Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bonjour Tristesse

Bonjour Tristesse
by Francoise Sagan
Harper Modern Perennial Classics
$12.99 US
Buy at

I had watched the Otto Preminger film Bonjour Tristesse (1958) a while back for my You Otto See It series, and was very impressed by it. (See my post about it here) The film stars Jean Seberg, David Niven and Deborah Kerr. Seberg plays Cecile, a 17-year old who is living it up on the French Riviera with her bachelor father Raymond (David Niven). When an old family friend, Anne (Deborah Kerr), threatens their bohemian lifestyle by bringing structure and morality to their lives, Cecile becomes desperate to hold on to her free lifestyle at all costs. Even if it means breaking up Raymond and Anne's engagement.

The film is based on the Francoise Sagan novel published in 1954. Sagan is from France and wrote the novel in French at the age of 17. It was an instant hit and it only took a couple of years for the film rights to be snagged up and for the movie to be created. Many folks think that the novel is autobiographical considering the fact that both Sagan and her character Cecile are 17 years old and living in France. The novel is written in first-person narrative in Cecile's perspective and at times it did feel that I was reading a short memoir.

The book can be classified as a novella as it's only about 130 pages long. It's separated into two sections. The first part is when Anne comes into the lives of Raymond and Cecile. The second part is when Cecile puts into place her elaborate scheme to separate Raymond and Anne. It's a light, melancholy story and although it feels subdued it really makes you think about the consequences of people's actions. This story is very much about manipulation, aversion to change and the numbness and boredom experienced by the rich. Our present society is very fascinated by this, as you can see by the plethora of reality shows that follow rich people around. I think a story like Bonjour Tristesse is more eye-opening and intellectually stimulating.

Reading this book make realize not only how much I love this story but how excellent a job Otto Preminger did in adapting this novella for the screen. The 1958 film version is visually stunning bringing the characters and the setting alive before our eyes. Preminger stayed very true to the story and did little to change it. In fact, the film added to the story in a way that enhanced it. The novella is very linear chronologically. Preminger's film shifts from present day to past back to present day and did this by representing present day as black & white (the sad aftermath) and past day as color (the carefree happy days before the incident). There are a lot of little subtleties in the text that Preminger kept and showed on screen. For example, one of my favorite scenes involved Cecile being caught in the arms of her lover by Anne. Her lover kisses her shoulder and Cecile kisses the same spot. This very subtle and short moment, the shoulder-kissing, is in the novella! Preminger had picked up on a lot of the nuances of the novella and weaved them into the film. While Preminger stayed very close to the original book, I feel like he improved upon it by adding a few extra scenes and by adding a layer of social commentary. The novella is written in the perspective of Cecile so she is not capable the level of social awareness that Preminger added to the movie. I think this just enhances the story. For example, there is a scene when one of the two interchangeable maids gulps down champagne why the rich folk go about their amusement. This really shows the differences between the two classes, especially the obliviousness of the upperclass. This isn't in the book. Also, the novella was famous for being blunt sexually, with an outright reference to abortion. Preminger didn't include the abortion reference but he kept the language in the film sexy in an indirect way.

I think Bonjour Tristesse the novella and the film could be used as an example of a book-to-movie adaptation that went really well. Because an adaptation should do two things: it should stay true to the original story and improve upon it. What we get today is film directors trying change too much of the story or they are pressured by film studios to make the film in a way that makes it generate the big bucks. What ends up happening is they bastardize the story and lots of folks who loved the original book are outright disgusted by the movie adaptation (::cough ~Talented Mr. Ripley ~ cough::). I think classic film book adaptations worked a lot better even though they had the same pressures: money, pleasing film studios, time, etc.

I highly recommend you read the Sagan novella then watch the Otto Preminger film, and in that order.

Full Disclosure: A friend lent me her copy of this book.


  1. This book looks so interesting! I loved reading your thoughts on it :D

  2. I have to admit, I have never read the novella so I had no idea how loyal the film was to it. It does sound like a very interesting book! And The Talented Mr. Ripley is indeed a great example of a bad adaptation of a novel! I remember watching it and being thunderstruck. That wasn't the Mr. Ripley I remembered!

  3. Nice post. Considering how much I love the Preminger film -- it's one of my favorites, in fact, a real masterpiece -- I should really read the book as well. I remember hearing that the main difference was that Preminger, by necessity, made the sexual component of the novel more subtle and understated, particularly the implied incestual undertones between father and daughter.

  4. Raquelle,
    Swell review! Too bad the book doesn't change between color and black and white, one of the aspects I love most with the film. But I guess you can't have it all.

  5. "And The Talented Mr. Ripley is indeed a great example of a bad adaptation of a novel!"

    i can only imagine what they're gonna do to "Atlas Shrugged" when/if they ever actually make it.

  6. You guys should give the book a shot! Thanks for your comments.

    Artman & Mercurie - I feel like anyone who enjoys The Talented Mr. Ripley as a movie could only do so by being completely ignorant of the book!

  7. Raquelle - that was how i felt about that latest version of "I am Legend". that film was bad enough on its own but when comparing it to the book, oh lordy, what a stinker!

    as for the proposed Atlas Shrugged film with Anjelina Jolie, someone was just recently quoted as saying something like "They dont need to make a movie of it, we're LIVING it right NOW!"


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