Riddick on Griffiths (2020)

Griffiths, Kate. Zola and the Art of Television: Adaptation, Recreation, Translation. Legenda, 2020, pp. x + 170, ISBN: 978-1-906540-76-0

Perhaps more than any other nineteenth-century French writer, Zola exemplifies key features of modern cultural production that also happen to be part of the central problematic of Adaptation Studies. There is adaptation at work internally in Zola’s novels, which transform faits de journal into fiction, mass media into artistic creation. And from the author’s own lifetime until now there has been a continuous transformation of Zola’s original creation back into a wide variety of cultural media (journalism, theater, radio, film, television). This latter transformation is the subject of Kate Griffiths’s new book, which looks at television adaptations of works by Zola while also being attentive to the thematization of creativity and adaptation immanent to the source texts.

Zola and the Art of Television is one of a number of monographs by Griffiths on the adaptation of nineteenth-century French literature, notably her 2009 Zola and the Artistry of Adaptation, as well as the 2013 Adapting Nineteenth-Century France (co-authored with Andrew Watts). Divided into five chapters, this new book closely examines six adaptations for French and British television, relating these interpretations to readings of the source texts by Zola. Each chapter is paired with a different theorist from the field of Translation Studies. Griffiths’s contention is that concepts from translation theory will serve to clarify the vexed question in Adaptation Studies of “fidelity” to the source text. Throughout, Zola is read as kind of adaptor/translator himself on the basis, consonant with the author’s own discourse, that his texts adapt and translate his contemporary reality.

The first chapter, “Selling Zola to Twenty-First-Century Television Audiences,” studies a recent BBC adaptation of Zola’s 1883 Au Bonheur des dames, The Paradise (2012-13) from the perspective of Ernst-August Gutt’s relevance theory, according to which successful adaptations must make the source text relevant to their audience. In Griffiths’s reading, both Zola’s source text and its adaptation are not only made relevant for their audiences, in keeping with Gutt’s theory, but they also meditate on the very nature of audiences as “shifting, evolving, endlessly diverse entities” (32).

“Bodies in Translation,” the second chapter, reads L’Œuvre (1886) and “Madame Sourdis” (1880; first published in France in 1900) and their adaptations for French television (1967, 1979) through Lawrence Venuti’s call for the body of the translator to be made visible in translation. Both Zola’s source texts and their adaptations come to demonstrate, in Griffiths’s view, the “shifting, porous, overlapping, compelling re-creative bodies from whose complex interactions art is created” (72). The chapter also looks at E.A. Vizetelly’s bowdlerized Victorian translation of L’Oeuvre, His Masterpiece (1902).   

Filtering L’Argent (1891) and its 1988 adaptation by Jacques Rouffio through Christiane Nord’s “concept of translation as an interpersonal rather than an intertextual process” (77), which thereby replaces “fidelity” to a single source with “loyalty” to multiple parties, is the subject of the third chapter. It is particularly effective in showing the influence of Rouffio’s “signature aesthetic” (87) on the adaptation, although this might rather cut against the grain of Griffiths’s thesis (Rouffio is a film director, an auteur in his own right). The chapter also advances the claim that L’Argent’s Saccard (both in Zola’s 1891 and Rouffio’s 1988 adaptation) might be thought of as a translator of the Functionalist school like Nord, expertly targeting his artistic expression toward a given audience.

The fourth chapter, “The Art of Deformation,” pairs Antoine Berman’s translation theory with Une page d’amour (1878) and Élie Chouraqui’s 1980 adaptation. Griffiths argues that while the constraints of television form at the time make it impossible for the adaptation to capture the novel’s quasi-impressionist descriptions of Paris, it is nonetheless in keeping with Berman’s demand for a self-reflexive ethics of the ethnocentric deformation inherent to adaptation. Thus, according to Griffiths, Chouraqui’s  use of music by Bach and his substitution of an intertext inaccessible to modern audiences for one that is accessible to them speak to this ethics à la Berman, aiming to produce an intermedial aesthetics true to the spirit of Zola’s source text.

Germinal and the Politics of Patronage,” the fifth chapter, reads the BBC’s 1970 adaptation of Zola’s 1885 novel through the lens of André Lefevere, a key figure in the “cultural turn” in Translation Studies. Lefevere’s concept of “patronage” is used to look at how the adaptation of Germinal is shaped by the BBC’s institutional history and politics. Mature sexual themes are preserved in spite of a contemporary campaign for censorship. A theatrical mode of performance, which Griffiths argues was partly imposed by the actors’ union Equity, nonetheless cohabits with a certain visual flair. The politics of Zola’s novel are nimbly tailored toward the BBC’s centrist ideology in the context of the ongoing confrontation between capital and labor in the UK. The extensive contextualization of this chapter, which draws on Griffiths’s previous scholarship, is reflected in its citational density, with nearly three times as many footnotes as other chapters. Lefevere’s “patronage” tends to fade into the background.

Not all readers will be convinced that Zola and the Art of Television fully succeeds in revising the concept of fidelity in adaptation. Demonstrating the “shifting contextual nature” of fidelity (18) is somewhat underpowered as an overall thesis; MacCabe, Murray and Warner’s edited volume True to the Spirit (2011), cited in the introduction, engages with the concept of fidelity more capaciously. And there is a tendency, resonant with the title, to lapse into asserting the aesthetic value of television adaptation without persuasively illuminating the specificity of this mode of mass cultural production. Is the art of television (adaptation) here distinct from the artistry of (film) adaptation in Griffiths’s 2009 monograph?

Zola and the Art of Television is an erudite work of scholarship, rich in local insight. It will no doubt find readers in the specialist fields in which it intervenes as well as among scholars interested in Zola and cultural studies more generally. Anyone looking for an overview of television adaptations of Zola and their archival availability should consult the introduction; and the contextual sketches of the BBC in the final chapter are highly informative. Thinking about adaptation and originality expansively in relation to the nineteenth century, Zola and the Art of Television might be put into conversation with the growing body of research on the emergent mass culture of nineteenth-century France and the imbrication of individual and collective cultural production.

Richard Riddick
Yale University