Claude-Henri Grignon published his tale of rural mores in 1933, little imagining that his work would achieve such phenomenal success and that his main character’s name, Séraphin, would become synonymous with a despicable miser in the Québec vernacular.
Meant as a satirical tract on money, Un homme et son péché was written in under three months and first published by Éditions du Totem. The plot of the book, closer to a novella than a novel in terms of its literary form, is much sparer than its many adaptations suggest, and Grignon was constantly changing or embellishing it for the purposes of various radio, film and television productions.
With 30 reprints, this well-known novel has stood the test of time, propelled by various qualities that set it apart from the literary styles of the period, including an unrefined, primitive and blunt tone. An unmarketed collector’s edition, made to look old with a yellowed cover and old-fashioned typography, was also printed to mark its 75th anniversary in 2008.
Un homme et son péché tells a simple story, which probably explains its success. Set in the late 19th century, when the Laurentian Highlands were first being colonized, it focuses on the life of Séraphin Poudrier, a miser who uses his position as mayor and especially his wealth to exert control over the people in his village. Séraphin Poudrier has left an indelible mark on the Québécois imagination, and the daily lives of Grignon’s characters provide insight into the history of the men and women who settled the region. Curé Antoine Labelle’s appearance in the novel, and his subsequent appearance in a number of scenes in the television serial, is also the reason people today are aware of the pivotal role he played in the colonization of northwestern Montréal and the development of agriculture, mining, manufacturing and trade in the area.
Claude-Henri Grignon adapted his novel for radio in 1939. The first few instalments of the radio serial were enough to win over listeners, who quickly became attached to its cast of characters, especially Donalda (played by Estelle Maufette), the wife of Séraphin (Hector Charland). The show aired on Radio-Canada from 1939 to 1962 (see French-Language Radio Drama).
The first film version of Un homme et son péché was adapted from the novel in 1949. It was produced by Paul L’Anglais and directed by Paul Gury, with Hector Charland reprising his role as Séraphin, Nicole Germain playing Donalda and Guy Provost appearing as her lover Alexis. The film screened in five cities when it was released and raked in $162,000 (a fortune for the period) in just three weeks.
A second feature film, Séraphin, also directed by Paul Gury and produced by Paul L’Anglais, was released just eight months later. Going beyond the original storyline, this film depicted Séraphin’s punishment against the backdrop of the colonization of the day, the first film having glossed over this aspect of the story. This second film was also a hit in theatres and was distributed in New England cities with large French-speaking populations (see Franco-Americans).
Working with illustrator Albert Chartier, Grignon adapted his novel into a comic strip that appeared in Le Bulletin des Agriculteurs in monthly instalments from 1951 to 1970. In 2010, publishing house Éditions Les 400 coups collected and reprinted all 228 pages of comics featuring the novel’s characters in a volume titled Séraphin illustré.
On 8 October 1956, a serial drama based on the famous novel premiered on Radio-Canada television. Les Belles Histoires des pays d’en haut aired weekly from 1956 to 1970, with Jean-Pierre Masson playing the notorious miser and Andrée Champagne the gentle Donalda for the duration of the series.
A third feature film, Un homme et son péché, based yet again on Grignon’s story and ably directed by Charles Binamé, was released on 29 November 2002. This time, the role of Séraphin went to Pierre Lebeau, with Karine Vanasse as Donalda and Roy Dupuis as a very convincing Alexis. Although the story was already well known, Binamé’s new adaptation was the highest grossing in Québec.
In 2016, Ici Radio-Canada Télé began airing a series called Les Pays d’en haut that revisits Grignon’s work without any political or religious censorship. The historical drama, set in Sainte-Adèle in 1880, features Vincent Leclerc (Séraphin), Maxime Le Flaguais (Alexis), Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse (Donalda) and Antoine Bertrand (Curé Labelle). Writer Gilles Desjardins and director Sylvain Archambault strove to make the series as historically faithful as possible, creating a realistic depiction of the challenges settlers faced during what is now known as the conquest of northern Québec.
Honours and Awards
Grignon’s novel was awarded the prestigious Prix David in 1935. The first feature film based on the book received an Honourable Mention at the inaugural Canadian Film Awards in 1949 and screened at the Venice Film Festival. More recently, Binamé’s film collected a slew of honours. It picked up the Billet d'or (Golden Ticket) as well as the awards for Best Artistic Direction, Best Director of Photography and Best Sound at the 2003 Jutra Awards, where Best Actor went to Pierre Lebeau and Best Actress to Karine Vanasse, with Michel Cusson taking home the award for Best Original Score. At the Genie Awards, Un homme et son péché won the Golden Reel Award as the film with the highest Canadian box-office gross.
Un homme et son péché has captivated generations of Quebecers with much more than its odious main character, Séraphin. Grignon was able to depict a defining period in Québec’s history, one marked by hardship and especially by the courage of the men and women who went north in search of a better life. For this reason, the novelremains one of the most popular among mainstream audiences in Québec and consistently generates interest 80 years after it was first published.