Welcome to Film & Fiction, where we compare books to the movie adaptations even though we really shouldn’t! This time I’m going to talk about the book Chocolat by Joanne Harris (you can read my book review here) and the movie Chocolat (2000) directed by Lasse Hallström. This post may contain spoilers, for both the movie and the book! Be warned! (By the way, this is not really a review post, but more my rambling thoughts on the adaptation.)
First of all, I need to mention that Chocolat is one of my favorite movies. I’ve seen it and endless amount of times because it’s such a sweet and nice thing to watch when you’re feeling under the weather (which I am, quite often). But I had never read the book, so I thought it high time to do so and I was really, really surprised with how different it was from the movie. Not just because it was a different medium, but the entire tone and setting had changed!
The thing that surprised me most was that in adapting the story to a movie, they placed the plot in an entirely different decade. The book is set in the 90s (I guess, because they talk about VHS tapes), but the movie is set in 1959. Now I have to admit, I do get why they would make a choice like that, because that sense of stifling oppression from the church (which is a very present theme in the book) makes more sense (to a 2000s audience) if it’s set in the 50s than when it’s set in the 90s. At least that’s my theory.
Something that was also strangely different, were the two main characters, Vianne (the chocolat shop keeper) and Reynaud (the priest). Vianne is a much more realistic and much less romantic character in the book. She’s definitely less sure of herself, has more difficult emotions and struggles much more with her fears. In the movie, she gets a romantic background, rather than the troubled past she has to struggle with in the book. It makes for a less complex character, but it also makes the tone of the story much less dark. A lot of the dark undertone of the book comes from Vianne’s struggle with her past, and that’s completely gone in the movie, that actual depth of human darkness and twistedness.
Besides that, all of the magical realism (her ability to get an idea of people’s thoughts, is diminished to her uncanny ability to guess people’s favorite chocolat, which I thought was a bit of a shame. However, the type of magic used in the book would be really difficult to convey in film because it’s basically just another sense and she never talks about it with other characters.
Another way in which the movie is a lot less dark than the book is through the character of Reynaud. In the book, Reynaud also gets a POV for some chapters and we hear his thoughts and musings as he talks to his comatose father. He struggles with his own dark thoughts and traumas and we get to see how twisted he is in many ways. It really lays bare how strange and dark humans can be, and how they can get twisted under pressures. In the movie, all of this is smoothed out, till all there’s left of the troubled and dangerous priest is a middle-aged man who misses his wife. He isn’t even a priest anymore, but a mayor (I think) which I find a very interesting choice. They wrote in a new character to play the priest, who is a very kind and a little naive young man, perhaps not to offend people and to avoid setting the Church in a bad light. It changes the whole idea of where the pressure put on this village comes from. Rather than from a tradition of centuries of religion used to oppress people, it stems from a misguided man who tries to distract himself from the fact that his wife has left him. It makes all he does so much more forgivable.
I just remembered that another character is written completely differently, which is Armande Voizin’s daughter. In the movie Caroline keeps her son away from her mother because she is overly cautious after her husband’s death, and is angry at her mother for not treating her diabetes properly. She’s just a worried and scared woman who is trying to protect herself, even if it means shutting everything and everyone out. It’s a little heartbreaking. But in the book, she’s only interested in how her mother’s ‘scandalous’ behavior reflects upon her and if she will ever get her inheritance. It’s a much darker and much colder character, and there’s nothing redeemable about her.
The conclusion is that in the movie most of the characters’ evil completely stripped away and what is needed for the plot is changed just so it is redeemable, because they are just sad or afraid and actually do really mean well – rather than the dark and selfish people they are in the book. It results in a much less dark story, more in a bitter-sweet kind of feel-good movie. But also the characters have less depth and less realism and are just less interesting because of all that.
Honestly, I enjoyed the book as well, and they’re both amazing in their own way, but they are very, very different in tone and mood.