Banijay and France Télévisions’ new co-production adaptation of Zola’s seminal work, Germinal, breathes new life into a classic text, making it accessible to post-MeToo audiences and attractive to the modern sensibilities of today’s viewers. Carole Della Valle, Producer, Banijay Studios France, and Claire Jago, EVP, EMEA, Sales and Acquisitions for Banijay Rights, discuss this unique public-private partnership and the challenges of adapting such a well-known novel rooted in its time and place.

Germinal, serie directed by David Hourregue, 2020. SEQ 126 A, with Thierry Godard (Maheu), Rose-Marie Perreault (Catherine) Vincent Deniard (Bouteloup), Max Baissette de Malglaive (Jeanlin)

The Interview

New Germinal mines new international audiences

Unifrance: Why did you choose to adapt Emile Zola’s famous novel?   

Carole Della Valle

Carole Della Valle: Producing a period drama is a very exciting challenge, one that doesn’t come along often in the lifetime of a producer. Emile Zola is a very well-known French author from the 19th century – and whether you like his books or not, most people know his name, particularly those of us from France. So, we were extremely excited to read and re-adapt Germinal – one of his most famous novels. We were completely shocked by the relevance of the text’s central themes to today’s society, so it was obvious we needed to adapt this for television.  

Unifrance: What differentiates this from previous adaptations of Germinal?  

Carole Della Valle: The most famous adaptation of Germinal is a feature film directed by Claude Berri in 1993, starring Gerard Depardieu and the famous French singer, Renaud. At the time, the project had the biggest production budget ever for a French movie. Its tone was really close to that featured in the novel.  

However, we decided we wanted to bring a new angle to the television format. The story is the same, but we made some changes to the female characters in terms of their power and psychology. For example, following the #MeToo movement, we couldn’t write the story of Catherine and Chaval in the same way that it appeared in the novel. We needed to understand what was happening in Catherine’s mind and her reasons for staying with a man who was abusing her. Of course, the story took place in the 19th century and it was a very different mentality back then. But as we worked on this new adaptation, we realized that we needed to bring a 21st century point of view to the fore.

Our version of Germinal is a coproduction from Banijay Studios France and Pictanovo with the support of La Région Hauts-de-France for France Télévisions, in collaboration with Rai Fiction and Salto. As it’s a French story, at first it wasn’t easy to convince our partners. But finally, thanks to the universal nature of the story’s themes (solidarity, fighting for better living conditions) we managed to convince them, and Rai quickly decided to follow us. We were very lucky to work with two Italian actors during the shooting, Stefano Cassetti and Valeria Cavalli. 

Unifrance: What are the challenges of adapting literature? 

Carole Della Valle: Before publication as a novel, Zola’s story was first published in serial form in a newspaper – and was already structured as an arched series, which was really helpful for adaptation purposes. Indeed, the novel’s material was already incredibly close to a TV script: it had cliffhangers, numerous interesting characters, and several episodes to delve into.

In terms of casting, we really wanted to choose an actor who was similar in age to Etienne Lantier. It was fundamental for us to have a young leading actor who could perfectly characterize him – and we were delighted to discover the talent of Louis Peres. Of course, a lot of very famous actors were also part of the casting, including Alix Poisson, Guillaume de Tonquedec and Sami Bouajila.

Unifrance: The series also honors miners.

Carole Della Valle: It certainly does. Our director, David Hourregue, has always been adamant that this project should make the people of northern France proud of their region and its coalminers. And we hope they will be!

It’s been so helpful that we got to use the Arenberg Creative Mine – an old mine converted into a museum. Claude Berri’s movie was shot there, and one part of the set from that time is still exhibited. However, we had to expand the set, and to make it more realistic we ordered 80 metric tons of coal from Poland so the actors could put real coal into their trolleys!

Unifrance: Currently on Salto, soon to come to France 2, Germinal is set to be the talk of the town! 

Carole Della Valle: There’s certainly a buzz about the show. The partnership with Salto is a big opportunity for us. The audience is younger, and it’s a great way to create word of mouth. It’s also the first time that a public and private broadcaster have made this kind of alliance. It’s a big opportunity for all future series in France. 

Germinal is a monument of our cultural life in France. A very political story, but this series could not have existed without the full support of France Televisions.

Unifrance: The series is an adaptation of a French novel, about French history. How do you position that for international audiences? 

Claire Jago

Claire Jago: Germinal is internationally known, as is its author Emile Zola. Selling a show that is based on such a powerful literary masterpiece always helps to build momentum in the international marketplace and for audiences. This was a huge production with major financing and marketing behind it, which again helps. Yes, this series may be about French miners in the 19th century, but like Carole says, there are so many universal themes embedded within it that it really does stand out for modern audiences. Period dramas have always, and will always, remain popular, and we have no doubts this adaptation will be as well.

Unifrance: The series was well received at SeriesMania and won the public’s prize. What were buyers’ first reactions? 

Claire Jago: We were delighted Germinal won such a prestigious prize at SeriesMania, and in many ways it didn’t surprise me as this series is such a stand-out drama that will resonate with so many people, not just in France but worldwide too.

All reactions to Germinal have been positive so far, and we recently made our first international sale to Canadian network Radio-Canada – a great deal for this sweeping epic. Of course, there are always continuing signs of interest, and hopefully we will have more good news to share with you soon!

Germinal, serie directed by David Hourregue, 2021. SEQ 438 with Louis Peres (Etienne Lantier)