Actress Gemma Arterton plays Gemma Bovery in the new film
Actress Gemma Arterton plays Gemma Bovery in the new film
Ma_Co2013 (Flickr)

New film shows enduring popularity of Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Oxford academic says

Matt Pickles

It is not every day a picture of British actress Gemma Arterton appears on Oxford University’s Arts Blog. But today she is here with good reason – she is the star of a new film based on Gustave Flaubert’s iconic novel Madame Bovary.

In fact, the film is based on Gemma Bovery, a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds, published in 1999, which was in turn inspired by Flaubert’s book. This chain of events shows just how great Flaubert’s impact has been, according to Dr Stephen Goddard, a lecturer in French at St Catherine’s College and the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages.

'It is remarkable that in the film Gemma Bovery we are looking at a cinema adaptation of a graphic novel adaptation of Flaubert’s novel, which shows just how influential Flaubert’s work is,’ he says. ‘I hope the film will inspire more people to read Madame Bovary because it is a very rich book.'

Dr Goddard has not yet seen the film but, having read Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel, he thinks it could be very interesting. 'The graphic novel did not simply update Flaubert's plot but it twisted the story,' he says.

'In many ways the graphic novel is a typically French-style production because the French love their bandes dessinées but it is also a very subtle consideration of how the British view French life – the glorious food, the cottage in the Norman countryside and so on. I suspect the film is going to take full advantage of that British myth of the idyllic life in France.'

Although the film is set in a different time and place to Flaubert’s novel, the character played by Gemma Arterton has clear similarities to Flaubert’s heroine Emma Bovary. Dr Goddard says: ‘Emma believes herself to be trapped in a marriage with a man who she soon perceives as being a very dull, workaday husband and she wants to escape to live the kind of life that she knows she can live because she’s read about it in books.

'Her problem essentially is that she is a would-be romantic heroine in a realist novel and the ending that she undergoes is very much a realist ending not a romantic one.'

This clash between the real and the ideal is even seen in Emma's death in Madame Bovary. Dr Goddard says: 'Emma commits suicide by swallowing arsenic and she believes the effect will be that she will simply go to sleep in a rather picturesque way and everything will end.

'Unfortunately for her she's in a novel written by the son of a doctor who knows exactly what happens to the human body when it swallows arsenic and he doesn’t spare any details.'

Dr Goddard believes the character of Emma/Gemma helps to explain the enduring popularity of the book. He says: 'The central thing about tragic heroes or heroines is that they are always flawed and Emma’s flaws are not hidden. Emma is petty and yet in many respects Flaubert writes her so that we can have respect for her.

'She may fit in with this bourgeois background but she has dreams and ambitions. One possible message of the book is that these dreams may be unrealisable but that at least she dares to dream.'

Dr Goddard was recently interviewed about the film and Madame Bovary on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.