Emile Zola: Blood, Sex, Money 1.1

A magazine preview of the 1980 French television mini-series adaptation by Emmanuel Roblès, directed by Yves-André Hubert.

This episode is based on The Fortune of the Rougons with a little grabbed from His Excellency Eugene Rougon and La Bête Humaine.

The Fortune of the Rougons is the first novel in the twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart novel sequence and it tells the origin story of the Rougon and Macquart family lines. It is the beginning of our 27-episode adaptation of the whole saga and, to kick things off in some style, the BBC commissioned a 90-minute opening episode.

SHORT VERSION OF THE PLOT: Adelaide is the head of a family, half legitimate and half illegitimate. The legitimate line, by subterfuge and violence, use the coup d'état of 1851 to establish their wealth and power at the expense of their poorer cousins. Long version here.

The Fortune of the Rougons is a deceptively simple story. At its emotional heart, there is a Romeo and Juliet plot. In its wider picture it is a documentary-drama about a key moment in French history. It is a prologue to the whole saga. That said, as you can see from the long plot description, it's a tangle of plot and counter-plot, factions and counter-factions, family rivalries and national conflicts. And in fact I've described the novel in a misleadingly simple way; it actually starts halfway through the story before flashing back and then cutting, rather carefully, between the Republicans and the Imperialists in a way that tensely and elegantly withholds information from us, splintering the chronology very effectively.

That said, this is an early novel and Zola would write novels with much greater sophistication and acuity in the future. The Silvère/Miette story is, to be frank, quite sentimental at times. The satire of the conservatives is at times heavy handed. There are probably too many strands of story for all of them to be dealt with effectively. So it presents some considerable challenges to an adaptor. The 1980 French TV adaptation (see above) took over four hours to tell its story. The BBC wanted a feature-length opening episode but still I only had 90 minutes.

The first thing I decided to do was to reorder the material chronologically. This episode needs not just to tell its own story, but also to provide a hook for the whole series. It needed to be punchy and direct. The joy of having Glenda Jackson (we knew she'd be Aunt Didi when we were writing) meant that we could use the narrator in a really powerful way; she didn't have a 'nice' radio voice; she has a voice of experience, bitterness, authority. So I was confident that I could use her to roam across the material.

Here's a thing though. Narrators can be boring on the radio. It's a pretty basic principle of writing dramatic dialogue that it's always better if when characters talk to each other, they're always trying to do something else: they may be discussing what they had for dinner, but underneath they are trying to persuade, or seduce, or mislead, or distract, or charm, or anything else. If they are just describing what they had for dinner, it's very flat dramatically. The problem is that narrators just tell you what they had for dinner. Or, put another way, they just tell you the truth in a magical and omniscient way. I've always disliked narrators for this reason. (Listen to Dead Souls for an example of how I've tried in the past to do something different with the narrator.) So we were clear that we didn't want a Zolian omniscient narrator; we wanted the narrator to be a character who had a stake in the action. After casting around for possibilities (including my early idea that we might invent a new descendant of the Macquart line to investigate the story), we hit on the idea of giving the narrator duties to the matriarch of the whole family, Adelaïde Fouque. 

This isn't a wholly simple matter. In the novels, her mind is broken by numerous seizures and she is mad and silent in an asylum for the whole sequence, dying in the final volume aged 104. Obviously, we couldn't have a silent narrator, so we've made her a much more active figure. She even intervenes in the story at various times. But, you may ask, if she's locked in an asylum in 1851, how does she find out about the story she's telling? Ah, you'll have to wait for series 3 to find that out.

The initial idea was that episode one would be a combination of various books. Although the first book is set in Plassans, I wanted the first episode to give a glimpse of Paris, to make clear the panoramic nature of Zola's ambition. In my first draft, I began with Gervaise and Lantier eloping from Plassans to Paris. We had her meet Eugène at the station and be rebuffed. The coup d'état would have been on her wedding day (probably on her way out of The Louvre). Pascal Rougon was a significant figure in the draft (more so than in the novel). Indeed, it's this idea that led the comment in all the publicity that this serial was a 'mash-up' of the original books. There are a few moments where we do that but for various reasons - cost, clarity, producer preference - the mash-up element diminished as the rewriting went on. It's probably true that the more characters we added the more potential for confusion. And so Eugène's adventures in Paris are kept in but Gervaise disappeared; I'm not displeased with that, because it leaves Olly Emanuel's episode, Drink (1.5), as her discrete story, and quite brilliant it is too.

But indeed we did need to do a great deal of compression and elision. Fans of the book will probably lament the disappearance of Aristide. He is another of Didi's sons by Rougon, but he does not share Pierre's sympathies, having a fondness for the Republicans, though a streak of cowardice that makes his sympathies conditional on being on the winning side. There is a complex but rather fascinating subplot about his work on a local newspaper and his various prevarications before nailing his political colours to the mast. That all went. (Aristide turns up in his own right in seasons 2 & 3 when we take on La Curée and L'Argent). There are many more members of the yellow drawing room; one can be profligate with minor characters in a novel, less so in a radio drama. And while Zola devotes a couple of long chapters to a century of family history running up to 1851, I have tried to find a way to dance lightly across that story, telling it swiftly and (fingers crossed) wittily, so that we arrive more quickly at the central dispute: between Pierre and Antoine.

In terms of sheer storytelling, there are also several other compressions needed to make the radio drama flow. The most important of these would be that the rebels are ambushed twice in the book. At one point, up on a hill they are ambushed by a pro-imperial force: it is here that Miette is killed. Then, with Antoine, they go to Plassans, and are ambushed again, this time the Imperial army having sent reinforcements and conducting a brutal and bloody massacre of the republicans. Silvère is captured and taken away to be executed. It seemed to me right to combine these two events into a single climactic ambush: in my version, at the end of a bloody massacre, Miette stands in the town square at Plassans, proudly holding up the flag until, she is shot down. Silvère is taken away devastated and shot.

It's tricky enough because the political story is, loosely, that the conservatives rules Plassans until 1848, then the Republic is announced, then there's a coup in 1851  that brings the right to power, then Plassans is overtaken by the insurgents, then the Yellow Drawing Room  conservatives bring it back and then the rebels try to take it back but are ambushed. It's six different periods of history. Given that a contemporary audience is likely to be unfamiliar with the vicissitudes of mid-century French political history, this is a hard sell.

I tried to tackle this in a couple of ways: the first is to handle it quite lightly. Near the middle of the episode, Didi gives us a history lesson: the tone is light, comic, the idea being to convey that the politics is complicated, with a series of violent uprisings, and while the detail is not that significant, we just need to understand that there has been a series of lurches between right and left. The second thing is to make Pierre and Antoine very clear emblematic instances of rather dim right and left-wingers. With Antoine, it was fairly simple just to make him a sort of armchair leftist, his dialogue full of claims about 'trampling on the working man' and 'counter-revolutionary Imperialist running dogs'. He is such a fool (in the book and in the adaptation) that he's easy to locate. (His lumpy rhetoric, his excess of words over action, is also meant to contrast with Miette and Silvère who act more than they speak, but have what is meant to be a charming and sweet bright-eyed youthful enthusiasm for the principles - which I emphasised with some deliberately anachronistic dialogue for them ('Oh my gosh, this is so amazing? / I know, right? / We’re like totally joining a revolution? / So awesome?'). With Pierre, reading the novel, I had a flash of understanding during the section where the Yellow Drawing Room conservatives gather to take over the town. They are just like Dad's Army. So I wrote that in, making the connections clear. (In my final draft, I even directly copy the 'Don't tell him, Pike' joke, though this was frustratingly cut in the edit.) With these two more recent cultural references, the political story seemed to become clearer. 

This touches on the tone of the adaptation. The tone of episode 1 - at least for certain stretches - is broadly comic. It is also true to say that Zola is not generally a comic writer. Why is the adaptation funnier than the book? Isn't that a gross distortion of Zola's work? There are a couple of things to say here. First, comedy seemed to me a very good way of engaging an audience in the story and calming people down about what might seem like a huge undertaking for the listener - 24 hours of a famously rather gloomy writer. But secondly, Zola is more comic than is generally recognised. Apart from occasional comic and absurdist touches,  there is an extremely strong strand of satire that runs through all the novels; both at the grand level, with large satirical portraits of whole societies, key public figures, systems and institutions, but brilliantly observed small observations about the self-deception and hypocrisy of individuals. Satire being a mordantly comic form, it seemed to me appropriate to let this satirical impulse flood through the rest of the adaptation. Particularly with a character narrator, there is opportunity for sardonic observation and for Pierre's pomposity, Felicité's vanity, and Antoine's cupidity to be sharpened. For the opening of the episode, which needed a good deal of exposition, it seemed to me that a light and engaging duologue between narrator and sound effect would make for an enjoyable and painless way in to the Rougon-Macquart genesis story.

I have always wanted, in these adaptations, not just to tell, the stories but also to engage with Zola's ideas. When I first encountered Zola's work 25 years ago, at university, the dominant position seemed to be that the books are great but his idea that science could offer a complete explanation of human behaviour was thought naive. The subsequent 25 years have seen the explosion of neuroscience and, to my mind, exactly the same over-confident belief in science's completeness as an explanation of  human behaviour. Barely a month goes by without some news story that geneticists think they have discovered the parts of DNA that code for love or faith, or the parts of the brain that 'light up' when we experience hunger or déjà vu. It's another debate whether these are plausible claims, but it seems to me Zola's work might be an interesting intervention here. Rather than see the programmatic theoretical statements as naive and entirely separate from the novels– or, worse, as keys to unlock what the novels are trying to say., I prefer to think of the novels and the theoretical statements as part of the same intellectual project. That is, the novels can be thought of as richly-textured and thickly-described experiments in imagining a world in which we believe in the kinds of strict determinism that's Zola seems to avow elsewhere. 

This bears on the position of the narrator, again. The omniscient narrator seems to me to come from a culture that is confident with the idea of perfect knowledge, the world as transparent to our observations, with language as a more or less transparent means with which the report that world. In other words the late nineteenth century. There is a nod to this at the very opening of this episode as Didi begins by announcing the end of the whole week ('this is how it ends'), which to me suggests something about Didi's overview and also the sense of inevitability (even at the start of the story, the end is fixed). But elsewhere I am interested in trying to explore how compatible Zola's 'Naturalism' is with the story being told. I should say that Zola became less programmatic in the novels as he went on but in this relatively early novel he really is, I think, trying to push the analysis quite hard. So I was interested to let the ideas and the stories clash resonantly. At one point in this episode, for instance, when Silvère and Miette kiss for the first time, Didi intrudes on the action to ascribe their feelings purely to brain chemistry. It’s meant to be jarring, unsentimental, awkward even. (Something slightly similar, but perhaps more ambiguous – because it's maybe a bit more plausible – happens in ep 2 when Martha’s new-found religiosity is ascribe to an imbalance of brain chemistry.) There are further instances  throughout the week, but I'll address those when I write about the other episodes.

I'm delighted with the cast and production and I hope the conceptual work is integrated sufficiently with the storytelling to make the thing seem, for the most part, seamless.

If you'd like to look at the script you can do so here