The 'sex & shopping' Madame Bovary

Plot is the least important element of Flaubert's greatest novel. But will the BBC's adaptation be able to give us anything else?

The French director Claude Chabrol once said that Gustave Flaubert's novel, Madame Bovary, was unfilmable. He should know; his 1991 adaptation of the book about Emma Bovary, the fatally self-deluded romantic stuck in a loveless marriage to a dull provincial doctor, was roundly panned.

Over the years, other directors have fared little better with Flaubert's fugitive text. Jean Renoir's 1933 reading of the novel was summed up by one reviewer as "uneven and unsatisfying"; while Pauline Kael memorably dismissed Vincente Minnelli's 1949 interpretation with the line: "if you hadn't read the book, you wouldn't guess what it was about from this film."

The problem is that Madame Bovary is such a fiendishly literary work of literature - all internal monologues and variegated layers of meaning and playful ironies created by the friction between different narrative voices. It fits one of those filmmaking truisms: the better the novel, the worse the screen version. It is so much easier to make an effective movie out of a bog-standard book like Jaws.

So why is the BBC - which has already made two none-too-successful versions in the past (starring Francesca Annis in the 1970s and Nyree Dawn Porter in the 1960s) - now once more attempting the apparently impossible and producing another adaptation of Madame Bovary?

Because, like Everest, it is there. Filmmakers can never resist the challenge of tackling the peaks of modern literature. (Channel 4 is currently making a version of another classic "unfilmable" novel, Anna Karenina).

Director Tim Fywell is the first to admit that the task of rendering Madame Bovary on film is daunting. "The tricky thing is that the central character of Emma is so elusive," he concedes. "Flaubert keeps her at arm's length because he wants to comment on her. It may well be that there were things about her that he didn't like about himself. After all, he famously said: 'Madame Bovary - c'est moi!' "

Heidi Thomas, the writer charged with bringing this complex work to the screen, shudders and pulls her coat tightly around her at a drizzly location on a National Trust estate in Hertfordshire. She, too, acknowledges that "it's not an obvious novel to dramatise because - unlike, say, Jane Austen - there is almost no dialogue in it. Emma doesn't speak until page 116, and her first words are 'Why did I marry him?'. Far more goes on inside Emma's head than outside. She's like a marionette in Flaubert's hands.

"I realise that it's all too easy to lose the richness, but when you're adapting a major novel, it's like flower-arranging in a beautiful garden. You make an arrangement which conveys the spirit of the garden but which in no way matches or eclipses it.''

Her solution was to lose the multiple voices of the novel and concentrate on just one - Emma's. "There are so many points of view in the novel, but to have a narrative voice standing outside the heroine doesn't work in a film. The dramatic point of view has to be hers. Anyway, the novel is at its best when Flaubert gets inside Emma's head. In a film, all you can do is set up a world and let the story tell itself. The irony comes in the way little events rub up against each other."

Emma (played with gusto by the Australian actress Frances O'Connor) suffers a near-fatal convulsion, for instance, after being dumped by her beloved Rodolphe (Greg Wise). We can smile knowingly at her distress because we are aware that his brush-off letter is stained with "tears" which were in fact faked with drops of water from a vase.

Thomas worked hard to distil the narrative into Emma's characteristic, self-aggrandising tone. "My watchword was that she was a Thomas Hardy character trapped inside an Alan Bennett world," she explains. "Emma has terminally high self-esteem. Nothing in the world could ever match her vision of herself."

The other area in which this adaptation has taken liberties with the text is in its portrayal of sex. At the time of the book's publication in 1857, Flaubert was prosecuted for offending public morals. This decidedly raunchy version will no doubt also prompt complaints from purists and puritans.

But Tim Fywell is quick to defend the scenes in which Emma and Rodolphe get, er, back to nature in the woods. "You can't be coy about sex," he argues. "She is a sensual and sexual woman, and you have to show that. You can't just have a shot of a bee on a flower."

Heidi Thomas agrees. "By depicting sex, we're showing the immediacy of the piece and emphasising the sheer nerve of the girl. You couldn't do Madame Bovary for this generation without addressing sex in at least moderate detail. You can't deal with this story now without going beyond Flaubert's three dots. Sex is often the key to what's going on in a person's soul. The way Emma surrenders to men is part of her drama.''

Leaving aside the niceties of converting the filigree of a novel into the broad brush-strokes of a film, this production of Madame Bovary will certainly resonate with viewers. Like Flaubert, we can all find echoes of Emma in ourselves. (To underline the book's continuing relevance, Posy Simmonds recently produced Gemma Bovary, a bestselling comic-strip update of the book.)

Madame Bovary's specific plight provides us with a universal insight into the nature of dissatisfaction. According to Thomas: "It's a novel about the corrosiveness of human unhappiness, and that's still an extraordinarily immediate theme. If she were around today, Emma would have dropped out of university and done something flimsy like PR. She would be unhappily married, living somewhere like Tring and driving a Jeep which she'd park at Waitrose diagonally across two spaces. She'd be addicted to Prozac and sit all day drinking coffee and complaining about her lot. I live in Saffron Waldron, and I know too many Emmas there. I call them 'used to bes'. Emma mourns her unfulfilled potential. She coulda been a contender."

Fywell, too, sees contemporary parallels in Madame Bovary. "It's a book about sex and shopping - everyone can relate to those preoccupations. Emma is a woman who's destroyed by love. What she's got just isn't enough. The mundanity of her life drives her mad. Life is only worth living for her on a very intense level. She has nothing to channel her neuroses into apart from love affairs."

In Thomas's eyes, it is Emma's very neuroses that make her so appealing. "She's so smackable. She's like everybody's infuriating ex-sister-in-law. You can see all the things she's doing wrong, but she still mesmerises. She's so alive, and one of the most vital things she does is put a stop to herself. Then her influence is actually stronger than if she'd stayed alive. She puts her stamp on the world much more forcefully with her suicide than with anything she did in her life. What an epitaph. It's like swallowing petrol and a lighted match. It's a brilliant party-trick, but sadly, you can only do it once."

For all that, ultimately the film cannot hope to reflect the intoxicating richness of Flaubert's writing, and critics may well quibble with the linear nature of this production compared to the multifaceted novel.

But Thomas trusts that she has still managed to capture the sheer passion of Madame Bovary. "Flaubert was such an impassioned man. During the writing of Emma's seduction by Rodolphe, he had to keep leaning out of the window and gasping for air.

"My greatest fear while I was writing the script was that Flaubert's great mustachioed face would loom above my desk and rage at me: 'what the hell do you think you're playing at?' "

'Madame Bovary' is on BBC2 on 10 and 11 April

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