'Chocolat' director masters art of taking novel to screen

An Oscar nomination for the French fable "Chocolat" has surprised several critics and delighted others. Some suggest that its appeal lies in the distinctive work of its Swedish director, Lasse Hallstrom: deep emotion rooted in a keenly observed reality. This is the second year in a row that one of his films has garnered a surprise best-film nomination, last year's being "The Cider House Rules."

"I'm very interested in strong sentiment," Mr. Hallstrom says, "but I have an allergy to sentimentality." The key to avoiding it, he says, is honesty. "You have to be real in your choices," he says. "No stylization, no theatricality; it has to do with finding the real performance that is original and doesn't go with cliches."

People and their foibles are at the heart of the work for this director whose career has been noted for its finely drawn, intimate films. "I'm not interested in so many plot-driven stories," he says. "My interest is in finding stories that are driven by character. I'm really interested in serving human behavior."

Hallstrom's films are also noted for their quirky comic undertones, a sensibility nurtured in childhood by a father whose amateur filmmaking career was influenced by a large store of Charlie Chaplin films. Comedy, points out the director, and particularly humor that comes from character failings or idiosyncrasies, is yet another shield against sentimentality.

Hallstrom's 30-year career began in his student days, directing video shorts for the Swedish rock group ABBA, Jimi Hendrix, and The Who. This led to work in television comedy and then his own semi-autobiographical early films. His first bonafide international hit in 1985, "My Life as a Dog," brought the sort of attention that has allowed him to pick and choose subsequent projects.

Many of his best-known films have been based on novels. Hallstrom says he has had to learn the art of taking a novel to the screen. "You have to have a healthy disrespect for the novel," he says. "You have to constantly remind yourself that you should have no knowledge about the book." In order to stay true to the novel, he says, "you have to depart from it."

The key to a successful adaptation is to stay true to the heart of the book, agrees British writer, Joanne Harris, author of the novel "Chocolat." She says that the film "Chocolat" adds characters not in the novel and changes the personal history of the lead character.

But Harris, who visited the set twice and even sent suggestions to the director, says she applauds the changes. In particular, she points to the deeper involvement of the main character with the actual development of the chocolate. "If I'd have thought about the history of chocolate, I'd have done it...," she says.

The director says he wanted to "emphasize the magical quality of chocolate, [which] was regarded as a potion that could help heal in ancient cultures."

Hallstrom didn't write the screen adaptation, but he did collaborate with screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs. And Harris points out that the director was responsible for setting the tone of the film.

"There are places in my novel that get very dark and serious indeed," she says. Hallstrom understood how to give just the sort of light touch that would communicate the character's emotion without dropping into what Harris calls "areas that might be too dark for a film."

Of his changes Hallstrom says, "I went back to the novel to bring some of the lyrical elements into the screenplay."

This lyricism is particularly important, given the differences in the two storytelling mediums. "With the novel, you potentially have a better chance of a complicated intellectual message," he says, "but with film it's more the emotional experience."

Married to Swedish actress Lena Olin, Hallstrom lives in upstate New York with his family. This choice presents one of his biggest challenges right now.

"I'm trying to figure out if I can go back and forth to Sweden and make movies," he says. He has felt the need to be based in America. But as filmmaking becomes ever more internationalized, he now is wondering if his home city, Stockholm, might work just fine.

"Who's to say what an American movie is anymore?" he says. "Financing comes from all over the world; actors are from everywhere. The borders are hard to define."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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