Five French miniseries you didn’t know you needed.

I am so ready for Downton Abbey to be over.

Obviously, I have stuck with it to the end, as I like completion, can’t get enough period drama in my life, and love everything that comes out of Maggie Smith’s mouth. But it has just been too much, too drama-filled, too much like a soap opera instead of a stoic British miniseries. I’ve expressed my distaste for Lady Mary before, but if Edith and Anna don’t get happy endings on Sunday, than so help  me. I will break something.

I’ve decided that the real problem is that Downton Abbey was never a book, never underwent the grueling process of authorship and publication. Thus, it just evolved at the whims of production staff and writers, giving the public what it wanted: DRAMA. And good dinner parties.

Of course, in its absence, we now have a period-drama-miniseries void to fill, and fill it we must. I’ve decided that we need to head back to the books for this, and why not mix it up? It seems like the Brits and Russians have those miniseries deals locked down, but I’m worried that we will eventually run out of Austen or Tolstoy or Gaskell.  Why not head across the pond and start plowing through the bounty of French novels just dying to be made into miniseries? Drama? They have it. Intrigue and romance? Obviously. Tragic death? Yep.

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Please do, Lady Mary.

And so, today I am putting my [in process] PhD to possibly its best use ever and giving you 5 French  novels that should be made into PBS miniseries.

The Princess of Clèves, Madame de La Fayette, 1678:  Impossibly beautiful and innocent girl shows up at the dangerous and intriguing French court where everyone is in awe of her beauty. She marries a prince and her mother dies, and there is SCANDAL EVERYWHERE because ain’t no party like a French court party because at a French court party, everyone is maybe trying to have everyone else killed/exiled/married off. But oh no- she falls in love with the Duke de Nemours who is basically the hottest thing ever. Instead of giving into passion, she stifles it, confesses it to her husband, watches him die consumed in grief, and then enters a convent. Meanwhile, lots of other intrigues swirl about. For fans of those amazing miniseries that end sadly and rip out your heart, à la Daniel Deronda or He Knew he Was Right.

Letters from a Peruvian Woman, Madame de Graffigny, 1747. Zilia is a beautiful Peruvian princess who is rescued/ kidnapped (maybe ambiguous) and taken back to France. There she continues to pine for her estranged Peruvian prince (who was taken to Spain), all the while offering smarting commentary on French society. The man who rescued (abducted?) her proves kind and handsome and totally in love with her, so much so, that he reunites her with her prince who – spoiler! – turns out to be a total tool (Spanish influence and all). So she gets really sad and kind of Stockholm syndromy and whatnot and kind of falls for her French guy… but the novel ends in suspense. For fans of all those miniseries where people fall in love with people against their will, which is all of them.

Manon Lescaut, Abbé Prevost, 1731. A good young man is pursuing good and noble things when BAM: he falls in love with a prostitute. (You knew it was coming-right? If there isn’t a wayward woman, it isn’t really a French novel.) What follows is obviously a lot of pain and drama, as prostitutes do not typically make for great girlfriends. They break in and out of prison, run to and from nefarious types, have to flee to the New World where unfortunately there are more nefarious types, so they finally have to wander off into the wild… and one of them dies. But don’t take my word for it- go read it to find out which one. Or just guess- probably not hard. For fans of sweeping epics and tragedy. Or Pretty Woman.

The Red and the Black, Stendhal, 1830. Little peasant Julien Sorel decides to make something of himself, so he rises up through the ranks of society by being good looking, seductive, and being able to memorize insane chunks of text quickly. Hey, everyone has a skill. He falls for all sorts of women, notably the innocent and maternal Madame de Rênal, but finally has a tumultuous affair with Parisian it-girl Mathilde de la Mole. Madame de Rênal hears about it, tells Mathilde’s father (OH NO SHE DIDN’T), and Julien obviously has to dash back to the village to shoot her, while she’s praying at church. But don’t worry! She doesn’t die yet. She first reconciles with Julien, who is executed. Then she dies. For fans of War and Peace minus winter.

Indiana, George Sand, 1832. This is probably my single favorite French book in terms of just “fun to read.” Indiana is the beautiful and naive wife of a mean and boorish colonel, with her only friends being her dog Ophelia (and we all know how THAT ends), her servant (for whom it ends about as badly as the dog), and her cousin Ralph, who is also kind of like her brother/father figure, and would obviously be played by Benedict Cumberbatch.  She is seduced by the rakish and eloquent Raymon while Ralph just glowers in the background and the Colonel goes around yelling at people and being mean to animals. Luckily, he dies, but to Indiana’s dismay, Raymon went and married someone else so, luckily, Ralph is all “let’s go back to the island where we were children and throw ourselves off a waterfall.” But right before jumping, he turns to Indiana and spends 30 pages telling her how he has always loved her… so instead of suicide they just get married. For fans of North and South or Wives and Daughters, or other miniseries where people pine a lot and then finally get together.

Basically, French novels are an untapped miniseries market. One with lots of death and scandal and doomed love… but untapped all the same.  I wish I could just get paid to sit in a room, read good novels, and make people listen to me prattle on about the plots.

OH WAIT. That’s kind of what I’m doing in grad school-minus the fat salary that I like to imagine belongs to those with the title of “period drama miniseries idea finder.”

But until PBS gives me my dream job- what’s your favorite miniseries and/or book taht should become one?

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12 Responses to Five French miniseries you didn’t know you needed.

  1. Anna Kate says:

    I love Downton Abbey shamelessly. And even though Lady Mary is one of the worst characters ever (how awful can she be?!), I will always love her. I have a weird loyalty obsession. It’s still odd to say I love Downton though because literally a month ago I hadn’t seen any of it. Then, I crammed 5 1/2 seasons in a couple weeks, and then caught up with real time. It was only just this fall that I realized why SO MANY PEOPLE were pronouncing the word “downtown” like freaks. (Hint: it’s because the word is not “downtown,” ahaha.) I understand your desire for the end though. I honestly don’t think I could have handled the drama at such a slow pace. The only way I could get through it was being able to watch it all back to back. (And even then I nearly didn’t continue after season 3 – you know what I mean.) I have absolutely loved it, but it’s good to get back, you know, my life, and stuff. I actually watched the last episode on DVD this week so I’m finished. Happy finale watching!

  2. I HATE Downton (after the first two seasons, that is. I liked those). So soapy! So absurd! So many unnecessary secrets that result in unnecessary disaster!

    …I just read Station Eleven and it was pretty great. Last year I discovered a shocking penchant for post-apocalyptic novels.

    • Hannah says:

      Wasn’t it SO GOOD? I love me some post-apocalyptic anything. Other than Mad max, which was truly terrible, and I have NO CLUE why it won so many stinking Oscars.

  3. laxgirl9110 says:

    I’m soooooo excited to add these novels to my never ending reading list!!! And I’ll await the day they become mini-series; then I’ll comment on your future post on how they compared to the book haha.

    • Hannah says:

      I hope it happens!!!! And that you can find these all in English and read them! Start with Indiana- it’s probably the best for a fun read.

  4. Sandra Jean says:

    I skipped over the line where you said that these were miniseries that you WANTED to see made, and got really, super excited in thinking that they were already in existence. But since I can’t add them to my Netflix queue, I’ll have to add Indiana to my reading list 🙂

  5. Nikki Ringenberg says:

    I love this list and I love your comments about each of them even more, and even more than I love Downtown Abbey (Lady Mary is real at least)!

    • Hannah says:

      She is… but how much everyone puts up with her isn’t! But I have to admit, I was very satisfied that everyone got dolled out some happy endings there in the finally. : )

  6. Michelle Livingston-Dickson says:

    Well, it appears French literature has a strong tradition of perpetuating the whore/Madonna dichotomy. Other than that, what an untapped resource of period drama ready for TV! This blog post made me laugh so hard. Please keep us current with your dissertation, especially if it is translated for miniseries 😂

    • Hannah says:

      Ah yes, women are usually saints or femmes fatales! To be fair, these books are actually far more nuanced than my glossings made them out to be, tackling a lot of really important (and often feminist/post-colonial/socio-critical) issues. But I’m pretty sure that TV would erase those, so I went ahead and did so too.

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