Saturday, April 20, 2013

Film Adaptations of Classic Russian Novels

  There has been a long history of adapting classic Russian novels to film in the English speaking world.  These classic novels by authors like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pasternak, and others allow an English speaking audience to enter into a world with which they are completely unfamiliar and see that the issues which these people face are dealt with all over the world. 

   In this article I will look at the 1935 American film adaptation of “Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the 1956 film “War and Peace”, “Brothers Karamazov” (1958), the 1965 film “Doctor Zhivago”, and the 2002 BBC adaptation of “Crime and Punishment”.  I will examine several films and television series about classic Russian novels in order to see how faithful they are to the novels themselves and how well they correspond with one another. 

  Joseph von Sternberg (1894-1969) directed “Crime and Punishment”1, a 1935 film based upon the novel of the same name by Fyodor Dostoevsky. This film starred Peter Lorre in the title role as Rodin Raskolnikov (his first name was changed to Roderick for an American audience).  This film bore little, if any resemblance, to the novel.  In fact, the director was so disappointed with this film that he does not list it among the films he is credited with directing.         

    What was America’s fascination with classic Russian literature that in a span of two years, from 1956 to 1958, both War and Peace by Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) and “Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoevsky (1821-1881) were made into films?  The American people would have known very little about Russia in 1956.  Both countries were in the middle of the Cold War and there was a great deal of propaganda on both sides regarding how horrible the other country was.

    The 1956 film “War and Peace”2 starred Henry Fonda as Pierre Bezuhov and Audrey Hepburn as Natasha Rostova (the two main characters).  This film does not cover every aspect of Tolstoy’s original novel, but focuses on the relationship of three of the main characters.  Very early in the film there is a scene where Pierre is getting drunk with a group of friends.  This scene contains every almost every possible Russian stereotype, except for a dancing bear.  At one point in the scene one of the characters is standing backward on the window ledge and facing inside the room.  He begins to bend over backward while drinking a bottle of vodka.  Apparently, the winner was the person who could finish drinking the vodka without falling out of the window.  Other than feeding into a Russian stereotype, what was the point of this “game”?  This scene is not in the novel; however, the director, King Vidor (1894-1982) felt it necessary to put it in the movie.

    The costumes are wonderful.  In typical Hollywood style of the time, the film makes everything appear almost larger than life by virtue of the camera angles.  This film has a wonderful cast of actors, but financially it was unsuccessful.  It earned only $250,000 for the studio. A large part of the reason might have been that this was an epic film about a Russian novel.  Americans did not normally watch epic films, particularly those about Russian novels.

     It is not that Americans were opposed to epic films.  In the same year that “War and Peace” was completed, Cecil B. DeMille completed “The Ten Commandments” for a different studio.  “The Ten Commandments” is also an epic film, but the story of Moses would have been much better known by an American audience. 
     Two years after the completion of “War and Peace”, Richard Brooks (1912-1992) directed “Brothers Karamazov”3.  This movie is based upon a novel of the same name by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  The novel tells the story of three brothers (Dmitry, Alexei, and Ivan) and their relationship with each other and their father, Fyodor.  It is also a “murder mystery” since Fyodor is killed and the reader must determine who committed the murder.

     Fyodor Karamazov (played by Lee J. Cobb) is not a very likeable figure.  In the one of the first scenes in the film, the audience is introduced to Fyodor Karamazov after he has tied a woman to his bed and is interrupted because his son, Alexei (film debut for William Shatner) has arrived at his home.  Fyodor is a rather boorish man who seems to respect Alexei only. 
      In the novel, Dmitry Karamazov sees himself as being a rather foolish person and his actions reflect his belief about himself.  In the movie, Dmitry (played by Yul Brenner) comes across as a rather self-confident, if not arrogant, person.  He constantly borrows money from his father and this has become a source of tension between the two of them since Dmitry never paid back what he borrowed. 

     Another character is Smerdyakov, half-brother to the Karamazov brothers and son of Fyodor.  Smerdyakov is treated very poorly by Fyodor Karamazov in the film.  Dmitry is accused of murdering Fyodor; however, Smerdyakov confesses to Ivan Karamazov (played by Richard Basehart) that he killed Fyodor. Dmitry is put on trial for murder, but, instead of Smerdyakov confessing in court that he killed Fyodor, he kills himself. 
     In both the novel and film, Dmitry is convicted of murdering his father.  However, in the novel he accepts his fate and considers himself to be a martyr for love.  After being convicted of murder, Dmitry is sent to prison in Siberia and the woman he loved went to be with him in Siberia.

     The film shows Dmitry deciding to escape rather than board a train bound for Siberia.  He became a fugitive and the rest of the film deals with the topic: “Will Dmitry escape from Russia?”  What was the reason why Richard Brooks decided to add this into the film when it was not in the novel?  We do not know.  It is possible he did so because of the lack of justice in Dmitry’s conviction.  He was wrongfully convicted and should be able to escape rather than going to prison.  The movie ends without the audience knowing if he ever escaped from Russia. 
    It is also interesting that Yul Brenner is the only person in this film who had any connection to Russia.  He was born in Russia, but lived most of his life in either the US or Western Europe. 

    Another Western adaptation of a classic Russian novel was the 1965 film “Doctor Zhivago”4 starring Omar Sharif as Yuri Zhivago.  This film was based upon the novel of the same name by well-known poet, Boris Pasternak (1890-1960)5.  This novel was first published in Milan in 1957. Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 for Doctor Zhivago, but was forbidden to attend the award ceremony by the Soviet government of Nikita Khrushchev. 

    This film continues to be extremely popular.  Like “War and Peace” this was an epic film, but it was much more acceptable to an American audience.  Perhaps it was simply the period of history when this film was made or the strong love story plot of the film, but it earned over $100,000,000 for its studio.  In the US, the success of a film is based largely upon the amount of money that the film earned rather than the depth of the subject matter. 

     Pasternak depicts Lara as an almost unscrupulous woman who uses her sexuality to obtain what she wants from life, but in the film David Lean (1908-1991), the director, presents Lara (portrayed by Julie Christie) as more of a victim.  In the 2006 Russian TV series “Doctor Zhivago”, Lara is not a very likeable character.   
     Since this film was released in 1965 and the US was still involved in the Cold War with the USSR, David Lean did not spend as much time focusing on the events of the Russian revolution as Pasternak did.   The love story between Yuri and Lara is what made this film successful along with the beauty of the Russian scenery which an American audience would never have seen in person.

      A very good English speaking adaptation of a classic Russian novel was the 2002 TV mini-series “Crime and Punishment” produced by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). This series was extremely faithful to the novel.  The BBC felt no obligation to change the story line in order to adapt this novel to television.  This is much easier to do with a mini-series since it continues over several episodes instead of a film which only lasts for a few hours, at most. 
    Since I wrote about the various adaptations of Anna Karenina by Lev Tolstoy (1828-1910) in another article6, I have decided to forego writing about it here.  One important fact to remember is that no other novel has had more film adaptations made about it than Anna Karenina. 

    Attempting to turn a novel into a film while, at the same time, remaining faithful to the original novel is not an easy process; however, this is very important. Poetic license does allow for some changes, but how many changes can be made before a movie is no longer connected with a particular novel?  I once heard it said, “Never judge a book by its movie”7 and there is a great deal of truth in that statement.
                                                          End Notes

1)    “Crime and Punishment: (1935 American Film)” 

2)    War and Peace (1956 film)

3)    “The Brothers Karamazov (1958 film)”

4)    “Doctor Zhivago (film)”

5)    “Boris Pasternak”

6)    “Anna Karenina: A Cinematic Journey on the Silver Screen from 1927 to 2012”  





Anonymous said...

The window scene is absolutely in War and Peace. The director didn't invent it.

Robert S. Grosse said...

Thank you. I did not recall seeing this is the novel.