A novelist and film-maker, for over 15 years David Foenkinos has been building a body of work which blends absurdity and melancholy. He talks about his writing and the challenges of literary adaptation for the cinema.
While he often humorously explains that he started writing because he failed to put together a rock band, David Foenkinos nevertheless has become one of the most translated and widely-read French novelists abroad. A cinephile like his brother Stéphane, with whom he has co-directed each of his films, David Foenkinos sees literature and filmmaking as two unique ways of telling stories.
Whether adapting his own work such as Delicacy (“La Délicatesse”) or creating an original work like Jealousy (“Jalouse”) (2017), David Foenkinos's affectionate gaze follows his offbeat characters, who are haunted by a lack of love or the absence of a loved one. For us, he acutely analyses the links between these two arts and deciphers the mechanics which connect them.
How does one move from literature to cinema?
David Foenkinos: My transition from literature to cinema has been very gradual. Although in 2005 I worked with my brother Stéphane to create A Tale of Feet (“Une histoire de pieds”), our somewhat bizarre first short film, above all we had many projects that never came to fruition. He was a casting director, I wrote novels and we loved the cinema, but there’s nothing easy about making a film: it is a collective endeavour that takes large amounts of money and many people working over a long period of time.
Then, in 2009, when he was reading Delicacy, Stéphane said to me: “Let’s stop looking for an idea and adapt your book.” I had never considered making a film, but he convinced me and, in a way, this reflected my desire to stay with the characters from the novel. It turns out that we had come at the right time: Audrey Tautou, who only films one feature film a year, loved the role of Nathalie and wanted to be part of the adventure of making an author’s first film. After that, everything ran smoothly.
Writing, filming: what connects these two acts?
What films and novels share is the narrative, the desire to describe characters and put them through a story. Whether this takes place completely in the imagination, as in literature, or in the real world, as in cinema, the energy remains the same.
The magnificent thing about cinema is how the imaginary enters reality. For example, when I create a character like Nathalie in Delicacy, and then I find myself looking at Audrey Tautou, a striking actress who brings her to life and speaks as if she knows her better than the author, what I imagined becomes embodied and I find that magical.
From The Memories (“Les Souvenirs”, 2014) to the upcoming The Henry Pick Mystery (“Le Mystère Henry Pick”, 2019), your books regularly appear in cinemas. What is your perspective on adaptation?
When you adapt your own novel, you are not afraid of having your work taken away from you. In this case, however, you must still accept that you are producing something else. For Delicacy, I had to invent many scenes and rework certain characters to turn the novelistic universe into a visual universe.
It is the same process when another film-maker adapts one of my novels, and I don’t have a problem with that. I do not demand right of review and I don't set foot on set, because no one forced me to give away the adaptation rights. I sometimes refuse to do so, but as soon as I accept, I believe that the work belongs entirely to the filmmaker.
Yet it is often said that to adapt is to betray…
The idea of treason in adaptation comes from the viewer, who often approaches the film from a perspective of comparison. This makes perfect sense, because the reader creates his or her own film. Faced with images there is therefore always the possibility of disappointment, of seeing one’s own imagination “betrayed” by that of another. That’s one of the reasons why six years passed between my first and second feature films. After Delicacy, Stéphane and I did not want to adapt one of my novels because we wanted to be judged based on our vision as filmmakers and not in comparison with the book.
I must also say that I have been rather spoiled by the adaptations of my novels. When I watch The Memories ("Les Souvenirs"), for example, I am won over by the way Jean-Paul Rouve brought his personality and humour to the story. I do not see it as a story that I invented, but as his work. He made a sublime film which makes me think that it is a very lucky thing to be accompanied by the talent of others.
Jealousy (2017) is your first feature film based on an original script. What changed in your writing process?
Original scripts are harder to write because everything needs to be invented. This is surely why so many film-makers turn to literature. The base it provides makes it possible to create, to add, and to express its uniqueness.
However, it seems to me that there are topics that lend themselves better to the cinema than to novels and Jealousy is a good example. Initially, the film was focused on the mother/daughter relationship and something about this was very difficult. In discussions with our producers, Stéphane and I came to understand that this was a dead end and that it was more interesting to film a woman unable to cope with the happiness of others. There is something extremely visual about this rivalry between a mother in crisis and her infinitely beautiful, young daughter. This can be communicated in two shots, and creates a real comedic force which sets the tone for the film. This feeling led me to a script rather than a book, but perhaps another author could have made it a novel. Moreover, when I'm doing signings, some audience members mention the “novel” Jealousy, as if I had adapted one of my works again!
Finally, let’s talk about readers and spectators. Is the relationship with the public different for books than at the cinema?
An author and a reader work as a pair, with a very direct connection. At the cinema it's more of a group project, and I really like to hear viewers talk to us about what affects them within the project, from the acting to the visual choices we have made.
Internationally, viewers don’t know me, they are only interested in the work they're being offered which is very pleasant. I am always curious to see how emotions are perceived in countries with different social norms. I remember a screening of Delicacy in Japan, where the room was very quiet. I felt defeated, convinced that the film didn't suit them, when a woman came up to me to tell me: “Oh, I laughed so much!” There, laughter is discreet, silent. As such, a screening or a signing abroad does not always cause me to rediscover my work, but it enriches me as a human through what I learn from the audiences I meet. For a writer, nothing is more precious.
From 12th to 15th November 2018, David Foenkinos went to meet his audiences in Thailand and Vietnam. Notably he spoke at the Alliance Française in Bangkok and the Institute for Cultural Exchange with France in Ho Chi Minh City, on the theme of the transition from “Page to Screen”.
Two of his films, The Memories and Jealousy, were screened with the support of the Institut français.
The Institut français offers a catalogue of over 2,500 titles, enabling the French cultural network and its partners to screen French films around the world.
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