Authorship, Adaptation and the Decline of the French New Wave
In his notorious article, ‘Une certaine tendance du cinéma français’ (1954), one of François Truffaut’s reasons for attacking the so-called cinéma de qualité was its unimaginative approach to literary adaptation, which borrowed cultural respectability from literary classics but showed little concern for the aesthetic specificity of cinema.
When the French New Wave emerged in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, the emphasis was on original screenplays or, in some cases, no screenplay at all. Where screenplays were adapted, the filmmakers would often make very significant changes to the source text in an effort to stamp their own authorial personality on the material, in line with the dictates of the politique des auteurs. While such adaptations were occasionally successful – Jules et Jim (Truffaut, 1962), Le Mépris (Godard, 1963) – , adapted screenplays were also responsible for two of the worst performers at the box office that signalled the beginning of the end of the New Wave’s glory days: Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste (1960), based on the crime novel Down There by David Goodis, and Claude Chabrol’s Les Godelureaux (1961), adapted from the novel by Éric Ollivier.
This paper will ask to what extent aggressive authorial imposition and the over-riding pre-occupation with a New Wave sensibility were responsible for the failure of these two films, and how far their examples can be taken as representative of the reasons for the New Wave’s ultimate exhaustion as a movement. The paper makes use of research in adaptation theory and contributes to ongoing debates about film authorship, while also participating in a new historicization of the French New Wave.