By reputation, Russian literary works are giants – War and Peace and Crime and Punishment are possibly the first to spring to mind among these classics, and their troubling psychological themes, large cast of characters, and voluminous page counts cement the genre’s reputation as dark, dangerous, and depressing. The ambition needed to tackle such monumental works, far from warning off filmmakers, has beckoned to those from around the world – Wikipedia’s noticeably incomplete list of Russian literature adaptations currently stands at 87.
Another addition arrives in cinemas this week with William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth, an Anglicised adaptation of Nikolai Lestov’s 1865 Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The trailer promises blood and brutality at the hands of its anti-heroine and gorgeous scenery from its new 19th-century English setting. Despite its title the story bears no relation to Shakespeare, but Oldroyd is far from the first director to adapt Lestov’s shocking novel. Two films, a ballet, and Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera – famously banned in the Soviet Union for 30 years – precede this version. While Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District may not have found the international recognition that Anna Karenina has, it shows that Russian literary works and their corresponding film adaptations are broad, varied, and not always represented by the thousand-page tome.
In preparation for Lady Macbeth, here is a sprinkling of good – or at least entertaining – adaptations from the past 55 years, sorted into some rather broad audience preferences. Provided you enjoy Sad Russians, there will be something of interest here.
If you like Sad Russians, weekend film binges, and/or seeing where the Soviet government’s money went during the 1960s:
War and Peace (USSR, 1966/67), directed by Sergei Bondarchuk
The epitome of Russian literature-based cinematic adaptations is possibly Bondarchuk’s 1966-1967 War and Peace, a 445-minute monster that took six years to finish with the help of Soviet government funding. This film may be the definition of an epic: many battles were shot on location at the original battlefields, 12,000 extras from the Soviet army stood in for soldiers, and a wooden replica of 1812 Moscow was built and burned down entirely when Napoleon sacks the city. Unfortunately, the film on which War and Peace was shot was not great, and even with some restoration its stunning scenery looks rather fuzzy on Blu-ray.
Aside from the budget running out (requiring the aforementioned government money), the production was fraught with struggles. Bondarchuk lost both his lead actors early in the filming process, requiring his third choice, Vyacheslav Tikhonov, to play Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Bondarchuk himself to step into the role of Pierre. Then there’s the small matter of the two heart attacks he suffered during the course of the shoot – the second inspiring a famous death scene late in the film. In the end, these woes paid off – War and Peace won the 1968 Oscar for Best Foreign Film and stands as one of the most accurate portrayals of Tolstoy’s political explorations on screen.
Interestingly, Bondarchuk not only paid homage to Tolstoy but to King Vidor’s 1956 adaptation of War and Peace. This version only ran to four hours and lost much of the novel’s introspection and social commentary in its vapid sentimentality. Vidor, however, brought possibly the most iconic and faithful portrayal of Natasha Rostova to the screen when he cast Audrey Hepburn in the role. In response, Bondarchuk purposefully cast newcomer Ludmila Savelyeva, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Hepburn, as his Natasha. Fortunately, Savelyeva is more than up to the challenge, even if Bondarchuk favours the “war” side of the story over Natasha’s “peace” plotlines.
It may be telling that there have been no film adaptations of War and Peace since Bondarchuk’s tremendous effort, though the BBC have adapted it twice (in 1974 and 2016) as largely faithful, well-acted, and critically-acclaimed television series. Combined with the lacklustre 2007 miniseries and the even more disappointing 1956 Hollywood version, War and Peace ends up being one of the most frequently adapted works of Russian literature – rather surprising, considering its paperback form resembles a foreboding brick. Even if it looks its age, Bondarchuk’s version is still the gold standard for its unmatched epic realism.
If you like Sad Russians, metatheatrical nonsense, and/or excellent acting:
Anna Karenina (UK, 2012), directed by Joe Wright
Tolstoy’s other massive masterpiece was reimagined by Wright and award-winning playwright Tom Stoppard in 2012. Running at only two hours and nine minutes, it’s a strong example of how to condense an 800-page novel into a compelling, well-balanced drama. It loses some content from the book’s last half, making Anna’s descent into despair feel a bit rushed, but the plot and character groundwork it lays during the book’s first half is incredibly strong, making the last half feel an appropriate conclusion.
The uniqueness, joy, and downfall of this adaptation is its literal depiction of 19th-century St Petersburg society as a “stage” on which its members’ lives unfold for others’ enjoyment and judgement. This choice injects some metatheatrical creativity into otherwise standard ballroom scenes and racetrack scandals, heightening the significance of Anna and Vronsky’s choices. However, this artistic license is a bit of a cop-out, as the audience’s focus switches to the spectacle and away from the characters’ inner turmoil.
The entire star-studded cast are ridiculously well-suited for their roles, often down to the physical details – most notably Jude Law as Alexei Karenin – and the costume design and cinematography are gorgeous. While it may not be a groundbreaking piece of adaptive art, Anna Karenina is a highly enjoyable film.
If you like Sad Russians and/or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil:
The Double (UK, 2013), directed by Richard Ayoade
Dostoyevsky’s blend of honesty, paranoia, and pure madness suits transposition across settings and time periods extraordinarily well. Comedian and director Richard Ayoade takes a tale of psychological torture and bureaucratic nightmare to 1970s America, the age of early computer programming and escapist sci-fi television. It may be far from 1840s Russia and feature some notable plot changes, but the psychologically unsettling atmosphere is rendered impeccably and the creative liberties allow for exploration and exploitation of the themes through a more familiar mindset. Perhaps we can expect a similar move from Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth?
This is the loosest adaptation on this list, but it is possibly the most successful because it honours and heightens the atmosphere and dark humour of Dostoyevsky’s classic through a jarring score, stunning cinematic imagery, and a mercurial central performance from Jesse Eisenberg. Ayoade proves a genius with timing – comic and otherwise – and never allows the tension to waver, only breaking the nightmarish atmosphere with incongruously matter-of-fact dialogue. Another possible factor in this successful adaptation is the short length of the source novel, which creates the perfect framework for a 90-minute thriller. Perhaps future directors should give War and Peace a rest and turn instead towards other short (dark, twisted) classics of the Russian canon, such as The Nose or Notes from Underground.
If you like Sad Russians, period dramas, and/or family passion projects:
Onegin (UK, 1999), directed by Martha Fiennes
Onegin is ambitious on a different level to the aforementioned adaptations. Fiennes sticks to the historical setting and Russian location, and her storytelling is true to Eugene Onegin, Alexander Pushkin’s only novel. While neither epic in scale nor psychologically taxing, this “novel in verse” still proves an ambitious adaptation to tackle. It’s written in sonnets, with a thin plot and no naturalistic dialogue, a handicap which shows in a few passages, where it is clear the translated poetry has been ripped apart and put back together in semi-prosaic form. But even if one or two more script revisions would have improved the piece, it is an unexpectedly enjoyable tragicomic romance about horrible people.
Fiennes (and her children, producer/star Ralph and composer Magnus) assembles a strong British cast to bring the story to life, most of whom are well-cast if underused. The clunky translation sticks mostly to the film’s first third, but Ralph Fiennes’ pitch perfect performance carries the action until it finds its feet. The sparkle of Pushkin’s iambic tetrameter, of course, cannot be portrayed visually, but in its place Fiennes utilises moody cinematography, unsettling music, and strong ensemble performances to heighten the tragedy wrought by thoughtless actions. The effect may be different from the novel’s, but it is arguably more suited to the medium. For instance, it is bitterly hilarious when the book’s rakish narrator laughs as Onegin (accidentally?) kills his best friend, yet heartrending as the audience sees these events unfold onscreen. Switching these atmospheres would lessen the impact and consequent greatness of each work.
If you just want some romance (and Sad Russians):
Doctor Zhivago (US, 1965), directed by David Lean
A perennial classic of Christmas television, Hollywood’s sumptuous adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s epic novel is a feast for eyes and emotions. While the book and film (much like the operatic adaptation of Lady Macbeth) were banned in the Soviet Union, the heartfelt, albeit doomed, romance between Zhivago and Lara could not be more different from Oldroyd’s and Lestov’s promise of revenge and betrayal. This is prime comfort watching, wonderfully acted and beautifully shot.
The main critique of this adaptation is that it trivialises, perhaps even romanticises, the personal and political turmoil brought about by the Revolution – something the novel does not shy away from. However, perhaps this lack of introspection is why Doctor Zhivago is one of the most commercially successful adaptations for US and UK audiences; while it is far from a perfect adaptation in terms of its faithfulness to the source material and socio-cultural themes represented therein, it tells a gorgeous, appropriately tragic love story against a beautiful wintry setting.