No other writer saw as many his books adapted for film
an abundance illustrated by a sparkling new poster collection,
and including some outstanding successes
From the Page to the ScreenLouis Danvers
He loved the movies, and the movies loved him. Of all writers living or dead Georges Simenon remains today the one with the greatest number of works adapted to the big screen. Add telefilms and other successful Maigret television series, and we get an absolutely phenomenal number of films. This abundance grows every year with several new productions, and no indication of stopping. Over 50 movies alone inspired by novels of this son of Liége, including some from as far away as Japan!
It is not well-known that in the early 30s, Simenon himself considered becoming a producer, in order to "be the one to put my own work on the screen." Rich and famous before he was 30, the novelist had already been solicited by the film industry, urging to him to allow their adaptation of one of those Fayard books which had been published in such a burst nearly a new title every month! A certain Maigret, a policeman newly born under his pen but whose literary adventures appearing at breakneck speed 10 books in 1931! had all the producers of the time drooling. A shrewd negotiator, Simenon from the first maintained the habit of imposing his own conditions, not only financial. His vague desire to put himself behind the camera remained unrealized, for there were difficulties he had probably not envisioned at the outset. While today it has become nearly normal, or at any rate logical, entrusting the camera to a writer at that time was not a consideration.
The transposition of the universe of Simenon to film could not have had a better beginning than La Nuit du carrefour (Maigret at the Crossroads), produced in 1932 by the great Jean Renoir, with the film-maker's brother, Pierre, in the role of Maigret. The novelist participated closely in the writing of the dialogues and the cutting. He retained all his life a fond memory of this activity, and the film in which Renoir, anxious to "render through image the mystery of this rigorously mysterious story," decided to "subordinate its intrigues to the atmosphere." An artistic success but commercial failure, La Nuit du carrefour was rediscovered in the 1950s, thanks to the vibrant praises of a young critic named Jean-Luc Godard.
After such a fine inauguration, the link between Simenon and the movies had to have its highs and lows as well. Several charmless third-raters simply provide numbers to oppose to the outstanding liaisons represented by works like Panique (Julien Duvivier, 1947), En cas de malheur (Claude Autant-Lara, 1958), L'Horloger de Saint-Paul (Bertrand Tavernier, 1974), Monsieur Hire (Patrice Leconte, 1989), and the films of the eminent "Simenonist" Claude Chabrol, Les Fantômes du chapelier (1982) and Betty (1992).
For one and all of them, a remarkable work has come along to gather their traces in the shape of an absolutely magnificent set of posters. Entitled simply Simenon Cinema, this thick book is a visual feast, ornamented by texts by Michel Schepens (whose very rich personal collection of movie posters supplied the work), and Serge Toubiana, former editor-in-chief of Cahiers du cinema. Toubiana brings to his reports on Simenon and cinema, lines rich in vivid anecdotes and precious information. He compares Simenon's approach of "peering into the soul of his characters" to an "invisible camera", and denounces the heavy-handedness with which filmmakers so often wreck the writer's novelistic material which doesn't support the 'cheap picturesque' in which they regularly dress his narratives in their film versions.
Georges Simenon: "In writing a novel, I see my characters and know them down to their smallest details, including what I don't describe. How could a director, an actor, portray this image which only exists in me? ... What would your reaction be if one of your children came back to you suddenly transformed by the magic of plastic surgery? Well, that's my painful reaction in front of the best actor playing the role of one of my characters. Why should I submit myself to this pain?"
|Commissioner Maigret had numerous interpreters, including...|
Loves and disenchantments
As disappointed by the experience as he was enthusiastic at the start, lover as he was of the best films, Simenon decided for some years to freeze all transfer of rights to film adaptation of his novels. He renounced that decision just before the war, and never returned to it, no doubt conscious that he would never be his own producer, probably rationalizing the importance of the 'damage' extensively covered by the financial returns of a true industry of the adaptation of his books...
The work? The seventh art will have served it sporadically well, especially when the film-makers undertaking the transposition showed humility. Chabrol was not wrong when he declared, "He (Simenon) succeeds in constructing plots solely with his characters. And it is his characters who manufacture events, never the opposite. To adapt him, you must not try to be clever, nor to stifle. It is useless... or it fouls everything up!"
|Simenon Cinéma. By Serge Toubiana and Michel Schepens, Textuel, 352 pages. |
Read also the important Passion Simenon, by Jean-Baptiste Baronian and the same Michel Schepens, also by Textuel, whose chronological approach is superbly enhanced by the often rare illustrations. (192 pages)
translation: Stephen Trussel
Honolulu - November 16, 2005