From Novel to Film pt. 32: Black Robe

"No farewells, not in this land, and no greetings, no names.
The forests speak. The dead talk at night.
God bless you both." 

Brian Moore's Black Robe was first published in 1985. Bruce Beresford's film adaptation (as transcribed to the screen by Moore himself) was released in 1991. I saw it a few years after that and enjoyed it, but I hadn't read the novel - nor realized it was based on one truthfully - until last month. 

Before we get to the plot, look at this edition I bought: 

My wife saw me reading it and asked if it was some kind of self-published erotica or something. It reminds me of one of those generic covers to some cash-in Greatest Hits release from a company with temporary custody of some band's catalog. I'd love to know what they were thinking.

Earlier editions look much cooler.

THE PLOT: In 1634 in Quebec, a tribe of Algonquian agree to guide a Jesuit priest (called "Black Robes" by the natives) Father Laforgue and his 20-year-old French assistant Daniel to a Huron village to relieve one of the priests at the remote mission the Jesuits have established there.

As they journey upriver, both Frenchmen wrestle with the sincerity of their faith, especially as contrasted against the Algonquians, whose animistic dream-prophecy and open sexual relations are a constant reminder of how far they are from home and the challenges of their new environment. 

Annuka, the chief's daughter (though their social structure re: "chief" is more complicated), and Daniel fall in love, which causes a rift between himself and the Black Robe. When Chomina (the chief) begins having dreams where he sees the priest entering the empty Huron village, alone, his people argue that it means to abandon the Frenchmen. The sorcerer they've taken on (Mestigoit) also recommends this course of action, and it is agreed. 

Faced with losing his lady, Daniel also abandons Laforgue.

Chomina has a change of heart, and he, Daniel, Annuka, and a few others paddle back downriver to finish escorting Laforgue to the village. They are captured by the Iroquois, who torture them and mortally wound Chomina. 

After making their escape, they stop at a bend in the river that Chomina recognizes from a lifetime of dreams. He never knew what it was, and now the She-Manitou whispers to him from the trees.

"What shit you speak, Black Robe. Look around you. The sun, the forest, the animals. This is all we have. It is because you Normans are deaf and blind that you think this world is a world of darkness and the world of the dead is a world of light. We who can hear the forest and the river's warnings, we who speak with the animals and fish and respect their bones, we know that is not the truth. If you have come here to change us, you are stupid. This world is a cruel place, but it is the sunlight. And I grieve now, for I am leaving it." 

Chomina dies, and Laforgue - in keeping with the dead chief's dream - leaves Annuka and Daniel to enter the village alone. Thus ends book one. Book two details LaForgue's time at the village. Which is an interesting choice as the first book is 85% of the text, and the stuff at the Huron village is barely a few dozen pages. 

LaForgue discovers that fever is decimating the Huron and that in revenge they have killed one of the priests while the other has suffered a stroke and is slowly dying in the chapel.

The Huron agree to take the "water cure" (i.e. baptism) if the priests promise that God will spare them the plague. Some object - if they do this, they will no longer be Huron. This echoes the conversation the Algonquin had earlier in the book and that all cultures / civilizations have been having since time immemorial: once you accept new ways/ tools, you lose the freedom you had of living without them. 

Father Laforgue resigns himself to his duty and agrees that the water cure will save them in exchange for their souls.
The End.

"What interests me most," said Brian Moore, "is the moment in which one's illusions are shattered and one has to live without the faith which originally sustained them." It strikes me that many fiction writers of the mid-to-late-twentieth-century, and perhaps even before that, agree with him. As do I for that matter: it's rich terrain for fiction. Moore brings this to life vividly on both the French and native sides. Laforgue begins the journey with doubts and physical affliction and ends it with doubts removed and health restored, but his faith forever transformed. This is mirrored - and refracted - by the experience of the natives, as well.

Moore used as his research Parkman's The Jesuits in North America, which is about as exhaustive a primary source as you can get. You'll get the best bits of it - and rendered into agreeable modern prose - in Black Robe.

Any of the annotated Journals of Samuel de Champlain also get the Dog Star Further Reading stamp of approval.

Some stylistic choices: the natives speak in a very blunt manner, strewn with profanity and off-color (to the European sensibility of the era) remarks. The fur traders who live among the Algonquin adopt their manner of dress and their frank sexuality, prompting one of the King's guards, who live in Quebec with de Champlain and represent courtly manners, to remark "We're not colonizing the savages. They're colonizing us."

Elsewhere, the natives ignorance of books and reading and clocks is rendered with humor (not at their expense) and sensitivity, such as early on when the Algonquins carefully watch a clock to see if "Captain Clock" is still alive. Once the chime goes off, the silence is broken:

"See? It's just as I fucking well told you - you fucker!"

Moore makes efficient use of symbolism throughout, such as this scene which opens Book 2, describing Father Duval's life as a stroke victim with the Huron.

"The mirror, oval in shape and encased in a wooden frame, had been dropped last year by one of the Savage children whom he had taken as a pupil. Now it was cracked in a spider web of tiny sections, which split and altered his image as he moved in front of it. Reflected, the face which examined him from the web of slivered glass seemed the work of an indifferent caricaturist who had tinted his beard grey, enlarged and discolored his right eye and drawn the left side of his face in a lopsided, lifeless manner, the mouth's corner turned up in a stiff rictus which parodied a grin." 


It's a more or less straight adaptation, only that it softens the sexuality quite a bit - no Mestigoit exposing himself to all the Algonquin girls and making his lewd sorcerer remarks - and excises all the profanity. I was indifferent to the former but somewhat saddened to see the latter. Understandable and all, but I liked the foul-mouthed Algonquin and Iroquois of the novel.

A few changes here and there. Father Duval's stroke is minimized or cut out altogether (I couldn't really tell), as is a rather effective subplot of the novel involving Laforgue's potentially disastrous earache and cough. I'd have thought that would be a good thing to keep.

Filmed entirely in Quebec, the landscape is about what you expect when you think of the far north

i.e. amazing. Oh Canada!
The central theme of the movie is the religious contrast between the priests and the natives. Very sympathetic to both sides and understanding of the human differences between the two groups. Neither were able to truly comprehend the other; how could they? Which is part of if not the distinguishing feature of the rich terrain of Moore's quote back there about what turns him on in fiction.

"She has lost everything because of us. She needs you more than I do. We will do what she asks. What can we say to people who think that dreams are the real world and this one is an illusion? Perhaps they're right."  

"The Black Robes are the worst of sorcerers. They live in a separate habitation, always. When they live among the Huron they will not allow the Huron to sleep in their dwellings. In each of the Black Robe habitations there is a special room. In that room there is a small box placed on a high ledge. Inside the box there are pieces of a corpse which they brought from France. They say this corpse is the body of their god. They have secret ceremonies in which they eat little pieces of this fucking corpse. (And they) do not fuck. They never fuck because it increases their powers as sorcerers."


Lothaire Bluteau as Father LaForgue.
Aden Young as Daniel.
Sandrine Holt as Annuka.
August Schellenburg as Chomina.
Yvan Labelle as Mestigoit.

FINAL VERDICT: Great book, great movie, mostly great adaptation.



  1. I saw the movie years and years ago, and have apparently retained very little of it except that it was quite good.

    Looking at the picture of her here, I was convinced I'd seen Sandrine Holt in other things as well. Sure enough, she's had a very solid career -- most recently, she did a couple of episodes of "Mr. Robot" that I dug.

    As for Lothaire Bluteau, he owns one of the all-time great names.

    It sounds like the novel is terrific. That is -- to say the least -- more than can be said for the cover of the edition you own. I'm sure I've said some version of this next opinion before in this blog's comments, but holy hell are book covers shit these days. I mean, there have always been lazy book covers, but with that particular one, I don't know why anyone would think that design would help to sell even a single copy. POSSIBLY among hatchet enthusiasts...?

    I was intrigued by your description of the breakdown between books 1 and 2. Does the second read like deleted scenes, or does it help put a bow on the whole thing?

    1. I'd say bk 2 puts a nice bow on it all. I read a few interviews with the author which I declined to excerpt here (except for the one spot I did) but he sounds like he was a pretty sharp dude.

      Agreed on Lothaire Bluteau. Mon dieu.

      Thanks for the back-up on the cover. WTF? And I had the same question - exactly who is the target audience of this cover? What demographic are they employing this baffling tactic to ensnare?

  2. Reading this blog puts me in mind of two films, one I haven't seen, but heard of, and the other is one I haven't finished watching yet.

    I haven't seen Scorsese's "Silence" yet, but this review put me in mind of it.

    The other is Terence Malick's "The New World".

    "Black Robe" sounds like it could share a lot in common with both projects.

    At the very least, this sounds like a much better film to treat younger kids to rather than, say, Disney's "Pocahontas".

    As for the title, all it says to me is that the publisher went up to the art department and told them that they only had X amounts of dollars to spend on the cover, so don't bother trying to class things up.

    This could be a recurring trend that's plagued every edition so far. Just a thought.


    1. "The New World" is a beautiful film. I haven't seen "Silence" yet, either.

      Probably right on the cover! I'm sure it's clip art from some underpaid designer's desktop folder. But I do like the look of the older editions.

    2. I know this is off topic, but since part of today's subject is French Canada, now seemed like the best opportunity to pass this along.

      I've stumbled upon what has to be the prize winner for Strangest Saturday Morning show of all time.

      Naturally enough, it was made in France.

      It's known as "Spartakus and the Sun beneath the Sea" in English. However, I prefer its French title, "The Engulfed Worlds".

      If I had to describe it in a phrase, that would be: "Heavy Metal: The Kid's Series".

      Literally, when I first sat down to watch it, I was immediately reminded of the work of Moebius, of all people.

      It didn't stop there, either. In some ways, I wonder if the whole series wasn't concocted by a bunch of Ex-Metal Hurlant alumni, who used the series as an opportunity to showcase all the stories that never made it onto the page.

      That's just a theory, but this series has to be seen to be believed. To give an idea of what's in store, imagine a space monster that amounts to an octopus cross-bred with a WWII army tank.

      Yeah, it's "that" kind of show! They've literally taken the kind of artwork you'd expect to see on the cover a 70s era Prog Rock album, and put it in a kids show.

      ...Gosh I miss those days.

      A good overview can be found here: