Interview: Novelist Tatiana de Rosnay on the Film Adaptation of Sarah’s Key

The new movie Sarah’s Key, currently playing at the Angelika Film Center, began its life as a best-selling novel by French author Tatiana de Rosnay. The road from writer to screen wasn’t an easy one. It took de Rosnay nearly 10 years to find a publisher for her book, and condensing its interlacing narratives into a 111-minute movie proved complicated. We spoke with the author about her book and the new film.

FrontRow: Let’s start by talking about adaptations. This is the first movie you’ve done. Was there some trepidation in terms of the interpretation? And how involved were you in working through screenplays?

Tatiana De Rosnay: No, all of this has been really an extraordinary adventure for quite different reasons. When the movie deal came in, the producer, Stéphane Marsil, happened to be a friend of my sisters, so I knew who he was. And then Serge Joncour was the guy who wrote the script; I know him very well. So when I finally met Gilles Paquet-Brenner, the young director, I really felt like I was part of a team and that they were not going to butcher my work. And that’s very important because as a writer I’ve heard so many horror stories about really bad adaptations and writers being upset and worried and finally disappointed at what the movie turns out to be. So this is absolutely not the case for me.

FR: That’s always the fear, and especially a story like this, that can be sensationalized in some way or could kind of lose the sense of tone, which is what makes the movie so powerful. In terms of tone and in terms of the overall story what was sort of the essential core for you — what kept it together?

TDR: The two story lines — Sarah’s voice and Julia’s voice — were how I constructed the book. I couldn’t have written this book if I didn’t have those two visions. And when I saw the movie — when I read the script, it’s difficult for us writers to read scripts because it’s so different from what we write, it’s just like sentences. Because you don’t see the actor’s power when you read a script you just really blur.

FR: There’s no texture to it.

TDR: Exactly. So it’s kind of difficult for a writer. But I could tell that the script was jumping backwards and forwards from 1942 to now. And I could tell it was respecting my book perfectly. But it just seemed so dry, and it wasn’t until I saw the movie that I realized to what extend Gilles has respected all of my book, which for me was the voice was going from Julia to Sarah. There is also a key scene in the book where Julia is confronted with her father-in-law, who finally tells the truth about her coming home — that’s really how I fixed those two together like a puzzle. And I was worried about how Gilles was going to do that, but he pulled it off beautifully.

FR: When could you tell that Gilles had managed to figure out how to translate your story for the screen?

TDR: I had to see the movie about four times to kind of understand how he did it because the first time I saw it I cried so much that I just couldn’t see a thing. I just sobbed from the first scene to the last, and then the second time I was still so moved that I really was caught up in it too emotionally. It wasn’t until really the third or fourth time that I could honestly say, “Oh that’s how he did that. I see how he roped that to that.” Gilles is able to pick out these random parts in my book and just like make them into something which is not technically that way in my book but which absolutely works in the movie. He told me, we spent so much time studying how you constructed the book, how you built that story and trying to find out we could pull out one of your threads without something, you know, all the stitches falling apart. And he said to me afterwards I feel like I know your book better than you do [laughs].

FR: The taboo here is that you are talking about the Nazi atrocities in the context of France. Was there any backlash from the French public over your book?

TDR: Of course, this book, what you probably don’t know is it took me at least three years to get it published. Nobody wanted it. I wrote it nearly 10 years ago and it was published in 2007.

Image: Sarah’s Key author Tatiana de Rosnay and Melusine Mayance, who plays Sarah in Gilles Paquet Brenner’s film (courtesy of The Weinstein Company).