in the successful adaptation from the page to the screen. A close examination of each novel, side by side with its film, produces several surprises... not all of them to be found solely on the screen.
Emile Zola's life was, in many ways, as dramatic as anything that he ever committed to paper. Zola was born in Paris, France in 1840, the son of an Italian laborer. When he was only seven, his father passed away, leaving the family in dire financial condition, a state which was to last for several years. Despite their poverty, Zola's mother was focused upon making sure that young Emil would become a lawyer which meant that was the direction in which his studies took him, in spite of the fact that he personally was more interested in journalism.
When Zola failed to pass the bar, he turned his attention fully towards journalism and writing in all of its forms. A friend to many of the artists in the Impressionistic field, he was determined to become a successful writer. Stories told of young Emile of that time claim that he was so desperately poor that he survived by trapping and eating the sparrows and pigeons that would light on the windowsills of his apartment.
Zola's dedication paid off, however, and he began to earn both living wages and something of a reputation as a reporter. Fiction also appealed to him, and he published several minor novels and short stories while developing a personal style (in the steps of Flaubert and Stendhal) that would be come known as "naturalism." Briefly defined, naturalism rejected the often florid and nearly always idealized romanticism of writing of that period in favor of a realistic view of life. Zola replaced capricious miracles, coincidences, and guaranteed justice with an adherence to scientific accuracy and the understanding that bad things could (and did) happen to everyone, not just those who "deserved" them.
As his style evolved, so did his conviction that wealth and privilege produced undue burdens on those people not blessed with either quality. But perhaps surprisingly, Zola never took the final steps to fully embrace socialism or anarchy.
His depictions of the lives of the "upper classes" often seemed to revel in the degeneracy and alcoholism to be found among them. These privileged men and women might have had the means to more completely indulge their passions, but those passions and their consequences were not dissimilar to those of the working class.
Zola's first major novel, Therese Raquin, appeared in 1867 and caused a sensation with its unflinching look at the raw lust of its participants and the almost ghoulish settings it described ("love among the corpses"). His reputation was made, and he forged ahead with a great zeal. A series of novels detailing the decay over generations of a wealthy family due to heredity, disease, and environment (Les Rougon -Macquart) ran a full 20 volumes between 1871 and 1893, with La Bete Humaine as its 17th entry. His fame spread beyond France, and he became a strong influence on a number of other emerging and intense writers such as August Strindberg and Theodore Dreiser.
In addition to his novels, Zola continued as a journalist, as well as an outspoken critic of such formerly untouchable targets as the Catholic Church. "J'accuse" may be the most famous single piece that he produced in his entire career. A thundering defense of the wrongly accused Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who had been imprisoned on Devil's island following his conviction for treason, the article helped to flame the outrage of the Left in France and certainly added to the growing backlash that had arisen due to Zola's many unpopular public stances. The writer was even sentenced to a short jail term following the 1898 publication of the work. (Dreyfus was eventually exonerated and pardoned, when the "evidence" which had been presented against him proved to have been falsified.)
Zola's reputation in his homeland continued to suffer even as he came to be regarded as a major literary figure throughout much of the rest of the world. Also in 1898, he was prosecuted for libel which convinced him to flee France for the relative safety of England. His time abroad was short, however. In 1902, Zola was found dead of asphyxiation in his bed. Officially, the death was regarded as accidental, but rumors (quite possibly true) endure even today, stating that Zola's virulent enemies reached across the Channel to murder the man in his sleep by closing off the top of the chimney located in his room.
To the modern eye, Zola is often more celebrated for the dramatic changes he brought to the craft of writing rather the writing itself. Indeed, there is some basis to this, as his characters are often little more than automatons reacting and reciting according to his preplanned strategies (Zola was a stickler for detail, researching the settings of his work with the thoroughness of a surgeon preparing for an operation). But the depth of human emotion that he brought to the best of his material succeeded in dragging an unwilling audience out of the cottony placidness of most of the literature of the time by opening the hearts of real men and women and allowing the full spectrum of emotions to shine outward.
Like Zola, Jean Renoir is a towering figure in his field. The son of famed painter, Auguste Renoir, he was born in Paris in 1894. His childhood was, in many ways, idyllic and was filled with creativity, privilege, and love. He modeled for his father on several occasions and had decided upon a career in the arts (specifically ceramics), when World War I interrupted. Again, Renoir's life was crowded with different experiences, as he saw action with the cavalry, the infantry (almost losing a leg when wounded), and as a pilot. Renoir's father passed away in 1919, and only weeks afterwards, Jean married the elder man's…