An English writer gets a taste of Hollywood

It is 11 a.m. and Joanne Harris has just come from a large breakfast.

Nonetheless, she says, "I can eat anytime, anywhere," and picks up a lunch menu without a hint of self-consciousness.

Not surprisingly, given this English novelist's happy relationship with her appetite, food is the subject of much of her writing.

Her third novel, "Chocolat," about a woman who runs a chocolate shop and in the process, revives a small French village, is a bestseller, published in 18 countries.

The film, directed by Lasse Holstrom ("My Life as a Dog," "The Cider House Rules") opens today in limited release. It stars Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp.

"The theme of the novel is actually food as the agent of transformation," says the former Yorkshire schoolteacher. Her two subsequent novels, "Blackberry Wine" and "Five Quarters of the Orange," have both dealt with similar issues. "I didn't realize it at the time, but I've now written a food trilogy," Harris says.

At the heart of the story is a struggle between temptation and self-denial. On one side is the local priest and (in the film) the mayor. On the other is a gypsy transient (Binoche), who opens a chocolate shop on the town square, just opposite the church.

Because of personal torments in his past, Harris says, the priest is an unhappy man. "For him," she says, "all pleasure has become sin."

More important to the central struggle of the story, Harris says, is the fact that in the most profound parts of their psyches, the gypsy and the priest are more alike than different. "They both have trouble relating to their upbringing, and they both feel they have the means to make other people's lives better."

On tour to promote the film, Harris says the process of turning her novel into a movie has been "delightful," an adjective she also applies to the film's final cut.

This pleased appraisal of Hollywood from a writer who was not involved in the adaptation of her work into a screenplay is at least as rare as, say, a writer who would turn down a free meal.

Perhaps more unusual, Harris says, has been her friendly relationship with the director and the film's star, Binoche. "She came to stay with me twice," says Harris, who visited the film set numerous times. There everyone from the electricians to the actors approached her, book in hand, asking for autographs, she says.

Numerous details were altered for the film, perhaps the biggest one being the main character's parentage. In the book, she is a European Gypsy who never knows her father. In the film, her father is a respectable French chemist and her mother a Mayan Indian with a deep understanding of the power of chocolate.

Harris heartily approves of both changes, particularly since chocolate originated in Central America.

In fact, she wishes she had thought of it herself. "I'm not very possessive about my 'art.' I don't feel at all that these books are my babies. I've got a real baby, and they're much more work," she adds with a laugh.

This granddaughter of a Frenchwoman and an Englishman is not unaware of her good fortune in bringing her novel to the screen. Having read William Goldman's Hollywood classic, "Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting," she knows how treacherous a minefield the industry can be for newcomers. "I know I've stumbled through this maze somehow," she says, "without falling into any of the potholes."

What surprises Harris most is the comment of a producer in London, for whom she is adapting her new novel, "Coastliners." "My friend tells me the industry is short of ideas," she says, marveling at the very thought. "Everything in Hollywood seems to be based on something else that was once successful."

Noting that even those who bring fresh ideas into the entertainment industry often grow stale once they get close to the action, this first-time visitor to the United States laughs and says simply, "I could never live here. Never."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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