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.