Babette's Feast

by Isak Dinesen

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How does the book Babette's Feast compare and contrast with the 1987 film adaptation?

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Isak Dinesen’s novella Babette's Feast and Gabriel Axel’s film are comparable in plot, characters, and themes. Both are set in the mid-to-late nineteenth century and relate Babette’s working for two religious sisters, Martine and Philippa, after fleeing France. Both end with her throwing an elaborate feast, a guest recognizing her as a famous chef, and her deciding to stay with them. Contrasts include settings in different countries and the film’s closer attention to the meal.

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The 1953 novella by Isak Dinesen (penname of Karen Blixen) and 1987 film by Gabriel Axel of Babette's Feast are very similar in many ways. Axel retained the time period, plot, characters, and themes. Both take place from the mid-to-late nineteenth century and tell the combined stories of two pious...

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sisters, Martine and Philippa, and a French woman who comes to work for them as a political exile from France. Both the book and the film end with Babette winning a substantial sum of money and using it to throw an elaborate feast; during the course of the meal, a guest recognizes her as the former famous chef of an illustrious French restaurant. Finally, rather than return to France, Babette decides to stay with the sisters—she now considers their community her home.

The contrasts between the two versions include the setting in terms of location. While both situate the religious community in a rugged, isolated location, the book takes place in Norway while the movie is set in Denmark. The author attends more closely to the sisters, beyond their adherence to their father’s teachings, as devout in their own right. The film places more emphasis on the final meal, especially its effects on diners who had never before tasted exquisite cuisine.

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The main difference between the book and its film adaptation lies in its location. As a previous contributor noted, the action in the film takes place in Jutland, Denmark, whereas in the original short story, the action took place in Norway. Jutland's bleaker, more windswept landscape is arguably more effective at conveying both Babette's isolation as well as the puritanical mores of the elderly sisters' Pietistic sect. More than anything else, this is a clash of cultures, and Jutland is much further away from Babette's native Paris—culturally, if not geographically—than the story's original Norwegian setting.

The sensuality of the magnificent feast that Babette prepares for the congregation is a common feature of both the book and film. Though the rich prose of Isak Dinesen—the pen name of Karen Blixen—skillfully describes each sumptuous morsel in loving detail, cinema, as a visual medium, is particularly adept at providing the audience with a veritable feast for the senses. The lush cinematography of Henning Kristiansen creates a rich palette of color which presents us with the delicious splendors of the feast in all its mouthwatering glory.

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There are some differences between Dinesen's work and the 1987 film.  One distinct difference would be the setting.  The town of Berlevaag is the setting in the book, while the film features the coastal setting of Jutland. Axel recognized such changes, as in setting, as being noticeable, but strives to maintain the same spirit of the novel:  ""There is a lot that works in writing, but when translated to pictures, it doesn't give at all the same impression or feeling. All the changes I undertook, I did to actually be faithful to Karen Blixen."  In this spirit, another significant difference is how transformational quality of the meal is depicted.  The cinematic use of colors that become infused into the setting once the feast takes hold conveys the same elements as the novel. However, the ability to inject external colors conveys a level of transformation that the novel sought to create in a more internal and subjective sense. 

Yet, there are more notions of similarity than difference in both work products.  The film "does justice to the precision of the Dinesen prose, to the particularity of her concerns and to the ironies that so amused her." Babette's transformative quality is evident in both.  The ending of the film confirms this with Babette's statement that "An artist is never poor," while the novel conveys the same sentiment through how divine benevolence validates that art is never wasted.  The transformational element in which old disagreements and anger dissipate in the face of food and communion is another element that the novel and film convey.  The convergence of "righteousness and bliss" is another thematic quality that is communicated in both novel and film.  Part of the transformational quality of food and art is that is communicated is that there is a way to find salvation and redemption in this life and in the next.  The film echoes this idea so prevalent in the book.  

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