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The Impact of the Novel on French Cinema of the 30s Dudley Andrew T HE ADAPTATION OF NOVELS to the screen is a greatly maligned pursuit. Crucial to an omnivorous industry that must annually digest thousands of tales so as to extrude the hundreds of films exhibitors rely upon, adaptation discourages or revolts devotees of both artforms. But has anyone sought in adaptation the key to the aesthetic advancement of the cinema? That is what I have in mind here. Following the one great defense written for this suspect process that I know about, André Bazin’s “ Pour un cinéma impur,” 11mean to look at the shifting “ equilibrium profile” of artistic production at a moment when the obtrusive solidity of the novel forced the rushing river of cinema to change its course and dig deeper into its bed.2The cultural ter­ rain I have chosen: France, the 1930s. Judgments about the worth of Poetic Realism may differ, but no one can doubt the critical success these French movies enjoyed between 1936 and 1939. Even though the financial outlook for the industry was at least as bleak as it had been early in the decade, critics were certain that they had witnessed the transformation of an underachieving art to one that could honestly be said to be leading the world. The films of Carné, Renoir, Duvivier, Chenal, and Grémillon routinely took top prizes at international competitions. While many of the best of these films were written directly for the screen (La Règle du jeu, La Grande Illusion, La Belle Equipe, Un Carnet du bal) many others came from novels (Quai des brumes, Hotel du Nord, La Bête humaine, Le Puritain, Gueule d ’amour). More important, not a single film in the Poetic Realist canon was drawn from the stage. Thus cinema’s rapport with the novel had become primary, infecting even “ original scripts” with its overall aesthetic. While this trend is mistakable in the major export films, a statistical survey substantiates its pervasiveness across the industry. In the early years of sound the theater dominated cinematic subjects in staggering proportions. I have identified 63 films out of a total French production of 155 in 1933 as deriving from popular plays and operettas while only 27 came from novels (though the latter include major names in the history VOL. XXX, NO. 2 3 L ’E sprit C réateur of fiction: Victor Hugo, Anatole France, Emile Zola, Gustave Flaubert, Charles Dickens, Guy de Maupassant). The very prestige of such names opened the possibility for a more ambitious, weightier use of the cinema. Still, this remained just a possibility so long as producers looked first to the theater for their material. Four years later, however, the novel had supplanted the play in its importance to the film industry. La Cinématographie Française projected that in the second half of 1937 (usually singled out as Poetic Realism’s “ annus mirabilis”) of 46 films in produc­ tion only four were from plays, while 26 came from novels. Such a change in the aesthetic substratum of the industry’s proudest product, the export film, was exactly what the most ambitious young cineastes had been demanding from the outset of the decade. Among these I single out Pierre Chenal and Marcel Carné, who, along with the likes of Jean Mitry and Edmond T. Gréville, had been reared in the ciné-club tradition of the 20s and were now posed to go beyond cinéclubs and beyond the shorts they had so far managed to make. In their criticism one can hear, beneath the far louder debates over the relation of cinema to the theater that the introduction of sound had touched off, an appeal for a mature literary cinema that would ultimately be more consequential. Gréville, who had written novels in the 20s, was the first to shock the establishment with Remous in 1933. In that year Carné’s career had hardly begun but he would soon become the most famous and powerful figure of this group. The essays he wrote for Cinémagazine explicitly called for the renewal of French cinema, and in his most noted piece linked such...


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