See the Movie, Read the Book: Chocolat by Joanne Harris

Chocolat Movie Tie-In Cover
Chocolat Movie Tie-In Cover

This month in our High School Library, we have one of our favorite annual displays up:  “See the Movie, Read the Book or Read the Book, See the Movie”.  In honor of this, I am finally reading Joanne Harris’ Chocolat, and am finding it to be as magical as the movie.  I am happily surprised by this.  I remember trying to read the novel right after seeing the movie the first time in 2000, and putting it down, disappointed because it had so little in common with the movie adaptation.  Aside from Vianne and Anouk arriving with the wind in the fictional French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes on Shrove Tuesday, there was little in common between the opening pages of the book and the opening scenes of the film.  Why I was so flabbergasted by this, I don’t know.  It certainly isn’t the first time or the last where the novel and the film bear little more than a passing resemblance to each other.

In the novel, the “villian” is a local priest, Father Reynaud, and not the mayor, the Comte Paul de Reynaud, played so voluptuously by Alfred Molina.  Vianne didn’t have a luscious, sexy South American mother who raised her to purvey the mystical properties of chocolate.  In the novel, her mother is nervous Parisian woman who is wrapped up in self-absorbed, New Age mysticism.  Instead of the sensual, tropical flavor of  La Chocolaterie Maya in the movie, Vianne’s shop in the book is the more refined, completely French La Céleste Praline.  That’s just not what I wanted to read.  I wanted the whole South American, tribal story fleshed out some more.

I also found the novel to be too modern in setting (in fact, while reading this afternoon I just winced at Josephine’s references to microwave pizzas the night she leaves her husband), whereas the film has a wonderful technicolor 50s vibe from the costumes to the simple street games the children play.  The timelessness of the film version of Chocolat, the fairytale atmosphere that pervades the story, stays wonderfully watchable no matter how many times I pop it in the DVD player.  First of all, the soundtrack is fantastic, the music itself is reason enough to watch it again.  Then there’s the entrancing cast of characters, the crone played so wonderfully by Judy Dench and the evil “king” of Molina’s character, the dashing rogue-hero Johnny Depp and the gorgeous, feisty, magic-wielding heroine Juliette Binoche.  She might as well sing to animals, she’s such a film princess, albeit a wordly one with a child born out of wedlock.

My reading this year is different.  The occasional bursts of modernity of the novel, coupled with the original characters and events, create a world that is much darker and deeper than the one created on screen.  It is a satisfying alternate world, one that I am enjoying for its own sake while contrasting it with the Disney-esque film version I continue to love.  I am amazed that, while reading, I am not picturing Juliette Binoche or Johnny Depp.  I am able to read Chocolat as if it were a paralell universe to the film.  Roux is able to have red hair and vacillate in his interest between Joséphine Muscat and Vianne.  Vianne’s relationship to her mother is much more complex in the book, in that there is a real disconnect between her mother’s frantic globe-trotting and Vianne’s anxious, or alternatively detached, view of that life.  Shed of myth-making and exquisite costumes, there is a real sadness that tempers Vianne’s vivacity as little by little the details of her life with her mother are revealed.  There is no handsome, educated father or loving grandparents in her family history as in the movie.  Her father is as unknown as Anouk’s.  There was only ever Vianne and her unstable mother, their peripatetic life underlining the true distance that existed between them, which makes her desperate connection to Anouk all that more passionate and fragile.  Vianne’s relationship with the town and even with Roux, although full of kindness and a wistful hope for connection, are much more indeterminate.  There is no way of knowing whether Vianne will stay or go, and that ambiguity fits the novel perfectly but is totally not Hollywood.  I can see why the film morphed the way it did into something with a happy ending, but it’s not necessay or even desirable in the novel.

Joanne Harris has a lovely site where she’s written her own content, including the backgrounds for her novels along with plot summaries, and her page on Chocolat includes her thoughts about the movie adaptation.  She writes, “it is immensely enjoyable – if the book has a message, then it is that enjoyment matters – and although readers may feel that the film occasionally lacks edge, I think it more than makes up for it in simple charm” (Harris Chocolat).  It was fun to read that she too liked the blend of the Mayan backstory with the nostalgic French 50s setting in the film, finding the interiors and rural setting “stunning” and pointing out that you can almost “smell the chocolate” whenever Juliette Binoche in her bright frock whips more cream into a sensuous bowl full of dark chocolate.  As films go, Harris admits that the adaptation is more milk chocolate than dark, but I have to agree with her that either way, both are delicious.

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