Great Russian Literature and Its Film Adaptations
The largest country in the world, Russia, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, still preserves its cultural peculiarities and vast artistic tradition. Just as enormous as its territory, the scope of Russian art is ambitious, especially in terms of their literary works. Epic tales of love, revenge, and revolution. Intricately complex stories that expand for hundreds of pages, with numerous characters, and thought-provoking moral dilemmas that still ring true today. It is no surprise that to attempt to adapt some of these works to the cinematic world seems like an extravagant feat. Novels from the likes of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, or Pasternak, which pack such intense drama only possible thanks to the mixture of the nations tsarist past and the timeless plots they depict. Here is a look at some Russian literary and historical pieces that have been brought to the screen.
The latest adaptation of this classic story seems to be a reinvention of the novel to avoid the excessive grandeur in terms of locations and scale. Directed by Joe Wright, the film tells the story of the tormented aristocrat as she sees herself involved in a love triangle, and an infidelity scandal in the highest levels of Russian social ladder of the time. The twist is that most of the epic action takes place in a theater, perhaps more intimate but surely much more economical. In this 2012 version the lead role is played by period-piece-costume-drama-novel-adaptation-darling Kiera Knightley, who is more than familiar with this sort of roles, so far she has received praise for her performance in this very elegant and fashion-friendly vision of Tolstoy’s novel. The story; however, has been adapted numerous times. In 1997 Bernard Rose directed his version with Sophie Marceau as Anna, and James Fox, Alfred Molina, and Sean Bean in the supporting roles, shot entirely on location the film was rapidly forgotten. Among the many takes on this forbidden love chronicle, the most beloved one is the classic 1935 film directed by David O. Selznick with Greta Garbo as Anna Karenina herself, ambitious for its time but setting the bar high for Mr. Wright and company.
When it comes to exuberant and expensive movie-making in the history of Hollywood, a film like Doctor Zhivago must be given some credit. Based upon the novel by Boris Pasternak, this tale about the quest for love against the background of imperialist Russia and war, is still an epic visual testimony of beautifully done big budget adaptations. Released in 1965 and directed by David Lean, it is still one of the highest grossing films ever in the US, probably because the audiences at the time knew something this big did not happen often. The film is the most praised screen version of the story, starring Omar Sharif as the Doctor himself, and Julie Christie as his love interest Lara Antipova, it’s a must-see for any serious movie lover. Winning 5 Academy Awards the film solidified its place as a classic. Given the fact that the original manuscript of the novel had to be smuggled out of communist Russia, it is very fortunate that the story prevailed giving Pasternak the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Probably the greatest identity mystery of all time is the story of the Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna. She was the daughter of the last ruler of imperial Russia, Nicholas II, and although historians assure that she died by the hands of the Bolshevik police, the unknown location of her grave gave in to the speculation of a possible escape. Her story was first put on screen in 1956; Ingrid Bergman plays the duplicitous Anna who lives in Paris and its lured by a group of Russians to admit that she is indeed the lost Duchess. In 1997 Fox Animation Studious launched with the released of its animated musical film Anastasia. It tells the story of Anya (voiced by Meg Ryan) an “orphan” who carries a big secret about her past. Helped by a working class young man, Dimitri (John Cusack) who at first only wants the reward the tsar offers for her return, Anya, knowing she is really Anastasia must return home. Vivid and musically marvelous, the film received praised for its imagery and score, which earned it two Oscar nominations.
War And Peace
Another one of Leo Tolstoy’s literary masterpieces, War And Peace is astonishing and massive in terms of battle scenes and its historical scope. The novel exposes in detail the Russian experience during the French invasion by Napoleon’s army, again from the point of view of the well-off families of tsarist Russia. Even though there have been several cinematic interpretations of the story, the one that got it right was directed by Sergei Bondarchuk. He made a series of films that divide the story into four parts, epic and magnificent in all regards, from the numerous extras for the battle scenes to the costumes, and the luscious interiors. The most expensive film ever made in the Soviet Union, when shown together as a singular film it ran for 405 minutes in its original cut. For American audiences the film was shorten to 373 min, still something devastatingly long. It when on to become the first ever Soviet/Russian film to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and the longest one ever to receive it as well.
Catherine II of Russia
One of the most important rulers in Russian history, this 18th century widow became the successor of her husband Peter III. She is renowned for giving imperial Russia its glory back, and for being aggressive in expanding the borders of her territory. Seems like such a great story would be ideal for an amazing period piece film. However, to date no big screen adaption has been made, although there are two smaller cinematic tributes. In 1991 Michael Anderson directed a TV miniseries named Young Catherine, Julia Ormond plays her highness here, and Vanessa Redgrave is the antagonistic Empress Elizabeth. A few years later in 1995 anther Catherine would play the role; Miss Zeta Jones embodied the ruler in the TV movie Catherine The Great. Omar Sharif returns decades later to a drama based on Russian history to play Alexis Razumovsky, husband to Catherine’s rival Empress Elizabeth. This is another proof that testifies to the great importance of female characters both in Russian literature and history.
Crime And Punishment
From the mind of Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, this classic masterpiece is paved with philosophical questions about one’s morality and our interpretations of what is right or wrong. In the novel a sort of Robin-Hood-like character decides that to commit murder in order to help the masses is permissible, and justified; such statement obviously creates many diverse reactions and efficiently makes us reflect on our own ethical values. The novel has been adapted as a period piece a few times since 1923 by German director Robert Wiene, but probably the story is more notable for being adapted to modern times, or from influencing stories in different ways. The acclaimed Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki debuted with his feature Crime And Punishment in 1983, which takes the original ideas from Dostoevsky and places them in 80’s Finland. Other filmmakers of our time like Woody Allen and Gus van Sant have taken the story and reinvented it in films like Match Point and Paranoid Park respectively. The existential enigmas that the novel explores are so humanly basic that surely there will be more stories derived or inspired by Dostoevsky vision.
The fascinating Russian past is a great source for interesting, and emotionally charged epic stories. Female characters and the Imperial years take the center stage when speaking of their literature. In the midst of their infatuation with “Russian dolls” and epic quests, there are some very relatable stories even when they involve thousands of extras in battle, and highly expensive costume design, such adornments give these type of films their charm.
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