Mind the Gap Between the Screen and the Page Adaptations of Russian Classics

My first steps in creating this film series were hesitant; my main academic interests are strongly anchored in the 19th-century canon, especially those “loose baggy monsters” – to borrow a comment Henry James once made about Tolstoy’s War and Peace– that at first blush would seem impossible to capture on the silver screen.  As I continued putting together the list, however, I was repeatedly struck by how the various directors presented here (Soviet, Russian, Hungarian, French, American, Japanese) went about their Herculean task.

Sergei Bondarchuk’s spectacularly sprawling 1966 rendition of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for example, spared no expense in its quest to visually recreate the novel’s Napoleonic battlefields, even going so far as to mobilize the Soviet army for some of the battle sequences.  Akira Kurosawa, in his 1951 translation of Dostoevsky’s masterpiece The Idiot, speaks to the universality of Dostoevsky’s characters, whose passions and desperation burn just as brightly in post-War Japan as they did in 19th-century Imperial Russia.  Nikita Mikhalkov’s An Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano (1977), inspired in part by Chekhov’s relatively unknown play Platonov,  gets “even closer to Chekhov than Chekhov” himself, according to a New York Times review.

Each of these films, in addition to capturing a certain spirit of the work or its author, presents a multitude of readings of the source text by the directors, actors, and numerous other individuals who make a film possible.  For those who admire the source texts – those who are able to discern divergences from their beloved plots and characters – the demand that the cinematographic transpositions remain faithful to the original narratives is a constant temptation.  However, it is worth remembering that strict fidelity to an original literary text is not the only virtue one can bestow on a literary adaptation. Cinematographic adaptations of literature provide an interpretation, a way of reading the literary work that helps us gain a new perspective on these beloved classics. It is, perhaps, better to view these exceptional films as an opportunity to reflect on our own assumptions as readers, and to remain aware of the endless possibilities these texts present.

- Victoria Juharyan