Jean Renoir James Shelley Hamilton - Essay

James Shelley Hamilton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Changing a novel into a motion picture—really changing it from the medium of words into the medium of the camera—is a thorough-going process that is not often attempted except in the case of insignificant stories that do not matter to anyone…. A film has to be "like the book" in all the respects that made the book popular, or it's a disappointment to the large audience for whom it was made….

Madame Bovary is successful [because it so thoroughly satisfies so many people who were fond of the book]. The film as shown here suffers somewhat from attempts to bring it down to the length considered acceptable to American audiences….

Far more important is the fact that the film is Flaubert's novel, given beautiful and vivid form for the eye to see. This visual form is completely French, in the original, by which I do not mean that the dialogue is French—though it is—but that the shapes of landscape and town and people you see on the screen are saturated with an untranslatable atmosphere, as if the air itself had a language not spoken anywhere else. (p. 6)

Its truth was what made Flaubert's novel a classic, and the faithful way that truth has been put on the screen is what makes this film good. An American must bring to it some understanding of national differences—perhaps most important of all, to get the completest pleasure out of the film, he must appreciate the difference between French acting and what is called acting here. Our players—no matter how delightful—are for the most part merely themselves, moving about in parts that suit their personalities. The French actors act. To what they are they add a fine touch of theatricality (when it is not the real thing it is merely artificial) which heightens their performance into something more than what they merely are, and creates that thing more real than reality which is art. (p. 7)

James Shelley Hamilton, "'Madame Bovary'," in National Board of Review Magazine, Vol. IX, No. 9, December, 1934, pp. 6-7.