Zola: Crash

Emile Zola: Blood, Sex & Money 3.1

L'Argent (Money) is the 18th book in the Rougon Macquart series, serialised from 1890 and published in book form in 1891. It is building towards the catastrophe of Le Débâcle and it is showing the madness of the Second Empire rising to a climax.

SHORT VERSION OF THE PLOT. With a little luck and some insider knowledge Aristide Saccard launches the Universal (investment) Bank. It is an immediate success and the share price rises and rises. His assistant Caroline Hamelin, is disquieted to learn the bank is buying its own shares. The wealth of the bank is finally hollow and eventually it collapses disastrously. Long version here.

The great appeal of this novel is that despite being written 125 years ago, its precise relevance to the times we have lived through recently. The mechanics of the economic crash - when drawn from this and its 'prequel' La Curée - are remarkably like those that led to the crash of 2008, as I noted in my blog some time ago. The book goes into the detail of the fraud and makes it all too clear how these things happen. There are interesting references to Marx and Marxism in the book (Das Kapital was published in September 1867, during the events of this book) and there is at least one committed communist who expresses his critique of the financial system; Zola was never a communist but he does leave that analysis hanging in an interesting way. At the other end of the political rainbow, you have Aristide's own antisemitic view of the way capitalism works, the supposedly unhealthy influence of the Jews.

Adapting the book presents major challenges. Transposed more or less straight into drama, the novel is both too simple and too complicated. It's too simple because at the beginning Aristide sets up a bank on slightly dodgy grounds and runs it fraudulently - what do you think is going to happen? It's too simple because it's predictable; the arc of the novel is up and then down. And it's too complicated because in a certain way, each not event of the novel is just another segment of that arc; there's a lot of very similar events (new share issue, shares up, more shares, shares issued, they've risen again, etc.) which is fine in the novel, which you can read at your own pace, but in a drama it's going to feel cluttered.

To try to reorganise the story to address these issues, I've made a few changes. First, I state the arc of the novel at the beginning by giving Didi a speech about the rise and fall of events. To some extent, this is to take the pressure off narrative suspense. Second, I've tried to clarify the story a bit by moving the armistice to the beginning; that is, in the novel, after he's founded the bank and it's doing okay but not great, some of the great European powers raise military tensions producing shares to tumble on the stock market - but Aristide (through his politician brother, Eugène) gets wind that there will be an armistice signed and buys up shares at rock bottom prices, making a killing when the peace is announced. In the book this is where the Universal Bank starts to pick up; in mine, I've made this the moment that restores his reputation and allows him to set up the bank in the first place. Third, I've rebalanced the pure financial story with some other elements; in particular, the Victor story. Victor is Aristide's illegitimate son who we visit in his children's home at the beginning of the novel and later onhe attacks one of the women in the apartment block where Aristide lives. I've made him escape earlier, turned him (using some hints in the novel) into a more horrific figure (a kind of werewolf almost), and had him appear - perhaps in Aristide's imagination - in the climactic scene of the bank collapse.

In other ways the novel has had to be streamlined. In the novel, M Busch is Aristide's blackmailing associate with the communist brother. I wanted this to be a less relentlessly male book so combined Busch and his partner Mme Méchain. I also took out Georges, who is Caroline's brother, the engineer responsible for great works in the near East. He duplicates some of Caroline's functions and, in any case, I didn't want people to think that the near-East works would turn out to be fraudulent (as the equivalent works are in Trollope's near-contemporary novel, The Way We Live Now [1875]), and I think his presence would have encouraged that speculation. Related, I pulled back on the affair between Aristide and Caroline; it seems a little clichéd in the novel and also predictable. I wanted Caroline to retain some independence and not to fall for him.

In the first draft, I tried to present Aristide's anti-semitism. It didn't really work because it was just there and uncommented-on, which felt awkward. I either had to make much more of it (and therefore much more than in the novel) or remove it completely. I have chosen the remove that reference, which is a shame, but in a one-hour adaptation of a 150,000-word novel, much has to be excised. This includes the many characters who swirl around the bank, whose stories are all interesting, but who impede the drive of the story: these include Jordan, the Maugendres, Sabatini, the members of the board, the other residents in the apartment block and so on.

One challenge is trying to explain the finance. In part, I've tried to do it by making it baffling: in 1868, as in 2008, one of the reasons for the banking collapse is that financial instruments and the logic of investment is surrounded by mystery - and indeed the bankers themselves barely understood what they were doing. So I've tried to capture a sense of that. I've suggested Aristide's borderline-mad attitude to finance by having him hear money singing. This isn't that far from the novel, in fact, which has references to Aristide as a magician and poet of money. I've also added a large scene in which he takes Caroline into the vaults to show her the money - and he actually shows her that they have no money underlying the bank and tries to explain that modern finance doesn't require it. This is as much a comment on the present as on the novel but it's not, I think, too far from the truth about how a weightless global economy functions. (Another comments on the present comes at the end: in the novel, Aristide is arrested, charged and convicted for his part in the bank collapse and flees the country; in my version, he gets off scot-free and the investors are ruined. There's more than a slight echo of Fred the Shred about him at this point.) In addition, to mark the continuous rise and then fall of the shares, I use a device of ringing the bell of the Bourse every time the shares go up.

Speaking of the rise and fall of the shares, this is the first script I've ever written for which I had to compile an Excel spreadsheet. Calculating the apparent worth of the bank, based on a series of share issues and price rises, then the real value (taking into account it buying some of its own shares), then the value of Aristide's holdings and then Caroline's was a complicated business. If you're interested - which I can't believe you will be - you can actually see the spreadsheet here. The rise and fall of the bank's share value, plotted against scene number, is below:

The other thing to talk about is the framing story. We have so far established (in 1.1) the process by which Aunt Didi was incarcerated in the asylum and there have been various ways in which she tells us stories that she had some part in. But we wanted, for this third series, for her to have a more active role so the story of the week is about her battle of wills with the family leading to her being sprung from the madhouse at the beginning of 3.9. To give a bit more impetus to this, we created a story by which the Rougons - in the persons of Pierre and Félicité - were in the final phase of a big deal that would secure their fortunes and their reputations. They were concerned that somehow Didi would interfere and Didi was concerned not to let them whitewash their story. The opening of this episode is intended to set up that story and thus the present-day drive of the week. In the first version (below), you'll see that I had a first stab at that by a rather misjudged visit to the asylum by Félicité. I think there's lots of good stuff there but the threat in both directionsis unclear: first, how is Didi really going to be a threat? And why does Félicité think she's a threat? and then how far is Félicité really a threat to a 103-year-old woman protected in a psychiatric institution? (And of course, if Didi's not a threat, why threaten Didi?) So the final version is a bit more sleek, establishes the threat that Didi can pose and gives Félicité a moment where she reveals how brutal she is prepared to be.

A final word on the title. It was decided - I'm not sure who by - that every episode would have a single-word title. This was a shame, I think, because I was very keen on the title of my first draft of this episode: TOO BIG TO FAIL.

If you fancy reading the final script, it's HERE. And you can listen to the episode below: