This book to film comparison contains spoilers.
The first time I saw the Chocolat movie (before I read the book), my overwhelming memory was of wanting to eat the chocolate. When I read Joanne Harris’s novel, I was pulled into an intricate exciting world with mysterious characters and description that can only be described as delicious. It soon became apparent that the Chocolat book and film are, at heart, telling different stories using the same or similar characters.
I always had the impression that the book was set in a more modern time, in an isolated and antiquated town. The movie explicitly states that it takes place in the late 1950s or early 1960s (‘fifteen years after the war’). Removing ambiguity to nail down the time period doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Maybe If I’m right in thinking that Joanne Harris’s novel is set closer to the 1990s than the 1950s, though I can’t for the life of me think why. The morals and setting of Lasquennet-sous-le-Tannes seem so old-fashioned that the mention of TV and electric mixers (even though they existed mid-century) always jolted me.
I think moviegoers may have had difficulty accepting the idea that people in this day and age would ignore domestic violence, or even be so strict about Lent. Even if those things do still occur around the world, it’s a diplomatic fix for the film’s creators to establish the era to avoid viewers feeling confused or even unsettled.
Secondary characters and the fire
In the book, it’s made clear that Roux and Josephine are becoming closer, and they ultimately end up together. As Vianne knows this, and knows the full extent of Josephine’s abusive marriage, it surprises me that she still chooses to sleep with Roux out of a desire for human closeness.
The movie signposts a romance between Vianne and Roux from their first meeting in the movie and I’m glad for it. Many characters have changed significantly from book to movie but Josephine is one of the closest depictions to her book counterpart. If Vianne had slept with Roux under the same circumstances in the movie, I think it may have been difficult for audiences to forgive that act of betrayal.
To condense the action, the movie has Armande’s party, her death, and the fire of the riverboats take place on the same night. As a result, Vianne has no opportunity to assist with Armande’s suicide. The party is just an ordinary celebration, devoid of any deeper implication. I wish that Armande’s daughter, Caro, had been able to put aside her differences with her mother in the movie to take part in the celebration but her character is so resolute that it might have felt a bit out of place.
The biggest change between book and movie comes in the form of the antagonist. The book features a priest named Pere Francis Reynaud, who is plagued by his personal demons and, frankly, seems mentally unstable a lot of the time. He finds an accomplice in Paul-Marie Muscat (Serge Muscat in the movie) and some nosy neighbours, but Reynaud is ultimately the sole cause of Vianne’s distress throughout the novel. It often seems that Vianne is more than capable of handling him but she stumbles in her efforts because, to her, Reynaud represents the ‘Black Man’, a recurring character from her mother’s tarot cards and a personification of death.
The movie has split up Reynaud into two different characters. Pere Henri is young, impressionable, and much kinder than Pere Reynaud. Comte de Reynaud takes on the darker qualities of the antagonist. As the mayor of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, he imposes his authority over Pere Henri at every chance, using the church to preach his own values.
Perhaps the alterations to the villain were an attempt to cast the church in a more favourable light than the book suggests. Personally, I think the strict mayor and sympathetic priest is a better fit for the story. They’re both more human and understandable than the novel’s creepy and irredeemable priest.
Where his book counterpart is dismissive of the problems of his ‘flock’ and views himself as superior and almost godlike, the Comte does not dismiss Muscat’s domestic violence. Despite his strict morals, the Comte seems to actually care about people. Rather than trying to force Josephine to return to her abusive husband, he attempts to teach Serge how to be a gentleman and control his tendency towards mortal sin.
Perhaps the Comte is so interested in Serge because he wants to prove that marriage can be fixed after his own wife left him. Whatever his reasoning, I feel like the backstory of his separation is more satisfying for me than Pere Reynaud’s constant visits to the comatose Pere Michel.
The Comte himself suffers the same comeuppance as Pere Reynaud, with them both breaking down and eating chocolate. Yet where Pere Reynaud is disturbing and alienating in his gluttony, the Comte’s indulgence is humanising and leads to his eventual redemption.
In her character and plot development, Joanne Harris uses a plot technique that I’ve never been particularly fond of: she holds back pieces of information so that readers can’t piece together various situations until she’s good and ready to reveal them. While the novel is told from Vianne’s point of view, her secrets are so extreme that she often seems completely unreachable.
There’s an indication that Vianne’s mother may have abducted her as a child, which explains their travelling around so much. Yet the novel lacks a real reason for Vianne continuing the tradition with Anouk. One thing that Book Vianne really has going for her is her fortitude. She always seems so strong and assured, and she keeps her temper in check much easier than her movie counterpart.
That being said, Vianne’s character in the movie is far more real to me. Her parentage is explored more, and the indications of witchcraft and a mishmash of folklore give way to magical realism and a solid relationship to Mayan culture through her mother. This explains the change of the shop’s name from La Céleste Praline to La Chocolaterie Maya for the movie. The motivation of the north wind and a mystical drive to transform new towns and help their citizens is just the right mix of simple and mysterious.
With so many changes to the story and the characters, it’s hard to compare the book and film and say that one is better than the other. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and I feel like I could have a different opinion if I compared them a year later or a year earlier.
At the moment, I have a stronger affinity for the movie of Chocolat. While Joanne Harris’s novel is bursting with a beautiful world and exquisite language, the way she holds back details at times prevents me from really connecting with the characters. I connected more easily with the movie characters, whose backstories and motivations seemed more appropriate.