Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Blue is the Warmest Color: Comparing the Graphic Novel to the Film

Though it’s essentially a fool’s exercise to compare a film to the novel on which it’s based (because, of course, "the book is always better than the movie"), it can be interesting to observe the differences and consider how these differences affect the characters’ narrative arcs and themes. I’ll compare the film Blue is the Warmest Color, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, to the graphic novel on which it is based. The novel was written and illustrated by Julie Maroh.

Film is a starkly different medium than a graphic novel. A film can’t contain all the narrative and descriptive aspects of a novel, simply due to the limitation of the typical 90 minute to 3-hour time span of a film.  A film director is faced with the challenge of deciding which narrative and descriptive aspects to include from the novel. Depending on the degree of creative license that the director applies, there may be substantial differences in the film’s action, character evolution, and themes.

What's in a Name?

There is an immediate indication that the film has some stark differences from the novel; the film has an alternate title, “La Vie d’Adele, Chapitres 1 & 2.” 

The alternate title alone contains a significant deviation from the novel; in the novel, the main character is named Clementine. The entire narrative arc is focused on Clementine. In the film, the main character is named Adele (the same name as the actor who portrays her). The director of the film, Abdellatif Kechiche, has said that it was sort of an organic choice; he often would roll the cameras informally, as the actors traveled to the set or dined together, and he captured a lot of footage with the actors using Adele’s name. He proposed to the actor, Adele Exarchopoulos, that the character’s name be changed from Clementine to Adele, and she had no objection. Perhaps Kechiche believed that changing the character’s name to the actor’s name would foster the realism of the film, which is clearly a key characteristic of the film. Kechiche is obsessed with realism as a style for films. "I don't want it to look like life," he says of cinema. "I want it to actually be life. Real moments of life, that's what I'm after." The significant name change is the first indication that Kechiche, while attributing the story line to the graphic novel, took the ultimate artistic license to modify the narrative to fit his vision, regardless of the deviations. 

Emma's Skepticism of Clementine/Adele's Identity

The deviations from the novel to the film pertain to the narrative arc and themes that the narrative arc evokes. Of course, the narrative arc in a novel is almost invariably richer and denser than a film’s, simply because of the medium itself. In the novel, a lot more happens in the narrative arc than happens in the film.  For example, early in the novel, Emma voices skepticism of Clementine’s identity as a lesbian. She tells Adele, “when you finally fall in love, that guy will be the luckiest man in the world.” 

Clementine pleads in silence, "you are that guy..."

Emma’s skepticism of Adele's identity isn’t revealed early in the film; it’s not until later in the film that Emma suspects that Adele harbors a debilitating and harmful sense of shame about loving a woman.

Clementine/Adele's Ambivalence About Her Identity

In both the novel and the film, the narrative arc depicts Clementine/Adele as conflicted and ambivalent about her sexual orientation. Clementine adamantly denies she’s a lesbian, as does Adele. Clementine/Adele is subject to homophobic vitriol.

Clearly, in both the novel and the film, Clementine/Adele wrestles with a duplicitous identity, fueled by her fierce longing for Emma, tempered by her deep ambivalence about what it means to be gay. In the novel, we perhaps get a clearer picture of just how fraught Clementine was with the implications of what it means to be gay, and her struggles with aligning her ferocious desire for Emma with her identity. Also in the novel, we get a very clear picture of how important it is for Emma to be "out"; she embraces the political and social aspects of being a lesbian. 

In contrast, Clementine/Adele doesn't see any compelling reason to live openly; she is haunted by internalized homophobia, and naively believes that "who she loves" doesn't have any social or political implications. In both the film and the novel, Clementine/Adele’s infidelity ultimately leads to the demise of her relationship with Emma. It's not entirely clear what fueled her infidelity (her anxiety about Emma’s distance; her shame over being a lesbian, etc.). In the novel, Emma is more overtly disappointed by Clementine’s inability to recognize the social and political aspects of identity.

Clementine/Adele's Friendship With Valentin

In the novel, the relationship between Clementine and her friend Valentin is deep and profound. This relationship is also showcased in the film, as we see Adele confiding in Valentin and leaning on him as a friend, particularly as she wrestles with the confounding feelings of her awakening sexuality. 

The novel exhibits additional tender acts of friendship and support between Clementine and Valentine. He consoles Clementine as she wrestles with what she perceives as the immorality of a woman loving a woman.

The friendship between Valentin and Clementine is critical for Clementine to feel comfortable enough to pursue her feelings for Emma. Whereas, in the film, Valentin’s role, while crucial, is somewhat diminished.

Emma's Relationship With Sabine

As is quite typical in a novel compared to its film, the novel often offers more "back story" that provides additional insights about a character. In the novel, we get a lot more back story about Emma’s relationship with Sabine. 

In the film, the character of Sabine doesn't cause much conflict between Emma and Adele. Adele briefly inquires about how long Emma's been seeing Sabine, but there's no implication of notable conflict. Whereas in the novel, Clementine and Adele carry on a large portion of their affair while Emma remains in a relationship with Sabine. This causes a great deal of conflict for Clementine; she feels as though she's waiting on the sidelines until Emma can make up her mind about whom she wants to be with. This conflict is completely absent from the film.

Clementine/Adele's Alienation from Her Parents

One of the major incongruities between the novel and the film is how Adele/Clementine’s parents are portrayed. In both the novel and the film, Emma joins Adele/Clementine at her home for a casual dinner. 

Adele/Clementine presents Emma to her parents as her friend, helping her with her philosophy studies.  Her parents are perfectly cordial to Emma, but have no inkling of the true nature of the relationship between the two young women. Here’s where the plot diverges.  In the novel, the events after the dinner are traumatic. Emma sneaks downstairs to get a glass of milk and is discovered half naked by Adele/Clemetine’s mother. Her mother is aghast and her father erupts into a furious rage. 

Adele's father kicks both of them out of the house and tells Adele to never return. She becomes completely alienated from her family of origin, fostering the deep shame she feels as woman who loves a woman. Clementine suffers a devastating blow. This traumatic experience of familial separation is not depicted in the film.

Clementine's Death

The most egregious divergence between the novel and the film is the plot and its narrative arc. The graphic novel begins as Emma is reading Clementine’s diary. It gradually becomes clear that Clementine has died due to an incurable medical condition caused by drug abuse (on the surface). Of course, the root of her drug abuse is a broken heart after the demise of her relationship with Emma. She had left specific instructions that Emma must keep her diaries after her death. This plot vehicle is in contrast to the film, in which, although Adele is utterly devastated by the loss of her relationship with Emma, she walks away (rather than committing suicide, as is the implication in the novel). 

My own speculation is that Kechiche has fallen in love with this Adele character and couldn't bear the thought of the character's death. 

Chapters 3 & 4?

The fact that Adele walks away, combined with the alternate title of the film (“La Vie d’Adele”) fuels speculation that there could be a sequel to the film (chapters 3 & 4, etc.). Any sequel worth making must have all of the following components, so it’s extremely unlikely to ever get made:

  • A compelling narrative arc, driven by a conflict-oriented script that depicts genuine humanity in its characters
  • Alignment of stars, i.e.,
    • Willingness and commitment from key actors (namely, Adele Exarchopoulos)
    • Scheduling and availability of director (Abdellatif Kechiche) and other key actors
  • Funding/backing of a studio

What might the subsequent chapters of Adele’s life entail? Here are a couple of story lines, both in jest.

Script A

Having fully resolved her feelings for Emma, Adele moves to New York to leave her “old” life behind and start anew. She lands a job as a French teacher at a private school on the Upper East Side. She discovers in short order that she can’t afford to live in Manhattan, or Brooklyn, or anywhere even vaguely desirable, unless she rents a room and with a den of invariably annoying and emotionally unstable roommates. She wrestles with the stresses of entitled children, helicopter parents and demanding administrators at her school. She becomes seriously disillusioned with teaching and is less-than-enthralled by New York City on a severely limited budget. She tries dating men, but rather quickly assesses the dating pool as “all the good ones are either married or gay.” As fate would have it, just when she’s about to give up all hope, she runs into the Arabic actor she’d met at Emma’s party in Lille years before.  He of course is delighted to run into her, and she’s just glad to see a familiar face. They start dating, bemoaning how much they miss France. He proposes to her, they return to Lille, get married, and move to the same neighborhood as her parents. Adele’s parents like him. Adele still doesn’t like sex with men, but she embraces the compromise of an endearing friendship with a man she loves (platonically). They raise two children (a boy and a girl). All the while, she nurses an active fantasy life oriented around about Emma, and essentially drowns her subverted desire in alcohol, living as a functioning alcoholic. Conflicts abound, of all sorts; humorous, absurd, wrenching.

Script B

Adele moves to Paris, mostly to ensure she doesn’t run into Emma; she’s uncomfortable living in the same town as Emma in the role of Emma’s “Ex.” She can’t bear the thought of seeing Emma, knowing that there is no chance of reconciliation. She’s working as a teacher in Paris, but her life’s trajectory is essentially “stuck” because she’s unable to really move on from her break up with Emma. She carries on meaningless flings with strangers she meets at bars (men only). She starts to imagine she sees Emma everywhere; Emma still haunts her mind, day and night. Ironically, Emma’s art career takes off, and she starts spending more and more time in Paris. Adele sees Emma in Paris one evening and follows her into the hotel lobby. She gets into the elevator with Emma, just before the door closes. They’re both breathless with excitement and anticipation to see one another. Emma invites Adele to her room and they talk and flirt until dawn. They make plans to see one another that evening. Shortly after this encounter, they begin an affair (Emma’s family, Lise and Aud, are back in Lille). Adele plays the role of Emma’s mistress for several years, seeing her during her frequent trips to Paris. All is bliss until Adele, becoming increasingly uncomfortable with pushing 40 and her status as the mistress, confronts Emma and asks her to make a choice; her or Lise. Emma is distraught; she senses that her “have your cake and eat it too” life is coming to a close. Emma is fraught with anxiety and conflict; she doesn’t want to end her relationship with Lise, but Adele has reignited a passion in her that’s been dormant for years. Rather than choose, Emma proposes that all three of them live together as a family, ala menage a trois. Conflicts abound, of all sorts; humorous, absurd, wrenching.

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