Friday, July 16, 2010

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (Book and Movie)

Book: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind

Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
Publishing Date: January 26th 2001 (first published 1985)
Paperback: 272 pages

Movie: Directed by Tom Tykwer

Starring: Ben Whishaw, Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman, and Rachel Hurd-Wood
Theatrical Release: January 5, 2007

Summary: (from Goodreads)
In the slums of eighteenth-century France, the infant Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born with one sublime gift-an absolute sense of smell. As a boy, he lives to decipher the odors of Paris, and apprentices himself to a prominent perfumer who teaches him the ancient art of mixing precious oils and herbs. But Grenouille's genius is such that he is not satisfied to stop there, and he becomes obsessed with capturing the smells of objects such as brass doorknobs and fresh-cut wood. Then one day he catches a hint of a scent that will drive him on an ever-more-terrifying quest to create the "ultimate perfume"-the scent of a beautiful young virgin. Told with dazzling narrative brilliance, Perfume is a hauntingly powerful tale of murder and sensual depravity.

Broken down into its most basic parts, this book is about a man, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, with an extraordinary sense of smell. When Grenouille smells the most intoxicating smell he's ever smelt, that of a young woman, he knows that he only has one purpose in life - to figure out how to capture the smells of the world. But there is another thing about Grenouille that is peculiar. While he can smell even the most minuscule of smells around him, he has no scent himself. That's right; Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is odorless. And if our smell is the soul of our being, then what does that say about Grenouille's soul?

Upfront I want to say that the greatest thing about this book is Süskind's writing. The way he tells the story and the mood of the overall book is very good. I have never read another book that has so beautifully paid attention to smell. Süskind has this way of making you both fascinated and revolted by his protagonist. At no point in the book did I ever genuinely like Grenouille and yet I continued reading. I've probably said it before, but I love it when authors don't set out for you to like their characters. Stories tend to feel more natural and less forced that way.

And ultimately, that is why I think the movie was a total flop.

While the book had this almost haunting quality about it, the movie was much more expected. The real gem of this book isn't the story. It isn't the characters or the overall idea. It's the writing. For large sections of the book there isn't even any dialogue. All of the characters around Grenouille are flat and lifeless for a specific purpose. This is the story of a murderer. Not a sympathetic man who makes mistakes or the beautiful women he hunts. We are supposed to be revolted by Grenouille and the movie didn't capture that.

Now I don't want to be too hard on the movie. Just imagining the process of turning this story into a film gives me a headache. The book has a nasty habit of rambling on for much longer then it needs to and some parts of the book are almost unbearably long (like the whole cave part). I think Ben Whishaw was a great choice for Grenouille and the way the film was shot was very beautiful. Rachel Hurd-Wood was also quite lovely, but the film focused too much on her I think. Film adaptations will always be a bit different from the book, but to make a good adaptation I think the essence of the story is really what's important to maintain. And unfortunately this movie didn't do that.

Süskind's writing has the texture of a story being told out loud and the decision not to fully narrate the movie was a bad one. Even reading a few parts of the book verbatim would have helped immensely. Instead the narration was used only two or three times in a haphazardly sort of way. The movie also glossed over the importance of Grenouille not having a scent. The idea that Grenouille was basically invisible and was able to manipulate people by creating different scents was one of the more important aspects of the book. Not only does it show Grenouille's self righteous contempt for everyone else, but it also explains why he went about making his perfume from young girls in the first place. (To be loved of course.)


Book - 6. Good, but might not be for everyone
Movie - I don't really rate movies but I wouldn't really recommend watching this film. The trailer looks awesome, but the movie is pretty boring.


  1. I haven't read the book, but I did see some of the film... I found it unsettling to say the least, especially the first scene or so when he smells the maggots inside a rat and later on when he is undressing and smelling the girl that he murdered :/

    I hear there's an orgy at the end lol, I clearly missed out!

  2. haha the orgy was the best part!

    And the maggots were especially gross. In the book there are a few mentions of smelling genitals so at least we were spared that in the movie.

  3. LOOOOL! That's jokes. Yeah, glad they missed that out :P
    I am quite intrigued by your review though, so I may give the book a go. The film is a definite no for me tho, lol.