The Belgian literary scene is rich in history and diversity, making it an ideal source of inspiration for the country’s directors to tap into. From classic Hugo Claus to the adventures of young Blinker and his dog, here are nine films that were adapted from popular Belgium books.
With his adaptation of Dimitri Verhulst’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, Felix Van Groeningen (of The Broken Circle Breakdown fame) hit that rare bullseye of both commercial success and critical acclaim. Thirteen-year old Gunther is raised by what you could describe as a brotherhood of white trash. His alcoholic father and his three brothers – all still living with their mother – may have some impressive facial hair going on, none of them is exactly a role model for the boy who dreams of being a writer. The tragicomedy would go on to become the biggest Flemish movie of the year, in no small part because of its memorable naked rendition of an alcoholic Tour de France (the steeper the imaginary mountain, the higher the alcohol percentage).
Although it took almost twenty years for Jef Geeraert’s bestselling thriller to get adapted to the screen, Erik Van Looy’s (Loft) stylish film version proved right for its time. The enormous commercial success of the director’s American approach – think Memento by Christopher Nolan – proved to be the push Belgium needed to finally start exploring the previously uncharted territory of the crime drama. Van Looy carefully and deliberately sustains the suspense by having the story largely unfold through the eyes of quite the unreliable narrator: a hitman suffering from Alzheimer’s (masterfully portrayed by pater familias of the Flemish actor’s scene Jan Decleir).
Arguably Belgium’s most revered contemporary writer, Hugo Claus showed a proclivity for turning his literary and theatrical work into films as well. The prolific artist never received the same accolades for his directorial attempts, yet managed to garner some success and an invitation to the Un Certain Regard competition of Cannes with The Sacrament. Based on his novel Omtrent Deedee (Concerning Deedee), a jovial family reunion goes awry when the reproaches start flying after the consumption of too much alcohol.
Another writer turned director, Nic Balthazar chose to transport his successful Niets was alles wat hij zei (Nothing was all he said) about a bullied autistic boy to the screen. A tearjerker if there ever was one, we see the world mostly through Ben’s eyes and it’s not a pleasant place. In one traumatic scene, the teenager with Asperger’s – played with vacant eyes by an outstanding Greg Timmermans – is forced by his teacher to get up on his desk while his classmates snap pictures on their phones. Ben deals by escaping into an online fantasy game, where his character Ben X can be a hero instead of a social pariah.
A beloved figure of Flemish literature and cinema, De Witte (meaning the blond boy) was first brought to life by youth author Ernest Claes. In the rural town of Zichem, birthplace of Claes, the young rascal gets up to all kinds of mischief. A real crowd favorite, the adaptation by director Jan Verheyden was one of the first films in Belgium to include sound and became immensely popular. Influenced by de Witte’s shenanigans, many films in the decades to come would feature jocular humor in the countryside.
Ask any nineties kid from Flanders and they’ll happily remember reading and/or seeing the Blinker books or films. Written by popular children’s author Marc de Bel, the adventures of young inventor Blinker and his faithful dog Sadee were adapted by Filip van Neyghem. Even if you didn’t know Blinker before, a sense of instant nostalgia accompanies these typical family films. Flemish people will get a kick out of recognizing current television sweetheart Nathalie Meskens in a supporting role as Blinker’s older sister Ellen.
The Belgian Amelie has fallen in love with Japan, but it’s an affair of the unrequited kind. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Amélie Nothomb, Fear and Trembling by Alain Corneau tells the story of a 20-year old girl infatuated by a culture that will always see her as an outsider. When she manages to get a translating job at a corporation in Tokyo she vows to become “a real Japanese”, only to be demoted over and over again as she keeps failing to understand the complicated Japanese customs. After somehow serving coffee wrong to a couple of businessmen, she’s told by her boss to forget she knows the language at all and eventually ends up scrubbing toilets.
For André Delvaux, one of the founders of Belgian cinema, his country’s literary world formed a pool of inspiration. One night … a train was his second adaptation of a Johan Daisne novel. This time he went with De trein der traagheid or The train of slowness (truly a title lost in translation), although it seems to have been influenced at least as much by Antonioni’s L’Avventura. The European auteurian atmosphere is alive and well in the mysterious story of Flemish linguist Mathias, whose French girlfriend is suddenly missing when he wakes up from a nap on a train.
Fifteen-year old Deborah is sick of everyday life in her bleak apartment in the Antwerp neighborhood Linkeroever, scraping together pennies to buy clothes in cheap stores and praying her friends won’t notice. An older girl, Jennifer, shows her an easy way to make a lot of money: the escorting business. Dirk Bracke, popular youth author, doesn’t shy away from harsh descriptions in Het engelenhuis (The Angel House), and director Hans Herbots decides to go with the same approach in his adaptation. The explicit sex scenes with then 16-year old actress Ella-June Henrard were the subject of some debate.