Emile Zola: 5 adaptations of the writer’s works for the cinema

Master of naturalism, Emile Zola, who died just 120 years ago this Thursday, September 29, is, along with Honoré de Balzac, one of the most suitable French novelists for cinema. The proof in five films.

“Germinal”, by Claude Berri (1993)

In this classic of the 7th art, itself adapted from the literary work unveiled in 1885, the singer Renaud embodies Etienne Lantier, a committed young man who discovers the difficult working conditions of miners in the North of France, all exploited by the 19th century capitalist society. The feature film with a budget of 25 million euros attracted more than six million spectators in theaters, and won, out of twelve nominations, the César for best costumes and that of best cinematography in 1994. Gérard Depardieu, Miou-Miou, Jean Carmet and Laurent Terzieff.

Singer and actor Renaud (left) and director Claude Berri. (© Franck FIFE / AFP)

“La Curée”, by Roger Vadim (1966)

Transposed to a contemporary era, the novel released in 1871 comes to life on the big screen thanks to Roger Vadim who chooses to play the main female role, actress Jane Fonda, who will officially become his wife a few months after the film’s release. This sulphurous drama, prohibited for children under 18, tells the story of Renée Saccard. This woman with undeniable charm is married to Alexandre (unforgettable Michel Piccoli), but lives an idyll with her stepson, Maxime.


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“Gervaise”, by René Clément (1956)

This is the adaptation of the novel “L’assommoir” published in 1877. The Austrian Maria Schell, who will win the prize for female interpretation at the Venice Film Festival in 1956, interprets Gervaise, laundress in the miserable district de la Goutte d’Or, in Paris, who lives alone with her son. From her union with the worker Coupeau, Nana was born. The couple gradually sinks into alcoholism. François Périer, who plays Gervaise’s husband, won the Bafta for best actor in 1957.


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“Therese Raquin”, by Marcel Carné (1953)

Freely inspired by the novelist’s work published in 1867, “Thérèse Raquin” stages Simone Signoret and Raf Vallone in a story of infidelity that turns tragic. Married to Camille, her cousin, Thérèse is bored. With Laurent, an Italian trucker, she embarks on an extramarital affair. But Camille dies in conditions deemed accidental. The illegitimate couple who thought they were enjoying life, will finally find themselves pursued by a blackmailer. A character created by the filmmaker who also chose the 1950s as the setting for his film. Marcel Carné will also win the Silver Lion for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival in 1953.


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“The Human Beast”, by Jean Renoir (1938)

While the eponymous novel by Emile Zola takes place under the Second Empire, Jean Renoir decided to transpose the action in 1939. After “The lowlands” and “The great illusion”, the director finds the actor Jean Gabin who lends his features to Jacques Lantier, a mechanic who manages to calm his murderous impulses towards women, by taking care of his locomotive.


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The man will fall in love with Séverine, played by Simone Sibon, who will ask him to kill her husband, the station master of Le Havre.

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Emile Zola: 5 adaptations of the writer’s works for the cinema