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On adapting Emile Zola: notes from a BBC script writer

Internationally award-winning playwright Oliver Emanuel writes exclusively for the OUPblog about the process of adapting Zola for BBC Radio 4.

Why adapt Zola? What’s he got to say to us today? If the novels are so good why not leave them as they are – as novels – and forget it?

These are the questions I started with when asked if I’d be interested in adapting not one, not two, not three but twenty novels by Emile Zola, the Rougon-Macquart cycle. I didn’t know Zola well. Like most people, I’d read his first book Therese Raquin and I’d studied J’Accuse at school. And being a playwright, I knew that he was the granddaddy of naturalism. When I thought of Zola I thought of rigorous truth-telling, a darkness beneath the surface, violence, Paris and love-triangles. Of course, I said yes.

Since then Zola has occupied a huge amount of my waking life. The team of writers – Dan Rebellato, Martin Jameson and myself – decided early on that we weren’t interested in doing a ‘straight adaptation’. Dan calls it ‘the river’, a river of stories, with different narrative strands pulled from different books and brought together in dramatic form. That means we take a little bit from The Belly of Paris, another part of His Excellency and a chunk from L’Assommoir. We are making new plays from Zola’s world rather than simply trying to cut them down to dramatic size. It’s a wonderful, irreverent, daring way to adapt but it means we have to dive deep into every novel and that has taken a lot of reading and discussion and dreaming.

When you’re adapting a book, you read it very differently. I’m not just reading Zola. I’m trying to get inside his characters, locate his images and themes, explore his ideas. It’s fully immersive and a bit like wearing someone else’s clothes. Sometimes it’s comfortable and sometimes you wish you’d never borrowed these clothes in the first place.

But then there are the moments when you find it, the way of telling that is surprising and new and exciting yet faithful to the original. I’ll give an example. My radio producer, Kirsty Williams, and I were trying to figure out a way to do Zola’s breakthrough novel L’Assommoir, a story of working class hardship, alcohol addiction and suffering. It’s the novel that made Zola rich and the one that defines the whole cycle. The central character, Gervaise Macquart is brilliantly drawn – both tragic and tough.

Image used with permission. © BBC Radio 4 Productions.
Image used with permission. © BBC Radio 4 Productions.

The challenge for us was two-fold: firstly there had been a recent radio version; secondly we didn’t have very much money for actors. Limitations can often sound like complaints but creatively they can be very useful. If you can’t do it that way, you are forced to imagine something new. I remembered that Zola’s original title for the novel (which roughly translates as The Drinking Den) was The Sad Life of Gervaise Macquart and at once the answer seemed obvious. It would be a biography of Gervaise but, more than that, it would be an autobiography. None of Zola’s books are written in the first person but this would allow me to tell the story from a new point of view whilst drawing everything from the original. Gervaise would tell her own story in her own words.

There’s something intimate about radio. The story is close to the listener, it’s in their ear, their kitchen or car. This helped me when I was thinking about how Gervaise might speak. She was talking to a friend, an old friend, and she was remembering her life, telling secrets and speaking of moments of transformation. Zola doesn’t write as much dialogue as, let’s say, Dickens but there were plenty of clues to the roundabout way she thinks and speaks. I’d read the novel many times and so I knew the story by heart. I put it to one side and just let Gervaise talk to me.

What has Zola got to say to us? I come back to this every time I start a new script (and I’m on numbers four and five at the moment!) and it’s not an idle question. To adapt a book, personally I have to believe there’s something worth saying and it has to be urgent. What has Zola got to say to us on this day? There are lots of answers, I believe.

Ultimately Zola’s novels are books about a family. Why do we look back at our own families and tell their stories? Because we want to find out who we are and how we got here. It’s not always easy to hear the answer. In this case, the 104 year old Dide (as played by the amazing Glenda Jackson) finds there’s a lot more to her family than she bargained for.

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