“Screening Zola’s Women” examines the sexual politics of the look in cinematic adaptations of nineteenth century novels and how the distribution of that look among male and female characters determines their agency. To demonstrate this, I focus on female representation and sexual difference as two integral components of the study of adaptations. From this base, I examine how cinema manipulates the female image to conform to its own sexual hierarchy and how the transposition of women into film minimizes the agency of their novelistic counterparts.
In this study, sexual difference and female representation provide the framework and methodology through which to compare novels and films. This respects the autonomy of cinema to use novels as source material for original work in film. As a result, each film is regarded as an alternative "reading" of its literary source.
Five novels of Emile Zola form the base of this study. They are: Nana (1880); La Bête Humaine (1890); Au Bonheur des Dames (1883); Thérèse Raqui n(1867); and L’Assommoir (1877). The corresponding film adaptations represent four distinct cinematic “genres” of French film and cover a period of thirty years. The films are respectively: Nana (1926) and La Bête Humaine (1938) by Jean Renoir; Au Bonheur des Dames (1943) by André Cayatte; Thérèse Raquin (1953) by Marcel Carné; and Gervaise (1956) by René Clément.
Zola, although consistently charged with the misogynistic representation of women, exposes and highlights communities of women in his novels. As a result, Zola’s novels provide extensive documentation on women during the Second Empire in Paris. Zola privileges his protagonists with agency and narrativity, which permits them to express their desires and access the gaze. Gervaise, Nana, Séverine, Denise, and Thérèse Raquin rebel against the established patriarchal order to affect a change in their lives and to escape their oppressive environments. Their voices are heard and their stories are told as they act on their desires. Zola looks through keyholes and records what he sees while cinema, on the other hand, looks through camera lenses and constructs its own mise-en-scène.
As one of the last strongholds of patriarchal domination, cinema continues to dominate, manipulate, and matriculate the representation of women as commodified, sexual objects of the male gaze. This results in female icons who have lost their look, their voices, and their ability to affect change. Zola’s women escape the confines of their bookbindings only to be imprisoned by the finite edges of the film frame.