About the Author
Andrew Watts is Lecturer in French Studies at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on adaptations of nineteenth-century prose fiction, with special reference to the work of Honoré de Balzac.
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Adapting Nineteenth-Century France
Literature in Film, Theatre, Television, Radio and Print
By Kate Griffiths, Andrew Watts
University of Wales PressCopyright © 2013 Kate Griffiths and Andrew Watts
All rights reserved.
Labyrinths of Voices: Emile Zola, Germinal and Radio
The critical silence surrounding the adaptation of Emile Zola to radio is deafening. It does not stem from a paucity of adaptations of the author in radio. Rather, this silence is the result of two factors. First, the discipline of adaptation studies has tended to ignore radio as an adaptive medium. Secondly, Zola, an author who famously privileges the visual in his attempt to make us 'see' reality, does not appear suited to a purely aural medium that is, in the words of Andrew Crisell, 'blind'. However, using two BBC radio adaptations of Germinal written by David Hopkins and Diana Griffiths and aired in 1982 and 2007 respectively, this chapter seeks to underline that radio is not a blind medium. Rather, in its ability to delve into the consciousness of its characters and to construct itself in the skulls of its audience, it offers an 'inner vision' essential to the success of the Zolian text. Vision is, in any case, a highly problematic sense in Germinal, a sense that falters and gains support precisely from the power of the word, of the voice. The powerful association between Zola's novel and its adaptation at the hands of Hopkins and then Griffiths stems precisely from their concentration on things vocal. At the level of plot, each work assesses the power of voice. However, more intriguingly, at a metatextual level, each author considers the voices within his/her own creative voice, the whispering traces of myth, contemporary history, art and literature from which his/her text is adapted. The texts of Zola, Hopkins and Griffiths are polyphonic works that encourage readers to trace their multiple vocal tracks, to engage with their labyrinthine borrowings from the voices of others.
The voice of Zola's Germinal still resonates in contemporary culture. In economic terms it is one of the most successful of the author's output in book form. Adapted into silent film by Alberto Capellani as early as 1913, the novel has been worked and reworked across time, media and nation. The novel formed the subject matter for Claude Berri's 1993 blockbuster starring Gérard Depardieu, the most expensive film of its era. A multi-part television mini-series aired on the BBC in 1970, and, residually popular on French television with single téléfilms and multi-part adaptations being broadcast and re-broadcast repeatedly, a multi-part mini-series aired in 2009 on Direct 8. The two radio adaptations explored in this chapter, however, require more introduction than the novel since their voices are perhaps unknown to the reader and, if so, likely to remain so given the lack of a publicly accessible BBC radio archive. Once aired, unless recorded, the voices of the adaptations of Hopkins and Griffiths disappeared. Such though is the nature of radio, for it depends on sounds and voices. In the words of W. Ong:
Sound exists only when it is going out of existence. It is not simply perishable but essentially evanescent, and it is sensed as evanescent. When I pronounce the word 'permanence' by the time I get to the '-nence' the 'perma-' is gone and has to be gone.
Mladen Dolar concurs: '[Voice] makes the utterance possible, but it disappears in it, it goes up in smoke in the meaning being pronounced.' The perishable nature of voice leads to what Gregory Whitehead identifies as the central paradox of radio, the medium that is 'ubiquitous' in its popularity and open access, but ever 'fading without a trace'. David Hopkins was, in many respects, a highly suitable candidate to dramatise Zola's novel for the spoken word. Like Zola his artistic interests were broad (he worked as a filmmaker, writer, cinema programmer and dramatist as well as becoming a documentary director at BBC Bristol). His university studies in zoology and drama, moreover, might arguably be seen as the perfect preparation for the animalistic thrills of Germinal, a text he dramatised as a five-part serial for the BBC in 1982, working from Leonard Tancock's translation. If Hopkins's interest in Zola was fleeting and his interest in radio at times secondary to other media, the dramatist of the second case study, Diana Griffiths, not only focuses largely on radio, but her interest in Zola's voice is serial. Her three-part adaptation of Germinal that aired in 2007 on Radio 4 had been preceded by a version, in 2004, of L'Assommoir and was followed in 2009 by a version of Thérèse Raquin.
Neither adaptation triggered critical comment in the sphere of Zola studies. Such critical silence has much to do with the medium of radio's message: voice/sound. Though Zola is an artist in and of words, he is repeatedly associated with vision, with an overarching desire to see and make us see everything in his twenty-novel Rougon-Macquart series. It is no coincidence that, in the totalising ambitions of the writer figure in Zola's Nouveaux Contes à Ninon, speech comes a poor third after sight: 'tout voir, tout savoir, tout dire. Je voudrais coucher l'humanité sur une page blanche, tous les êtres, toutes les choses; une uvre qui serait l'arche immense.' The breadth of the novelist's panoramas in Germinal is clear as Zola hints at the limitlessness of the landscape and its 'champs sans fin'. His approach to such panoramas is in many respects painterly. As Monet painted the same space in different lights, seasons and times, so Zola offers the reader comparable visions of the mine in day, night, spring and winter. His visions are washed in blackness in fluid descriptions 'de cette apparition fantastique, noyée de nuit et de fumée' (p. 1134). They make clear the 'touches' and 'taches' of his textual painting: 'Très loin, de petites taches blanches indiquaient des villes' (p. 1192). Colour too proves important. Like the Impressionists, Zola plays with the colours intrinsically attributed to objects. Bonnemort spits not blood but black coal on the earth. The earth, instead of being comparably black, is as red as the blood it has drunk from him in its three attempts to kill him (p. 1135). Colour is also one of many means of highlighting the chasm between the workers and the bourgeois. While the miners live in a palette confined to just three colours (the black of the ubiquitous coal dust, the white of their anaemic bodies and the red of the blood they offer to the gluttonous mine), Cécile's entry into the action in a nasturtium colour dress opens a bourgeois world far more varied in tone and hue (p. 1308). Driven by vision at the level of plot and by a desire at the level of form to explore the capacity of words to 'see', the affiliation of Germinal with things visual is clear.
Radio, as has already been suggested, by stark contrast, is traditionally considered to be a blind, black medium. Val Gielgud, for so many years the guiding force of BBC radio drama concurs. He suggests that radio's blindness is in fact double. Not only does the dramatist see 'himself deprived of visual effect, of costume-colour, of scenic atmosphere', but 'he is also robbed of all audience reaction'. BBC radio drama has made something of a leitmotiv of this blindness. The first play written for radio, A Comedy of Danger (1924) by Richard Hughes, is set in the darkness at the bottom of a coal mine and opens with the words 'The lights have gone out'. The BBC sought to maximise this sense of darkness, advising the audience to listen to the radio play in the dark for fear that the public's surroundings would distract them. Hopkins's Germinal takes up this leitmotiv of blindness, reflecting on the medium of its own existence. Hopkins's Jeanlin reflects on the darkness of the mine in which he and Etienne hide: 'It's odd that you can hear better down here especially when it's really dark. Things sound so much more.' Radio does black out aspects of Zola's text. Neither Hopkins nor Griffiths allow us to see the full cast of Zola's novel for the darkness of radio imposes specific constraints on dramatists. Large cast dramas, of which Germinal is a prime example, are impossible. If a character falls silent at any time they disappear in radio. Moreover, neither Hopkins nor Griffiths can show us the spaces of Zola's panoramas. Place, the theme so important to Zola with his belief in the formative nature of environment, can only ever be minimal in radio, refracted through the words of characters or conveyed in descriptions from a narrator. The former possibility can be clumsy and the latter is regarded with artistic suspicion by the radio profession. Gielgud writes: 'If it is to be effective and justifiable, narrative requires extreme discrimination in use and particular care in its writing. Used merely as a device to save the writer trouble it is – often literally – unspeakable.'
To dismiss radio solely as a blind medium, though, is in many respects to misunderstand it as the adaptation of Griffiths in particular demonstrates. Though their radio adaptations cannot 'show' the breadth and detail of Zola's panoramas, they offer a different type of vision, a type highly suited to Zola's fictional project: inner vision. Radio's vision (and, indeed, that of literature, Zola's medium,) is interior in two key respects. First, radio infiltrates the heads of its listeners, inhabiting the recesses of their minds, recesses in which its action is staged. As Frances Gray puts it, 'the stage of radio is the darkness and silence of the listener's skull'. Gray continues:
As soon as we hear a word in a radio play, we are close to the experience it signifies; in fact the sound is literally inside us. To submit to this invasion, to allow another's picture of the universe to enter and undermine our own, is to become vulnerable in a way we do not when we watch a film or a play, where the alien world is demonstrably outside.
However, radio's inner vision is not restricted to the mind of its listener. Radio blacks out the outside world and its scenery and consequently is, in the ensuing darkness, particularly adept at the 'dramatisation of consciousness'. It is a medium that can enter, without unnerving the listener, the unexplored recesses of its characters' minds. 'Remember', said writer Tyrone Guthrie of his heroine at the start of a radio play in the 1920s, 'you are overhearing her thoughts'. Such inner vision is a key characteristic of Zola's literary mission in the Rougon-Macquart series in general. The novelist dissects the lives and minds of characters as they battle beneath the controlling weight of their era, environment and heredity. Writing in advance of the Rougon-Macquart in a statement which nevertheless anticipates the penetrating scalpel of his narrative, he claims of Thérèse Raquin: 'J'ai simplement fait sur deux corps vivants le travail analytique que les chirurgiens font sur des cadavres.' Germinal exemplifies this inner vision in its opening pages as Zola contrasts and moves between the endlessness of the 'immense horizon plat' and the stifling confines of the protagonist's mind as he walks in that landscape, a mind made smaller by its fixation on a single repeated thought: 'Une seule idée occupait sa tête vide d'ouvrier sans travail et sans gîte, l'espoir que le froid serait moins vif après le lever du jour' (p. 1133). Moreover, critics have taken the mine with its unknown recesses and seams as a metaphor for the human psyche. It is the space where unspoken desires grow, where Etienne and Catherine give in to the love they have forbidden themselves, where Etienne surrenders to his urges to kill. For Henri Mitterand the mine is the 'place where instinctive impulses – hunger, sex, murder – which daylight normally censures or controls, break loose freely ... This is the place where man reverts to beast'. Zola's narrative offers its reader a privileged vision of the mind, inner impulses and hidden desires of specific characters. Radio, a medium suited to the interiority of Zola's narrative vision, can do likewise.
Griffiths's adaptation plays precisely on the inner vision so central to Zola's text and to the medium in which she works. While she cannot describe the external landscape in the breadth her source novel does, she allows the listener access to the landscape of her characters' minds. She does in places have her narrator pronounce externally on the hidden thoughts of her characters, thoughts they have not yet fully formulated for themselves: 'Although he hardly realises it yet, Etienne is excited to feel his popularity growing daily, to find himself the centre of attention and to feel the whole world revolving around him. 'Yet, more often than not she simply allows the listener into her characters' heads, permitting him/her to hear the thoughts that go unvoiced. As Maheu arranges accommodation and finance for his new work mate, Etienne's brain objects vociferously in words which do not leave the confines of his skull: 'I'd rather drop dead of hunger than go back down that hell hole.' Moreover, in a series of letters to Pluchart, letters for our ears only, Etienne analyses events in a light he will not share with his comrades. Griffiths intersperses these letters with personal reflections that Etienne does not share with pluchart, blurring the invisible boundary between what the protagonist puts down on paper and what he does not. Such acts of radio voyeurism, if such visual vocabulary can pertain, find a metaphor in Griffiths's gleeful use of the eaves-dropping scene in Zola, a scene in which Cécile and Paul watch the miners' delegation through a keyhole, observing from afar and commenting from outside (p. 1316). Like Cécile and Paul we eaves-drop on a world which is not our own, but unlike them we are not held at the same distance, barred by a door through which we can only peer. Griffiths plays with sound and its distance to take us into the room, to let us hear events, exploiting the innate intimacy of the medium of radio.
The panoramic vision of the external world so often associated with Zola, the vision radio cannot reproduce, is, in any case, Germinal makes clear, a highly problematic sense. Zola repeatedly highlights the incapacities of sight. Etienne struggles to comprehend the minescape in the opening pages of the novel. It dissolves in form and sense before his eyes in a tableau replete with verbs of hazy perception. The fluid imagery used both underlines how the landscape eludes him and anticipates the deluge at the novel's close. The landscape is, in his eyes, '[une] apparition fantastique, noyée de nuit et de fumée' (p. 1134). Before his gaze, 'la vaste salle ... se noyait, peuplée de grandes ombres flottantes' (pp. 1151–2). Words, in this case those of the seasoned miners, are needed to make sense of this world for Etienne. The protagonist's eyes prove no more able to master space, place and detail below ground as he walks through the mine, 'un dédale d'escaliers et de couloirs obscurs' (p. 1157). 'La voix de Catherine', a voice detached from the body he cannot see in the inky subterranean blackness, guides and situates him, building in his mind a vision of the space he cannot make out (p. 1163). The gaze of the narrative itself might also be seen to fail for, in describing the scenery, it repeatedly points to the space which exceeds its fictional vision, moving beyond the pages of its own text: 'Puis, les champs se déroulaient, des champs sans fin de blé et de betteraves' (p. 1192). Space and its contents dissolve beneath the gaze of this novel: 'La nuit venait par grandes fumées, noyant les lointains perdus de la plaine. Sur cette mer immense de terres rougeâtres, le ciel bas semblait se fondre en noire poussière' (p. 1235). The novel's close appears to offer a return to clarity and light, a return to visual mastery and a clear sense of space. Etienne, in daylight, dominates the landscape that has allowed him to follow in the footsteps of his mentor, the labour leader pluchart, in Paris. However, vision is problematic to the last in this novel. What Etienne sees, in a parody of the systematic panoramic structure to which Zola so frequently has recourse in his novels, is debris: matter decomposing, presence becoming more of an absence, something becoming nearly nothing. Zola writes, in a passage at once geographically fixed and absent, 'A droite, il apercevait Montsou qui dévalait et se perdait. En face, il avait les décombres du Voreux' (p. 1591). In any case, what Etienne sees is obfuscated by the words on which he concentrates as he practises speeches he hopes to give in Paris. His words block the landscape he has already metaphorically left behind, transporting him to his new life in the capital. Zola's novel might be seen to be more blind than the medium of radio.
Excerpted from Adapting Nineteenth-Century France by Kate Griffiths, Andrew Watts. Copyright © 2013 Kate Griffiths and Andrew Watts. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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Table of ContentsIntroduction Kate Griffiths I Labyrinths of Voices: Emile Zola, Germinal and Radio Kate Griffiths II Diamond Thieves and Gold Diggers: Balzac, Silent Cinema and the Spoils of Adaptation Andrew Watts III Fragmented Fictions: Time, Textual Memory and the (Re)Writing of Madame Bovary Andrew Watts IV Les Miserables, Theatre and the Anxiety of Excess Andrew Watts V Chez Maupassant: The (In)Visible Space of Television Adaptation Kate Griffiths VI Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours: Verne, Todd, Coraci and the Spectropoetics of Adaptation Kate Griffiths Conclusion Andrew Watts