From Page to Screen: Chocolat

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Literature adaptation. It causes almost every reader to cringe, but I am totally obsessed with it. This feature looks at films and their book counterparts and analyses similarities and differences between the two. The goal is not to see which one is better, but to see what artistic decisions are made and what they bring to the original work.

I first watched this film quite a long time ago–nearer to its release date. When I was looking for a book set during a holiday other than Christmas for the challenge, a reader recommended this book, though with the caveat that she didn’t enjoy it as much as the film. This seemed like an interesting (and unusual) comment, so I decided to read the book and do a post.

First, some of the vital statistics on the book and film. (click the link for the film Wikipedia page, which has a plot summary)

Book:

  • Written by: Joanne Harris
  • Published: Doubleday, March 1999
  • Intended audience: Adult
  • Reception: won Creative Freedom Award and Whittaker Gold and Platinum Awards

Film:

  • Directed by: Lasse Hallström
  • Released: Miramax Films, December 2000
  • Principal actors: Juliette Binoche (Vianne), Judi Dench (Armande), Johnny Depp (Roux)
  • Reception: nominated for five academy awards, including best picture

 

Note: I watched the film before I read the book.

The film and the book have several interesting differences, but first I wanted to comment on the importance of magic to both stories. In the book the magic is a little more tangible. Vianne has the ability to sense certain things about people, including a little bit of their futures. Her family seems to have a history of witchcraft. In the film, the magic is there but it’s less visible. The magic comes from the wind, from stories, and from the chocolate (which I think almost everyone can agree has its own kind of magic).

The magic of this story makes it something a little more than the sum of its parts. It’s not just a story of a woman who, through constantly trying to run away finds something like home. The mystical elements add a lot to the story, and give the viewer and reader something to chew on.

 

Interesting Deviations:

The book’s setting is in a time period not too far away from our own. There are microwaves and a large part of Vianne’s past was spent in the United States rather than small towns in Europe. I think the decision to set the movie at the end of the 1950s was a really wise decision. First, it makes the town far more charming. The removed time period allows the viewer to see the town’s xenophobia as a symptom of a larger problem–the changing times. We don’t judge the villagers as harshly because their world isn’t our world.

The film plays up the Mayan elements and shrouds Vianne’s mother in mystery. Vianne in the book has clear premonitions and sensitivities about people, but in the film these are a little more tempered. For example, she can guess people’s favorites and does this instinctively, using her abilities. In the film this ability is filtered through the use of the wheel she apparently received from her mother. People tell her what they see in the spinning wheel, and she uses that to make a determination. It’s a very subtle difference, but one that plays up her heritage and downplays her specific abilities.

It also serves to bring a more complex element into the film–that of colonization and cultural appropriation through the journey of these white men to seek new world remedies. Vianne’s father learns that ultimately he cannot hold his wife down–her spirit cannot be conformed or contained to suit the culture he has brought her into.

Likewise, her mother’s role is changed in the film. She is more present in the book as a character–her virtues and faults are cataloged, and her influence on her daughter is well documented. The first person narrative assures this. In the film, Vianne’s mother is shrouded in more mystery–she is a presence, of course. Her ashes, the relics that Vianne surrounds herself with, and her attention to the wind all show this. However, she’s much more mysterious. The most we ever see of her is in the story that Vianne tells Anouk, and we know that it’s a story she doesn’t share very often. The story gives background, but it doesn’t reveal a lot about the nature of their relationship.

 

Differences in characters

Mr. Reynaud in the film is a deeply conservative man with high moral standards, at least that’s how he would describe himself. While his character is pretty much unchanged between the book and the film, the fact that he represents the Church in the book changes the relationship between Vianne and the rogue element that she represents and the religious welfare of the town. Religion in the film is humanized through the young and inexperienced Pere Henri, whose compassionate and forward-looking nature help the whole town to come to terms with themselves. This allows Vianne to fight something other than religious principle itself–tradition and narrow minded behavior. And it allows the Church to look towards a more progressive future. This is a much softer stance than the one the book takes.

Anouk’s imaginary friend, Pantoufle. In the film, Pantoufle is a kangaroo, an exotic, otherworldly character. In the book, he is a rabbit, which is a more familiar and home-y pet. They both serve to show how lonely Anouk is, but the kangaroo stresses her imaginative and creative side and the rabbit seems to suggest more of a longing for home.

Differences in perspectives

The book is told from both Father Reynaud’s perspective and Vianne’s. In this way, you get a lot more of their inner lives, but you lose a little of their mystery in order to gain their humanity. In the film, it seems as though the town itself is revealing the story to you–only at the end is it revealed that Anouk herself has been the narrator the entire time. Seeing the story through a child’s eyes provides the viewer with different kinds of details and observations and increases the feeling of magic.

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I love the way the film makes me want to roll around in chocolate (a la the Comte de Reynaud), but mostly I love the wonderful performances and the atmosphere of mysticism. The book was enjoyable for me, but the film is delectable.

Have you seen Chocolat or read the book? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

 

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