Ever since I first saw the film with Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp, there hasn’t been a year that I did not at least once return to dreamy Lansquenet-sous-Tannes. Up until very recently, I actually had no idea that the movie was based on a book. Silly me. A couple of months ago, I was facing a rather long bus ride home, with my phone battery almost empty. I’ve stored quite a lot of books on that thingamajig, which is the main reason I do not want to return to a dumbphone. Considering the trip, I was not willing to forego my reading time, however. So I wandered into town to a cheap outlet bookstore, where I stumbled upon the book by Joanne Harris. No need to continue browsing, this was going to be my reading for the foreseeable future.
Though the main theme is obviously the same, there were quite a lot of discrepancies as well. First and foremost, it’s impossible to envision Depp with the bright red hair Roux is supposed to have. If I see the movie first, I usually use the actors in my mind’s eye, too. Depp had to be recast rather quickly. It just didn’t feel right with the character in the book, though he’ll always be the perfect movie Roux. Most other characters were luckily spot on.
Reynaud in the book is actually the town’s priest. We occasionally get his POV, too, which makes for an intriguing conflict between him and Vianne. His vantage point is so contrary, which makes it a whole lot easier to hate him. The touch of Christian insanity is simply genius. Armande Voisin, even though portrayed wonderfully by Judi Dench, was a bit more whimsical in the book. A touch of magic about her, an all-knowing presence, almost. A little less stern, a bit more laissez-faire. Vianne and Anouk are much less fleeting in the book than they are portrayed in the movie. Apart from the pieces with Reynaud’s POV, we get a direct line into Vianne’s thoughts. She’s a kind but strong, independent, young woman. Intelligent to boot, and very no-nonsense. Live and let live, in every shade and colour. In my opinion, the world would be a much better place, if more people were like her.
The biggest difference is probably the focus of the storyline. The movie is much more a romantic novel, whereas the book is focused on the conflict between Vianne and the Black Man, personified by Reynaud. Spoiler alert, but Vianne isn’t even Roux’ love interest in the book! Though admittedly, they do share some intense moments together. Through short trips down memory lane, we get a peek into Vianne’s hectic past. Here, too, the romance was added to spice up the movie. Book Vianne has had a much more mundane version of a gipsy life. Her mother was not some Native American who seduced her father while he was on a medicinal trip, but rather a darker coloured woman who never told Vianne who her father was. Traipsing around the world like wanderers, occasionally penniless, they left each time, not prompted by the return of the North Wind, but rather by her mother’s own conflict with the Black Man. He kept returning to her in her Tarot cards, until one day, she died while running. Not by the hands of said black man, but by a mundane traffic accident. Before her death, Vianne’s mother looked upon her cooking with disdain. No romantic history that weaves chocolate through the generations here.
That lack of romance perseveres not only in the storyline, but in the general feel as well. The movie thrives on the romance of an era long gone, whereas the book is much more no-nonsense and contemporary. The hard plastic chairs and faded umbrellas of the nineties in starch contrast with the nostalgia of the film. It works, though. The juxtaposition of Vianne’s colourful presence with the harsh reality makes for an interesting tension. It becomes more realistic and tangible. It’s an image that would have been much harder to convey on screen.
Usually, it’s rather easy for me to pick a favourite, and most of the time, it’s the book. But even though technically, it’s the same story, it felt like two completely different worlds. So for once, I’m going to be content by declaring a tie.