At this point, it’s almost a truism to say that film adaptations are more successful when they’re faithful to the spirit rather than the letter of their source material. To be fair, there’s a certain amount of sense in this; strict adaptations can easily become slavish and unimaginative, sagging under the weight of excessive detail and too little concerned with finding a way to capture the work’s overall tone. And certainly, some excellent adaptations take significant liberties with the original text. In fact, one of my favorite adaptations entirely scraps Othello’s original script—always a dicey proposition when you’re dealing with Shakespeare—and moves the setting to present-day London. It works brilliantly, giving new urgency to questions of race and gender. Much as I love Shakespeare’s play, I think that this particular adaptation also serves an important purpose.
On the other hand, look at the words I’ve used to describe more by-the-book (literally) adaptations: strict, slavish, unimaginative. I think that sometimes we stack the deck unfairly against these safer adaptations, and I want to make a case for their existence.
A few nights ago, I finally got around to watching In Secret, a 2013 adaptation of Zola’s 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin. As a tale of unhappy marriages and adulterous love, the novel should have a ring of familiarity for anyone moderately well versed in 19th-century literature, but Zola’s Thérèse is a distinctly darker creation than, say, Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina. Bored and unsatisfied in an arranged marriage to her cousin Camille, Thérèse throws herself into an obsessive affair with the artist Laurent, ultimately conspiring with him to murder her husband. What follows is a painfully brutal look at the slow implosion of a relationship plagued by mutual guilt and paranoia.
It’s been several years since I read the book, but based on what I do remember, In Secret is a very faithful film translation. The most significant plot-related change I noticed was the addition of a scene showing how Thérèse came to be living with the Raquins— hardly a radical reworking of the source material.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that In Secret received somewhat lackluster reviews, with criticism tending to focus on the movie’s predictability and frequent forays into melodrama. To take just one example, The Guardian’s Mike McCahill writes that the movie “represents heroine Elizabeth Olsen’s entrapment with images of corsetry and barred windows that rarely venture beyond the obvious.”
In all fairness, Thérèse Raquin presents distinct challenges for any would-be adapters, even setting to one side the fact that, as more than one critic has noted, what was shocking in the 19th century now feels overly familiar. Zola is famous for his detached, quasi-scientific narrative style, and that style is nowhere more evident than in Thérèse Raquin—not for nothing does its preface describe it as an “analytic study.” While it would no doubt be possible to achieve a similar effect on screen, it would require some real risk-taking; mainstream movies typically aim for emotional engagement, not sterile objectivity.
For that reason, I think it was likely a wise decision on director Charlie Stratton’s part to try for a more atmospheric approach; the sordidness and claustrophobia of the novel are fully present, but they are communicated via mood rather than outright exposition. And there are some nicely cinematic touches—things the movie can do that the book simply cannot. Chief among these is the rapid intercutting of Camille’s drowning with Thérèse and Laurent’s disastrous wedding night. It serves as an elegant shorthand for the strange, dark intimacy born of complicity rather than love—a point hammered home by Thérèse’s next words: “We were married the moment I stepped into that boat.”
Still, it’s entirely true that In Secret is not a particularly daring adaptation. It doesn’t take huge risks in terms of script, pacing, camerawork, etc. Couple this with a plot that—in its most skeletal form—is more or less soap opera material, and you can see why critics might find the movie fairly unremarkable.
I’m willing to bet, though, that most of the critics who reviewed In Secret had not read Thérèse Raquin; it’s just not that well known. But I have read the book, and over and apart from any merits the movie possesses on its own, In Secret reminded me of why I loved the novel so much. There’s always an intrinsic pleasure in seeing a work you enjoy fleshed out on screen; it’s one thing to visualize a scene while reading, but it’s something else entirely to experience (even at an unconscious level) the added richness of a scene rendered visible in minute detail.
Perhaps more importantly, though, watching an adaptation can redirect you towards elements of a work that you’ve either forgotten about or have overlooked entirely. Even the most straitlaced adaptation is an interpretation, and it’s rare that I watch an adaptation without noticing something I never had before; the simple experience of seeing a text filtered through someone else’s perspective creates new associations, sparks new trains of thought, and reframes key moments in a new light. Besides, even if a given adaptation doesn’t have a lot to add to its source material, there’s always the chance that you’ll see something new just because you’re returning to the work at a different period in your life. That, at least, has been my experience, and I’m grateful that those movies are around to focus my attention. How many of us, after all, have the chance to revisit all the books we would like to even once, much less multiple times? The ugly truth is that watching a movie takes much less time than rereading an entire novel, and sometimes it’s easier to use a film adaptation as a kind of quick fix.
And yes, there’s probably a strong element of nostalgia in this kind of enjoyment—it hinges, after all, on prior familiarity with the source—but it’s enjoyment all the same. Besides, things could be much worse. In Secret, and other movies like it, may not be great cinema, but they’re certainly not bad, and that’s more than can be said for some adaptations that take, shall we say, a more imaginative approach. Just look at the 2002 adaptation of The Time Machine, which guts Wells’ novella of everything interesting and apocalyptic and replaces it with bad special effects and not one, but two hackneyed love stories. I’d much prefer a faithful, if uninspired, adaptation.