Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Review (Adaptation Comparison): The Paradise (adapted from Au Bonheur des Dames, by Emile Zola)

Emile Zola’s cautiously optimistic social commentary on the mass culture leviathan of the industrial age, the luxurious department store, Au Bonheur Des Dames, is the basis of the historical drama, The Paradise. Guess which part of that description the BBC executives focussed on. 

By the time they released the series collection it seems they (or at least the marketers) realised they’d not created an adaptation of Zola’s novel, but an economically lavish costume drama. Although the title cards of each episode claim the show is based on ‘a novel by Emile Zola,’ scouring the series' DVD packaging I can find no reference to Zola, his novel, or that this is an adaptation at all. Probably for the best. The reason, in the modern entertainment landscape, to superficially adapt a property is to have inbuilt name recognition. Call me condescending, but I don’t believe many Britishers or Americans have knowledge of 19th century French literature, much less a knowledge of Emile Zola. ‘Adapted from a novel by Emile Zola’ sells far less than does ‘19th century costume drama.’

The Paradise shaves the grimy edges off of Au Bonheur des Dames, turning the social commentary/documentary into an urbane stroll through old world opulence. Zola, though ultimately siding with the march of progress, never lets the reader forget the Au Bonheur's decadence is a front, an anglerfish tempting the women of Paris into unchecked spending, a lure maintained by a machine constructed of shopgirls and boys ground out before age forty. In one scene of the TV series Denise says working at The Paradise is not work at all; I see what she means, but that sentence sums up a major departure of the show from the book. Zola, from extensive research, knew the life of a shopgirl was nowhere near as glamourous as her workplace implied. Both in store and behind the scenes the labour drained the girls physically and mentally. If you didn’t have durable shoes, you wouldn’t last long. The Paradise does not contend with this. The girls work and it’s the best work they could have, not merely by merit of it being the only work they could have.

Moray possesses little of the ruthlessness of his literary counterpart, Mouret. Where Mouret would asphyxiate all those who stood in his way, Moray very genteelly goes about his business. The social Darwinist cruelties built into Mouret’s system, breeding rampant competition and anxiety, are absent from Moray’s workplace. There is competition, but of the ‘Who will get this rare promotion?’ sort, rather than the ‘Who will avoid the sack?’ sort.

Although the show tells us Moray built himself from nothing, it neither shows nor describes his assent. He is a self-made man, and that’s all that’s said. I don’t expect a lecture on 19th century marketing and department store running, but the novel managed get across a good idea of Mouret’s innovative genius and enterprise in a single dialogue. As innovations go, the only one the show hints at is Moray’s decision to house all the tailors’ arts under one roof, thus consolidating all a woman’s fashion needs into a single store (as opposed to the system where one store sold hats, one umbrellas, one dresses, etc.).

Presumably, adapters translate a novel to television instead of film in order to have more space to work in. As such, removal of characters, plotlines and other major details cannot be viewed as purely pragmatic compromises, but as thematic decisions. In a two hour film I would call the removal of Denise’s brothers a regrettable trim. But in a sixteen hour TV series, the thematic ramifications must be examined. Pepé and Jean, Denise’s brothers, by their dependence on her, cast her as a parental figure. She works for the sake of her brothers/children. In The Paradise, however, they are gone, as such she works for her own livelihood. No longer the young woman thrown into the role of mother, she is the independent woman seeking a place in the world, a place she finds in The Paradise. An interesting modern update, contrasting the source material's implicit view that the sympathetic woman is maternal.

The problem, however, is she finds her place just a bit too quickly. Again, a fault allowable in a film, but not a TV series. In the novel, though a proficient learner, Denise could not avoid initial incompetence; nor could she avoid the ambient contempt of the existing staff who see yet another rival ready to steal their commissions. Denise, TV version, comes off as less a fish out of water, than a fish to water. The staff take to her quickly, only a jealous few glaring at her. Almost immediately she shows a prodigious skill at marketing. I’ll call this a one up on the novel, for while Zola tells us she grew better at her job, the show actually shows us her skill at her job. At times, however, she comes off as a Mary Sue, liked and talented with few faults. Admittedly, this is a fault of the novel, but rarely has this adaptation done what the novel wished.

This skill at marketing is another step away from the novel. A legitimate artistic decision, but one that adheres to the shows tendency to brush over the novel’s social conscience. In both versions Denise’s innovations take Moray/Mouret’s eye, yet in the novel her innovations are in workers’ rights, not marketing.

These simplifications limit the show to the level of costume drama, with the emphasis on the first descriptor. It seems an excuse to dress in pretty clothes in a setting known for pretty clothes. At that, it is enjoyable. It delivers an injection of romance, conflict and prettiness, but a Zola novel this is not. 


  1. Having just now (late 2015) gotten around to seeing The Paradise and beginning to read the novel on which it is LOOSELY based, I couldn't agree more with your comparison. How more interesting it would have been to see Mouret and Denise through the class prism that Zola was keen to describe, rather than as simple melodrama. Paradise is fun to watch but without the bite of Zola's social conscience it comes off more like a romance novel than a real thing. Thanks for your review.

  2. First of all, this is a TV series adaptation and therefore it naturally operates differently than novels and films. For TV series, it is constructed in a manner than audience would be able to jump in from any episode and still would be able to follow along (with some basic knowledge), therefore the whole show is like Downtown Abbey, rather than Pride and Prejudice (1995). Pride and Prejudice (1995) is mini-TV series, which is in some sense an expansion of TV films, therefore, they are more suitable for a faithful novel adaption. Books such as Lark Rise to Candleford and even The Three Musketeers (now BBC’s The Musketeers), has a different adaptive method than films.
    Like the adaptive reading, the production is trying to make something new rather than being faithful, (like Hammer Film Productions, or any other adaptions, like Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein has lots of adaption, but none of them are really faithful, after all, “It’s Alive!” is never in the novel. Or if we have to be faithful, how about “Sherlock Holmes”, this Ted-Ed talk demonstrates that Sherlock Holmes has evolved into something different from its original appearance in the novel).\
    Examples of this can be found everywhere (Sleeping Hollow by Tim Burton, or even in comics industry, where they reboots everything and expands characters, and they evolve as well), therefore, adaptive reading expands the books into a cultural phenomenon (sometimes), than to be faithful to the books.
    Having explained this, the TV series would naturally have less depth than the original novels, but the detailed society description or capitalism as a monster are nowadays universally recognized concepts, and BBC can do a documentary than a TV series about it. Yes, the social and historical aspect of the novel can always be the complementary sources of history (vice versa). “The Paradise” for the modern audience, is a nostalgic or romanticised production (about the past), and it naturally focuses on the perspective that documentaries would not catch, and what the majority of public would care most… drama and romance, or human emotions.
    Denise rather than the bond between two classes, becomes a character of her own agency. Seriously, this is to some extend a commercial production (like The Paradise Store, packed with luxury for female customers), targeted by BBC at female audience about a highly romanticised Cinderella historical drama with female characters (more than Denise) as the central focalisation. After all, I must speak in favour of the TV series, as I have not read the novel before I watched the series, so I have no idea how much they have changed. Characters, rather than in the novels, through visualisation and expansion, becomes more like individuals than symbols, of course, they can represent a certain aspect but they visual media let the audience see them as a human first.
    The TV series is about lots of female characters, and they have a tangled webs of perception to build each other’s personality. Denise becomes a modern woman who is trying to be as useful and clever as Moray in business, and she stays up all night to think of ideas, that she has a larger ambition, that she is not the same character in the original novel is quite obvious. The TV series shows a much romanticised or humanised aspects of Moray as well as the store. Denise and other staffs can have fun, can fall in love, can have a life (how is that possible? If it is a faithful adaption to the novel), that this store is a much more modern image of the already reformed system of capitalism than the harsh image of the beginning period (the TV series North and South (2004) has done a great job to show the social struggle, but after all, that is a mini-series, so…).

  3. Clara and Miss Audrey are the two biggest obstacles (and later Katherine Glendenning) for both her career and her love towards Moray. Maray’s past was a mystery hinted by his widowhood (something unforgiven he has done to his wife), and despite his attraction towards Denise (spiritually, not sure about sexually), he is definitely sexually attacked to Clare and Katherine. All these three female characters are built in depth, to show their struggles, concerns, worries, and they eventually become friends (don't forget about Clare's child, and not sure about Katherine, because I stopped after season one, but she seems to come around with the situation), and they have their own central episodes or moments. The introduction of Peter Adler is really great as a different approach towards life and love, and has built Katherine’s character without losing his own identity, (despite the fact that Katherine lost his influence afterwards…), and there is a great scene where they show Katherine began to arrange the flowers, and later she stopped whereas her father watched the maids, the audience picked the sign of her and his character developments.
    The pride of private owner is showed as well through Denise’s uncle, and their own interaction with other private owners, their pride, stubbornness, skins, and other qualities, later, the uncle recognizes Denise’s talents as a ‘new’ woman, and asks her to go back to the store, therefore, this story is much more about tradition reconciles with modernity, than the other way round (because the cultural background has changed, so as feminist perspective is introduced, and the whole tongue of the show has altered).
    Faithful or not, an old setting can be reused to talk about modern problems, the focus is changed. The store here is not ‘evil’, because it is already humanised by the modern concepts, and Denise desires to be independent, (therefore the message changes, she could not have brothers to support as her initial motive, though, not necessarily, it can be valued as a wasted opportunity to explore her character, but this TV series is already packed with a lot of original characters and guest cast as you always do with a TV series than a mini-series…).
    This adaptation deals with romance through Pride and Prejudice perspective (or Cinderella), that Moray marries his equal Denise, and their reunion is thus not a reconciliation between classes, between workers and employers, about the optimism of capitalism, but the triumph of love of all, that feeling is above money, (though money is important). It is just the single line of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice as the back bone of romance, but add with several female characters and explore their inner feelings (and there are some great exploration of male characters as well, a gender equality is achieved through several successful depiction of male characters).
    However, as it is a TV series, the development of characters can be flawed, and their problem can be repetitive, that they could not fix it once and for all, that the characters would do the same mistakes or repeat the same pattern despite they might have learnt the lesson in some episodes…
    But all in all, this is a re-creation than a faithful adaption, (like Batman Returns by Tim Burton as well, or lots of other things, or even we can introduce Shakespeare here, that the only problem is that this show does not reach perhaps the same genius or overshadow its predecessor). Rather than condemning its unfaithfulness, we should try to see what is new and why it changes, and what it tells us about our current culture, and your own perception upon adaptation. Actually, how should one feel about Fan-Fiction, or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?

    1. I have asked 'what is new, and why did they change it'. The show is changed beyond recognition. It says nothing new; the meaning of the novel is shorn off. There are adaptations that reinterpret their sources; this adaptation glances at its source, and says, 'Yeah, I'll do something set in a 19th century department store.'

      You write, 'However, as it is a TV series, the development of characters can be flawed, and their problem can be repetitive, that they could not fix it once and for all, that the characters would do the same mistakes or repeat the same pattern despite they might have learnt the lesson in some episodes…'

      No. Maybe decades ago. In the age of DVD collections it is possible to have genuinely serial stories on television. There are still episodic TV shows, but as the source is a serial novel they could have made a serial show.

      You write, 'For TV series, it is constructed in a manner than audience would be able to jump in from any episode and still would be able to follow along (with some basic knowledge)'

      Again, no. We have DVDs and wikipedia summaries. We do not make large concessions to new viewers.

    2. The novel was also about the 'triumph of love', but it did that in addition to critiquing capitalism. The store was not 'evil' in the novel; it was a symbol for capitalist industry, and Zola examined it with the nuance it deserved. You say people accept 'capitalism as a monster' as a 'universally recognised concept'. For starters, people don't. Secondly, the novel did not paint capitalism as a monster. In the novel, capitalism encouraged humanity's ruthlessness and greed, but it was not inherently bad.

      If this show were not an adaptation of Au Bonheur des Dames, I would be as harsh. I would not have watched it if it were not an adaptation, but nevertheless it would have been less worthy of distaste. Trims and changes are necessary in adaptations; I draw the line at castration. The show is does not change the novel, it dilutes it to the point of being unrecognisable. And this a shame, this is not a show worth my anger. It is a decent episodic period drama. It's sin is that it calls itself a Zola adaptation, despite never trying to be one.