For those who live in Quebec, it is almost impossible to have never heard of Un homme et son péché (Les Belles Histoires des pays d’en haut). This novel of Claude-Henri Grignon has been depicted in a thousand ways: first broadcast as a radio novella for more than 20 years, then adapted as a soap opera in the 50s and 60s, and also presented several times on the big screen, on stage, and even in comic books. Half a century later, the reruns of this cult series continue to attract impressive ratings. The love triangle between the greedy Seraphin Poudrier, the beautiful Donalda Laloge and the enticing Alexis Labranche has been watched again and again. And still there is room for a new take on this ancestral story.
Shopkeeper Lacour (Pierre Mailloux) and Ovide Ruisselet (Michel Charrette). Photo by Bertrand Calmeau.
For Dominique Simard, Managing Director and Chief Financial Officer at Encore, it all started five years ago when she joined this production team: "When I started here, president and CEO François Rozon told me that Les Belles histoires des pays d'en haut was his guilty pleasure. He was passionate about the land and the history of the province of Quebec, and he had a dream; to redo this series in the most realistic way possible, showing how people truly used to live in 1880, in the Laurentians."
The author of the current series, Gilles Desjardins, had to do immense research to clean it of its previous influences. Because politics and priesthood were very important in the 1950s, and Claude-Henri Grignon was a man of his day, the soap opera had to first and foremost convey certain values, without necessarily being accurate of the 19th century’s reality. According to Gilles Desjardins, the original drama presented models of society following an ideal that corresponded to the religious ideas and political influences of the 1950s and not to the real lives of our ancestors.
For that reason, in the original version, Donalda was always kind, well put together, with a perfect hairdo: "She had been wrought by priests and politicians to depict the type of women we wanted to have in Quebec: devoted, lovable, who does not speak. But the truth is that in 1880, women had to be strong to live here, otherwise they did not survive. They managed the money, took care of the children, of the fields, of the livestock, of the house, everything! They were courageous and strong women!" says Dominique. In a way, Gilles Desjardins not only brought back the original idea behind the story of Claude-Henri Grignon but also rehabilitated a part of the history of women in Quebec.
A whole team had to gather around this project so that the series could come to life:
"At first, we contacted Pierre Grignon, nephew of Claude-Henri Grignon, because he holds the rights of the story. He did not oppose our idea of making a more realistic version of Les Pays d’en haut. On the contrary, he was merely happy that we, too, wanted to revive this story."
Father Antoine Labelle (Antoine Bertrand) and a number of the series’ characters. Photo by Bertrand Calmeau.
The producers, François Rozon of Encore Television and Sophie Deschênes of Sovimage, presented the idea to CBC in the same way: "It did not take very long before they accepted our concept of an up-to-date, hyperrealist version. It was a risky bet, but they knew there was a solid team to back it up, including the amazing author Gilles Desjardins and the talented director Sylvain Archambault. Everyone has their place and their specific strengths, so all the pieces of the puzzle got together wonderfully well, very quickly. And we won the bet, with 1.6 million viewers and many awards.”
And yet there were great challenges to overcome. As Dominique explains: "To tell the truth, we were scared to death of doing this project! However, we could not do anything, but to put all our passion, our energy and our heart into it. It had to work." Just like our ancestors, the production team was confronted with the whims of nature, even in the middle of summer: "For the first season, the film crew shot from May to July 2015 and it rained almost every day of the shooting. The members of the team literally sank into the mud! As the series was filmed partly in the forest, they were covered with black flies! It was complicated from a technical point of view, but ultimately, it helped to create realism: the clothes of the characters were dirty, for real!"
Director Sylvain Archambault. Photo by Bertrand Calmeau.
Beyond the weather, creating the atmosphere of the 1880s was the remarkable work of artistic direction: "It was also necessary to recreate a complete location where we did not see any electric wire, with houses of this specific time. Every accessory, suit, color, was precisely from that time. For example, each item in the general store is authentic. It could be a museum! Nothing was left to chance because we had the concern to recreate something real, in full. The craftsmen did an extraordinary job!"
And the results are the envy of international producers: "When I show parts of the series to foreigners, they see the fantastic work that can be done in Quebec with very small budgets. The quality of the product, the visual aspects, the beauty of the images; it all impresses them." Indeed a large distribution of Les Pays d'en haut is already intended on TV5 Monde, in addition to a possible international deal via France Télévision Distribution.
Dominique Simard, Managing Director and CFO at Encore. Photo by Bertrand Calmeau.
For Dominique Simard and her team, the desire to expose our past as it was, even if they had to alter what many consider a monument of Quebec television, was stronger than anything: "To be told a story, our story, in a difficult region, within our climate - it’s exciting. Stories of perseverance, hope and love beyond the challenges and the cold are always fascinating because, in the end, it’s the story of our grandparents who fought to survive. It's in us. So it touches us in every way. I am proud that we were able to show to a new generation what life was like in Quebec at the time, without romanticising, in a totally real and genuine way. And the nice surprise is that History teachers talk about the series to their students. It’s a sign that they believe that it is faithful to the reality and that it can be a positive contribution to our culture."