Book v Film: Tulip Fever

“The world is chaotic. All artists know this, but they try to make sense of it. Sophia has made sense of it for him. She has stitched it together like the most beautiful cloak. Her love has sewn it together and they can wrap it around themselves and be safe from the world. Nobody can reach them.”

Directed by Justin Chadwick and based on the book by Deborah Moggach, Tulip Fever is set in 1630s Amsterdam ablaze with tulip fever, and follows a wealthy merchant, Cornelis Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz), and his young and beautiful wife, Sophia (Alicia Vikander), the woman he hopes will bring him the joy that not even his considerable fortune can buy, an heir. But so far, Sophia has failed to produce one. In a bid for immortality, he commissions a portrait of them both by the talented young painter Jan van Loos (Dane DeHaan). But as Van Loos begins to capture Sophia’s likeness on canvas, a slow passion begins to burn between the beautiful young wife and the talented artist.


The following post is a review of the film adaptation in comparison to the book. You can read my review of the book on its own here.

Based on a book about betrayal, mistaken identity and tragedy and set in a period of history that is filled with deception and thrills, Tulip Fever had the promise of being a lust-driven thriller set in a shadowy 17th-century Denmark. Sadly, the old-fashioned story doesn’t quite work on screen, with the drama feeling like an out of place soap opera and the passion coming across as slapstick.

My main criticism of this adaptation is that the tone is completely off. The book makes a point of feeling like a 17th-century period drama with one-dimensional characters misbehaving out of boredom, whilst the film attempts to be much cooler, adding too much charisma to its characters and their situations, trying to give the story an edge that it didn’t need adding.

What the film does well is that it puts more of a focus on the setting of the book, explaining the hype of tulip mania by detailing some of the history and highlighting the excitement of the game. But by doing this, it puts aside the more prominent focus of the story which revolves around all of the scheming involved.

Alicia Vikander and Dane DeHaan are two of my favourite young actors and they lead the film well enough, but the film lacks their passion for one another. Not because there’s not enough chemistry between them, but because we don’t see enough of their plans to deceive and betray Cornelis, and of Maria’s part in it all led by her heartache. Without these details, their actions don’t have the right motives, and that’s why it’s so difficult to connect to them.

The film doesn’t completely fail these characters, as it also does well to make them feel more real. In the book, Sophia doesn’t seem to feel much towards Cornelis, but the film shows her instant guilt and tries to add more of an emotional touch to the story. It also shows Cornelis pleading for her life to be spared, showing more of his human side. But it comes too late in the story. We didn’t care in the beginning, so we’re not going to care now that they’ve acted out their selfish plan.

There are so many great actors in this film, and with a supporting cast that includes Christoph Waltz, Holliday Grainger, Jack O’Connell, Tom Hollander, Judi Dench, Zach Galifianakis, Cara Delevingne, and Matthew Morrison, as well small roles for British TV stars Johnny Vegas, David Harewood, and Joanna Scanlan, this film could have been something phenomenal. But I guess that’s the problem with this film adaptation. It’s all there: the talented cast, a best-selling book to adapt the story from, stunning visuals and an appealing setting, and a time in history that we know little about. But when it all comes together, it doesn’t add up to anything.

Just like Jan, he may be able to paint a pretty picture, but he can’t find the words. With some of Maria’s narration taken straight from the book, there are moments of poetic clarity, but the dialogue itself is largely uninspired, failing to connect with the audience and make the drama thrilling enough.

You can buy the book here

Differences From The Book:

Whilst there aren’t many changes that impact the story too drastically, other than what I have discussed above, here is a list of the changes in the film compared to the book in chronological order:

  • The film is narrated by Maria as if she were talking to her future daughter. This narration explains tulip mania to the audience. The book is told through three different narratives, with only Sophia’s being in the first person, and it doesn’t detail any of the setting’s history.
  • The film gives some background into Sophia’s life, seeing her in the orphanage as a nun as she is told that she is being sold to a rich man. It then moves three years forward. In the book, Sophia is already married to Cornelis as she sits eating dinner with him, narrating that she has failed to fall pregnant. Cornelis then comments that he has hired a painter. She only briefly mentions her past in her narration.
  • In the film, Cornelis asks Sophia to “give him a hand” in the bedroom. We later see them have sex whilst she is on top, putting in a lot of effort. In the book, she very much lets Cornelis get on with it and lies with her back turned to him.
  • In the film, Cornelis is seen talking to a man about Sophia, saying that they haven’t conceived for the lack of trying and that he will give her another six months. In the book, we don’t see such a personal side to Cornelis and he makes no such comments. He’s also far kinder about Sophia and doesn’t seem the type of man to think about other women.
  • In the film, Cornelis asks if Maria is in love with the fishmonger as a joke, making it more obvious to the audience as to what’s going on. He doesn’t say this in the book, only commenting that they seem to be eating a lot of fish.
  • In the film, Willem and Maria are a lot more sensual. The tone of the book is very different.
  • In the film, Jan paints a picture of Sophia holding a tulip by the window when Cornelis leaves the room. There is only the portrait of the couple in the book.
  • In the book, Jan asks Cornelis to stop talking because he is painting his mouth, which makes Sophia laugh. No such joke is made in the film, even though it would have suited the tone of the film perfectly.
  • In the book, Sophia and Maria seem a lot younger, often giggling together and talking about Maria’s love for Willem. They don’t appear so close in the film and are both much more mature.
  • In the film, Sophia visits the apothecary to see a doctor about getting help to conceive and he propositions her in the bedroom. In the book, she visits the apothecary in hopes to bump into Jan. It is also Jan who seeks the help of the doctor in the book, and it is not about helping Sophia to get pregnant, therefore making no suggestion about doing the job himself. Instead, they use the doctor in their plan, helping Maria to deliver the baby.
  • In the film, Jan proclaims “God help me, I’m in love”, and runs to Sophia’s house. In the book, he sends his apprentice, Jacob, to deliver a letter to her. Jacob isn’t in the film.
  • In the film, Jan writes a letter to Sophia asking if he can borrow the tulips in an attempt to get her to visit his apartment. In the book, he only writes one letter asking her to come to his apartment.
  • Willem proposed to Maria in the book, whereas he tells her that they are going to get married in the film.
  • In the book, Willem only tells Maria that he has “plans”. It is only mentioned that he has been gambling and one comment is made about some bulbs. We later find out that his gamble has paid off, but the book doesn’t go into detail about what he has been doing. The film puts a better focus on the tulip trade, showing Willem at the auction and highlighting how exciting it all was. It then shows him going to the convent to pick up his bulbs, realising that he has a rare one. In the book, it is Jan who gets the rare bulb.
  • In the film, a body is pulled out of the water, commenting that he committed suicide because of his addiction to tulip gambling. Again, the book doesn’t highlight the hysteria around it all, and no body is pulled from the water.
  • In the film, the prostitute steals Willem’s money in the pub. In the book, they do so in a bedroom upstairs, as she tells Willem that she will have sex with him for free because he is ‘well equipped’, stopping halfway through to go to the toilet, but instead running off with his money.
  • In the film, Willem is forced into the navy by the men that beat him up. In the book, Willem is pushed into the water. The next day, he makes the decision to enlist himself.
  • In the book, Jan and Sophia use a sand timer during their time together to make sure that she gets home in time for Cornelis. In the film, they go by the church bells.
  • In the book, Sophia is almost caught coming out of Jan’s house when she bumps into her lawyer’s wife. This isn’t in the film.
  • In the book, she also bumps into Cornelis and has to pretend that she is visiting the dentist. This isn’t in the film either.
  • In the book, Jan gets his apprentice to paint Cornelis as he focusses on Sophia. He makes his apprentice hide in the kitchen as they continue their affair. Again, Jacob isn’t in the film.
  • In the film, Sophia tells Cornelis that she is pregnant before she tells Maria and Jan about her plan. In the book, Sophia discusses it with Maria and Jan first.
  • In the book, a gypsy woman predicts that Sophia is having a boy. In the film, it is the doctor.
  • In the book, Sophia pretends to go and visit her mother when, in fact, she spends two days with Jan. In the film, it is commented that Sophia’s parents are dead.
  • In the book, there is more mention of Maria’s cravings and superstitions in her pregnancy, wearing a necklace of a walnut shell with a spider’s head inside. This isn’t mentioned in the film, although her morning sickness is shown.
  • In the film, Jan and Sophia are seen on the beach. In the book, they only ever meet at Jan’s apartment.
  • In the film, Jan and Gerrit go to the convent to steal some bulbs but are chased by geese and caught by the nun. She then makes Jan work for her. In the book, they go to a random man’s house to steal the bulbs but they don’t manage to do so, returning the next day to buy some.
  • In the film, Jan is visited by his landlord’s bailiffs, showing his money troubles early on. In the book, Sophia sells her jewellery, they get out loans, and the seller accepts some of Jan’s paintings as payment, so they don’t seem to be in money trouble yet.
  • In the book, we see more of Jan, Sophia, and Maria’s plans and schemes. The film, instead, focusses on the tulip gambling.
  • In the film, the doctor asks Cornelis if Sophia has been feeling ill whilst she is in labour upstairs. In the book, he asks Cornelis after he has announced that Sophia has died.
  • In the film, Gerrit knocks on the door and asks if the labour has started. This isn’t in the book and seems very unnecessary in the film.
  • In the film, Cornelis tells the doctor to let the baby go if he has a choice between whose life to save. This isn’t in the book, but it is a great addition to the film because it shows more of a personal side to Cornelis.
  • In the book, only three people are waiting in Jan’s apartment – Jacob, the doctor, and the landlord. In the film, there is a room full of people that Jan owes money to.
  • In the book, it is Jacob who gets the tickets for Sophia and Jan. In the film, it is a random boy since Jacob isn’t included.
  • In the book, Sophia feels much guiltier about what she has done. She runs away before she finds out that their plan hasn’t worked. In the film, Sophia runs away after Jan comes to tell her that he has failed her. She also seems more intent on committing suicide in the book, whereas she only throws her cloak away in the film.
  • In the book, Gerrit sees a magician abusing a donkey and hits him with a whip. The crowd cheer him on and buy him lots of drink. In the film, he is just persuaded to drink with the crowd.
  • In the book, we see Gerrit eat the onion/bulb. In the film, we do not.
  • In the book, Cornelis answers the door to Willem. In the film, Maria answers the door.
  • In the book, Maria tells Cornelis that she has a wet nurse for the baby. He later walks in on her breastfeeding, which is when he realises that the baby is hers. In the film, he only overhears Maria and Willem talking.
  • There is more talk about religion in the book, as Cornelis begins to lose his faith and then gives up on religion altogether once Sophia dies. This isn’t mentioned in the film.
  • In the book, Cornelis goes to find Jan, only finding Gerrit. Cornelis then finds out where Jacob is and it is Jacob who tells him where they have gone. In the film, Maria tells Cornelis everything.
  • Six years later in the book, Jan sees Sophia as a nun in the street. In the film, the head nun has hired Jan to paint inside the church which is where he sees Sophia.
  • In the book, it is only rumoured of what has happened to Cornelis, whereas we get a glimpse of his new life in the film.
  • In the book, Jacob paints Maria and Willem in their new home with their family. Jacob isn’t in the film so we just get to see their new life for ourselves.

Overall Verdict:

The film adaptation has some great additions in comparison to the film, adding more personal touches to the characters and better explaining tulip mania and the whole phenomena that the book is based around. However, it also fails where the book succeeds best, forgetting about the focus of betrayal and deception with all of Sophia and Maria’s scheming to, instead, put more of a focus on the excitement of the tulip gambling.

Therefore, the book and the film work together well, but alone, neither of them work completely.

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