Monday, April 17, 2017
1937: The Life of Emile Zola
Adapted from the book Zola and his Time by Matthew Josephson
Emile Zola was a French author and activist who took France - and much of the rest of the world - by storm in the second half of the 19th century, first by the controversial novels he published, and later by his defense of a wrongfully imprisoned army captain.
Back in 2010 when I watched this movie for my Best Picture blog, I noted that the title was misleading, since the movie glossed over most of Zola's life and focused mainly on the Dreyfus Affair. At the time, I asserted, "But it shouldn't have been done any other way." I am here to tell you now, after having slogged through the 521 pages of Zola and His Time, that I don't think I've ever written a more accurate sentence. Perhaps if I were more familiar with Zola's works, I would have appreciated reading all the dry, specific details of how he came up with each idea, how each book was received, and what Matthew Josephson personally thought of each one, but as it was, I found most of it interminably dull. I don't think that a book has ever literally put me to sleep before, but this one did. The book was split into four parts, and not until the last one, beginning about 400 pages in, was the Dreyfus Affair touched upon. And that's when the story actually gets interesting. It therefore stands to reason that this is the main focus of the film. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the screenplay was adapted from Zola and His Time Book Four: "Crusade", since so little of the first three parts makes its way into the film, and that which does is drastically changed.
The book makes much of Zola's instrumental role in the beginning of the so-called Naturalist movement, which claimed that everything could be explained by science. He was particularly fascinated by reproduction, which featured prominently in his works, explaining why they were so controversial. He spent most of his life writing a 20 volume series about one family through the generations. While each book had its own theme and specific focus, the family tree is what held them all together. This is completely ignored in the movie, which doesn't even mention naturalism once (production codes, perhaps?). The film makes it seem as if each of his works was a crusade of its own, with the sole purpose of exposing some deep injustice. The book makes it clear that, at least at the start, Zola's purpose was to observe the world and report his findings, not necessarily to inflame the masses, although that's what kept happening. The film focuses mostly on his volume about the army, and ties it into the Dreyfus Affair; the book gives that volume no more emphasis than the others.
While the book gives a dry, textbook-like account of a man's life, the film tells the dramatic story of a gross miscarriage of justice that is (spoiler alert) eventually overturned. As that is by far the most fascinating aspect - by which I mean the only fascinating aspect - of the book, it was not only appropriate, but absolutely necessary, to adapt it this way. Though far from the most riveting film ever made, it's also far from the most boring, which I consider an immense achievement after reading that book. This is one of those rare cases when the movie is actually significantly better than the book it's adapted from.
In fairness, though, I must point out the one aspect that the book did better: the issue of antisemitism. Captain Dreyfus was a Jewish officer at a time when the Catholic church was struggling to regain power in France. An easy way to regain power is to unite people over a common enemy, and non-Catholics, particularly Jews, were a convenient target. This is pretty much the only reason Dreyfus was suspected and convicted of a crime he had nothing to do with. The film very briefly shows a ledger with Dreyfus's name next to "Religion: Jew", and right afterwards someone comments, "How did he get to be an officer?" but that's the only time this is mentioned. The book goes into great detail explaining the feeling of the country at the time and Zola's disgust with antisemitism. As usual, it was a bit more than necessary, but it helped explain both why Zola was ultimately persuaded to speak out and why most of the country was so vehemently against both him and Dreyfus. This also contributes to the drama and the fighting for justice theme that the movie clings to, so at first it seems a little odd that the film would downplay this so much. But here's the thing: the book was published in 1928; the movie was made in 1937. The book still talks about "the World War" as if humanity had learned its lesson, as if nothing like that could ever happen again. But by the time the movie was made, there was a lot of unrest in Europe, much of which was centered around antisemitism. I'm far from a history expert, but it seems to me that Hollywood didn't want to alienate anyone by being openly anti-antisemitic, since the U.S. was trying to stay out of another war at that point. So the movie focuses on the miscarriage of justice aspect while avoiding as much as possible the bigotry aspect. But at least they didn't eliminate it completely. And ten years later the Best Picture Winner was entirely devoted to condemning antisemitism, even though it still avoided mentioning the Holocaust that had just happened, so...progress?
Whew. I really hope there aren't too many more books like this that inspired Best Adapted Screenplay winners, or I may never get through this project. Next up is Pygmalion, based on the play by George Bernard Shaw, which I'm assuming is a much faster read than this was.