I’ve always been doubtful about films made on the basis of novels. I know that the authors are very often involved, and usually pronounce themselves happy with the result, but in general it seems to me that film adaptations offer very limited and simplistic versions of the original fiction.
Whether or not this is an unfair prejudice of mine against the cinema, it was certainly reinforced by a recent visit to the local cinema to see Suite française. I’d read good reports, and although I said I didn’t need to see it, having read both the original French version and the English translation (not showing off – it was in order to study the use of a particular grammatical issue, noted in another blog of mine), I couldn’t keep on refusing my wife’s invitation!
It turned out to be a pleasant enough evening, but very irritating all the same for someone who prefers the written word. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not one of those pedants who objects to a film because the hub caps on the cars were not issued until a year after the scene in question, or because a character uses an expression which had not been coined by the alleged date. No, this was a much more basic objection, and if I run through a few items here I hope you’ll see what I mean.
For a start, the novel I have on my table has about 500 pages. The film opens with Part 2, round about page 318. But hey, let’s not get bogged down in all that character-building or historical context – let’s just get going on the love interest!
For the main part of the love story (because that what the film becomes) the single most flagrant error is the way that Lucile and her German admirer get together. In the novel she is sorely tempted to give in to his increasingly urgent advances (is the language old-fashioned enough?), but she refuses and sadly watches him drive out of the village with his soldiers. In the film, not only does she not say no, she even initiates the rather silly encounter where they fumble their way to sex in a cupboard, almost in full view of Lucile’s mother-in-law. As I say, we are not talking mis-matched hub-caps here – just a full-scale inversion of one of the central points of the novel.
Lucile drives off at the end with a résistant hidden in the car, and we hear in a voice-over that they worked together in Paris for the next four years. There is a double irony in this invention, in that the author was herself deported (she subsequently died) soon after the draft of the novel was written, so this business of assuming four years of effort by Lucile is totally pointless.
Benoît, the communist résistant, has killed a German soldier both in the film and the novel, but whereas the novel refers to possible punishment for anyone who aids or abets him (with some tension regarding Lucile, not to mention Bruno), the film makers have thought it wise to introduce a totally new scene in which the local mayor is shot in the village square as a punishment for Benoît’s apparent escape. It is such a detailed scene, with such a long build-up, that I really began to doubt my own memory, and had to check it up when I got home; I was relieved to find that it is indeed a total invention.
Oh, and of course at the end Lucile’s despotic mother-in-law is shown harbouring Benoît’s little daughter. It may never have happened in the novel, but it certainly gives a nice soft-focus cameo scene of about ten seconds, just so that can become all soppy and warm to the old harridan after all.
And those are just the big things. As I suggested earlier, I really don’t mind some artistic licence to explain things. Who cares if Lucile knew about her absent husband’s infidelity before the invasion (as in the novel) or finds out about it only through looking at Bruno’s papers? And I can even admire the way that the title Suite française becomes the title of a piece of music which Bruno plays at various points. But how on earth anyone can give this title to the film when it has changed so much of the meaning of the novel, I don’t know. All the film has done is take one narrative strand and embroider on it, adding a bit of sex and violence along the way. Lucile may be portrayed as a sweet Française, but the film certainly didn’t win me over!