Film Adaptations of Catalan Literature

David Madueño

At the beginning of twentieth century, after some years of technical development and growing interest in the idea of capturing the public's attention through the visual spectacle, film-makers began to see that the genre could be given greater artistic ambition and scope. Good examples of what followed are The Birth of a Nation (David W. Griffith, 1915) and Battleship Potemkin (Sergei M. Eistenstein, 1925). For all their totally opposed, controversial ideological approaches, both films reveal a desire to experiment in their language. Cinematographic narrative employs innovative resources such as montage or planning frames, which were put to good use by the pioneers in their search for a critical, analytical art with its own language and a narrative formula that differs from other cultural expressions.

Very soon, cinema was to unearth in literature an inexhaustible source of plots and a potential audience: readers. Again, in the background, one can also speak of a factor of cultural consciousness, especially in film-making of national character – French, German and Spanish – where the interest in creating an industry was as great as the artistic drive. Apart from vindicating a nation's own cultural tradition, literary texts offer a plus in the form of prestige and rigorous analytical discussion which, from the intellectual domain, is signalled as cinema's main deficit. Similarly, films like Viatge a la Lluna [Journey to the Moon] (Georges Méliès, 1902), based on a text by Jules Verne, and Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau), an apocryphal version of Bram Stoker's Dracula, demonstrate the richness that use of this new language can offer with a renewed reading of the text.

In Catalonia, the film industry of the 1920s and 1930s brought together a good number of producers. Introduction of the Catalan language and its literature, however, was still an isolated occurrence with few adaptations: Terra baixa [The Lowlands] (Fructuós Gelabert, 1907) and Maria Rosa (Fructuós Gelabert, 1908), both based on plays by Àngel Guimerà; Santiago Rusiñol's L'auca del senyor Esteve [The Tale of Mr Esteve] (Lucas Argilés, 1929); and Josep Maria de Sagarra's El cafè de la Marina [The Seaside Café] (Domènec Pruna, 1933). Most of the films, which were produced and shot in Spanish, cater to popular tastes with dramas, comedies, documentaries and adaptations of zarzuelas (Spanish operetta) and variety shows.

The Civil War and the dictatorship put an abrupt end to any desire to go further. Barcelona lost its stature in film production within the Spanish state, which now had its headquarters in Madrid. Among the few Catalan film projects approved by the regime were Josep Maria de Sagarra's religious drama La ferida lluminosa [The Luminous Wound] (Tulio Demicheli, 1956); a new adaptation of Maria Rosa (Armand Morena, 1964); Manuel de Pedrolo's M'enterro en els fonaments [I Bury Myself in the Foundations], which was premiered with the title La respuesta [The Answer] (Josep Maria Forn, 1969); Josep Maria Folch i Torres' story Elisabet (Alexandre Martí, 1969), and Laia by Salvador Espriu (Vicente Lluch, 1970). This period of the decline and disappearance of the Catalan audiovisual sector dragged on until the 1960s when a new generation constituted the so-called Barcelona School, a movement for aesthetic and thematic renovation based on the independent production of works of art and essays. It was a short-lived phenomenon but it has left a legacy of works of noteworthy results besides reviving interest in film-making in Barcelona and in training new professionals. The group's restless avant-garde cultural character consolidated in particular with the collaboration of Joan Brossa and other members of the "Dau al Set" collective with the director Pere Portabella in four significant films: No compteu amb els dits [Don't Count with your Fingers] (1967), Nocturno 29 [Nocturne 29] (1968), Vampir-Cuadecuc (1970) and Umbracle [Shade House] (1972).

The end of the Franco dictatorship brought in its wake a movement of vindication and recovery of Catalan culture, along with the creation of cultural industries that favoured the economic viability of these projects. This revival also occurred in the domain of cinema, with an initial interest that would only tail off over the years with economic losses and the limitations of institutional support. In 1975, the Institut de Cinema Català [Catalan Film Institute] was established and most professionals in the field joined up as members. The first major film in Catalan, La ciutat cremada [The Burned City] (Antoni Ribas, 1976) testifies to the desire to open up a phase of historical, political and social analysis of the country's most recent history. The same might be said of Francesc Bellmunt's films – La nova cançó [The New Song] (1977) and L'orgia [The Orgy] (1979) – although his was a more youthful and anti-establishment tone that guaranteed him a certain kind of public, thus ensuring that his reflections were more marked by generational issues and that, accordingly, they were more pertinent to the times. It was not long at all before Catalan cinema went back to undertaking the task of adapting the most representative works of the country's literature.

Classical Fiction
The texts comprising any particular literary tradition and that form part of the historic corpus of a literature are the ones that confer most prestige and renown on a film adaptation. However, they frequently entail high production costs in terms of wardrobe, sets and locations. The first great adaptation of Catalan cinema was the film La plaça del Diamant (titled The Time of the Doves in the English translation of the novel) by Mercé Rodoreda. While this is a contemporary novel published in 1962, it offers a certain kind of psychological narrative that, in conjunction with the value of the story as memoir – which explains its popular acclaim – situates it as one of the last classics of Catalan literature. Hence, the 1982 film version by Francesc Betriu had a great deal of support, especially with the participation of television. Lost in the script, in translation into images, is the poetic power Rodoreda achieves in the complex inner meditations of Colometa, the leading female character, although the film does achieve a vivid portrait of the society through its historical and political discourse which, in the book, is precisely the dimension that is subservient to personal experience. It is this possibility of speaking about a time that is so near yet hitherto silenced – the Civil War and post-war period – from a standpoint other than that of the old dictatorial regime that makes the film so successful.

The years following La plaça del Diamant saw the appearance of other film adaptations: Llorenç Villalonga's Bearn o la sala de les nines (titled The Dolls' Room in the English translation of the novel), adapted for the screen by Jaime Chávarri in 1983; Miquel Llor's Laura a la ciutat dels sants [Laura in the City of Saints] (Gonzalo Herralde, 1986); Marià Vayreda's La punyalada [The Stabbing] (Jordi Grau, 1990); and Víctor Català's Solitud [Solitude] (Romà Guardiet, 1991). All these novels coincide in the endeavour of offering social portraits – of the rural aristocracy of Mallorca in Bearn, the regional bourgeoisie in Laura, and banditry in La punyalada – and the characters' more or less conflictive coexistence with the rural milieu in which they are immersed. Laura and Solitud go further in their exposition, coinciding in offering two splendid portrayals of women heading for physical and moral ruin thanks to this rural setting and its inhabitants, a milieu where they feel unable to fit in.

The other great classic that has been made into a Catalan film is Narcís Oller's La febre d'or [Gold Fever]. Gonzalo Herralde, who made Laura a la ciutat dels sants, directed this second ambitious project which, with the participation of television, was not short of resources. With a great deployment of means, a first-class cast and lasting 321 minutes, it was shown as a three-chapter television mini-series and also abridged into a two-hour film in the cinemas. The result is a concise depiction of the Barcelona bourgeoisie in the latter half of the nineteenth century, a period of sweeping industrial and capitalist growth. The leading character, Gil Foix, takes advantage of the feverish economic agitation of his times to get rich on the stock exchange. The study of this social setting presented in both book and film links the economic juncture with family and social relations, which are reciprocally affected in a decline of moral consequences.

Contemporary Fiction
When it comes to cutting costs and bringing in a larger public, not only because of the success a novel may have had but also its treatment of more up-to-date issues that are closer to the spectator's experience, cinema turns to contemporary works. While this may not be the case of La Teranyina [The Spider's Web], Jaume Cabré's portrait of nineteenth-century industrialism and the conflicts in the textile sector, which was adapted for the screen in 1990 by Antoni Verdaguer, it is so with Joan Barril's study on the impact of immigration Un submarí a les estovalles [A Submarine on the Tablecloth] (Ignasi Pere Ferré, 1990); the conflicts between human beings in general and in couples in particular in Quim Monzó's El perquè de tot plegat [What It's All About] (Ventura Pons, 1994); and the intergenerational conflict involving children born in the post-war period in Ferran Torrent's Gràcies per la propina [Thanks for the Tip] (Francesc Bellmunt, 1997). Although contemporary texts make it possible to work with the agreement of the author, some writers are also commissioned to produce original scripts for the screen, as happened with Lluís-Anton Baulenas with Anita no perd el tren [Anita Takes a Chance] (Ventura Pons, 2000) and with a group of prestigious writers – Jaume Fuster, Vicenç Villatoro and Jaume Cabré – who wrote the script for Havanera 1820 (Antoni Verdaguer, 1993).

As for the urban portrait that was often offered in Catalan cinema in the 1980s, the genre that comes out as the winner is "film noir". Again, a new generation of writers in the realm of Catalan letters is giving great momentum to the genre, both in the innovative, breakaway tone it is bringing to the literary panorama and for the ease of adaptation of this American genre, and the spirit of social criticism it encourages. Two novels have been made into films: Jaume Fuster's De mica en mica s'omple la pica [Filling the Sink Slowly] (Carles Benpar, 1983), and Ferran Torrent's Un negre amb un saxo [A Black Man with a Sax] (Francesc Bellmunt, 1988). These two films coincide in the dirty realism of their depictions of Barcelona and Valencia. The two cities are seen from the standpoint of their profligacy as super-populated urban centres with conflicts of social opposition between the loci of economic and political power and the marginalised classes. Both strata, however, come into contact through the criminal strand that marks the narrative component of the genre. It is here where the main character of the detective, a déclassé individual with his own ethical code moving freely from one social stratum to another, gives an eye-witness, analytical and critical account of reality, from a standpoint that is free of any hint of moralising.

Theatre and Poetry
Most of the novels adapted for the screen tend to eclipse poetry and theatre, although in the 1960s and 1970s public television produced dramatised versions of plays by Espriu or Sagarra in the space called "Teatre Català" [Catalan Theatre]. Ventura Pons, one of the few Catalan filmmakers with any continuity, is the director who has adapted most plays for the screen, with Actrius [Actresses] (1996), based on Josep M. Benet i Jornet's E.R.; Carícies [Caresses] (1997), by Sergi Belbel; and Amic/Amat [Friend/Lover] (1998), based on Benet i Jornet's Testament. Notable too is Kràmpack (Cesc Gay, 2000), a film based on the successful play by Jordi Sànchez who offers a humorous account of the sentimental education of young people.

Poetry, for all its capacity of suggesting images of great visual power, is the literary genre least seen in the cinema. Its lack of plot is a drawback for any project that does not come under the heading of art and essay cinema. Notable here are the aforementioned films in which Pere Portabella worked with Joan Brossa; És quan dormo que hi veig clar [It's When I Sleep that It's Clear to Me] (Jordi Cadena, 1988), a homage to the poetic world of J.V. Foix; and Entreacte [Interval] (Manuel Cussó-Ferrer, 1988), a mixture of theatrical and poetic fragments by Joan Brossa.

  • Poetry As Drawing
  • Massa mare
  • Música de poetes
  • Premi LletrA