Научная статья на тему 'The collective "Idiot": on screen adaptations of Fyodor Dostoyevsky''s novel'

The collective "Idiot": on screen adaptations of Fyodor Dostoyevsky''s novel Текст научной статьи по специальности «Языкознание и литературоведение»

Ключевые слова

Аннотация научной статьи по языкознанию и литературоведению, автор научной работы — Orlova Nadezda

The article systematizes the experience of screen adaptations of F. M. Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot in world cinema. The time period is delimited by the first screen adaptation at the dawn of Russian cinematography (Chardynin, 1910) and by the innovative work of the Estonian director Rainer Sarnet (2011). The overview of the cinematographic destiny of the novel is preceded by a discussion that concerns a kind of dramatic plasticity of the great writer’s works. This creates a steady interest of his work among cinematographers. We talk about some common tags, which in the language of cinema give recognizability and timelessness to one of the subtlest Dostoevsky’s characters. Experiments with the background of different eras and cultural contexts in which the heroes are placed by different directors, allow us to talk about a special collective contribution of the cinematographic art to the decoding of the writer’s philosophy.

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Текст научной работы на тему «The collective "Idiot": on screen adaptations of Fyodor Dostoyevsky''s novel»

The Collective "Idiot": on Screen Adaptations of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel1

Nadezda Kh. Orlova

The article systematizes the experience of screen adaptations of F. M. Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot in world cinema. The time period is delimited by the first screen adaptation at the dawn of Russian cinematography (Chardynin, 1910) and by the innovative work of the Estonian director Rainer Sarnet (2011). The overview of the cinematographic destiny of the novel is preceded by a discussion that concerns a kind of dramatic plasticity of the great writer's works. This creates a steady interest of his work among cinematographers. We talk about some common tags, which in the language of cinema give recognizability and timelessness to one of the subtlest Dostoevsky's characters. Experiments with the background of different eras and cultural contexts in which the heroes are placed by different directors, allow us to talk about a special collective contribution of the cinematographic art to the decoding of the writer's philosophy. Keywords: world cinema, F.M. Dostoyevsky, cinematographic language, literature, screen adaptation, cultural codes.

Коллективный «Идиот»: по экранизациям романа Ф.М. Достоевского

Н.Х. Орлова

В статье систематизированы опыт экранизаций романа Ф. М. Достоевского «Идиот» в мировом кино. Период времени ограничен первой киноверсией в ранней русской кинематографии (Чардынин, 1910) и инновационной работой эстонского режиссера Райнера Sarnet (2011). Обзор кинематографической судьбы романа предваряется размышлениями об особенной драматургической пластичности произведений великого писателя. Это обеспечивает устойчивый интерес к его работам у кинематографистов. Мы говорим о некоторых общих местах, которые на языке кино

1 Русскоязычную версию статьи см. [7].


обеспечивают узнаваемость и вневременность одного из тончайших героев Достоевского. Эксперименты с фоном различных эпох и культурных контекстов, в которые герои помещаются разными режиссерами, позволяют нам говорить о специфическом коллективном вкладе киноискусстве в расшифровке философии писателя.

Ключевые слова: мир кино, Ф.М. Достоевский, кинематографический язык, литература, экранизация, культурные коды.


The so called "trustworthiness phenomenon!' is the quality of cinematographic art that permits a viewer to be deeply and emotionally involved with the story played on the screen. And it is not of principal importance which epoch is chosen as the background to the characters. More important is that the psychological collisions must fit the cultural matrix of the spectator. The relations between the language of literature and the language of cinema achieved a great complexity in the history of cinematography. The weak spots of cinematographic language are most obvious in the attempts to create cinematographic adaptations of classical works from the golden heritage of literature "Literature looks into the endless diversity of human activity: it dreams, contemplates, makes plans, feels the subtle scents of life, crosses the millenniums and immense spaces in the imagination" [6, p.49]. Cinema, to the contrary, helps to involve the spectator into dramatic situations of empathy with literaiy heroes "here and now". At this point the primary aim of a movie director is "to hit' the focal point, where the spectator and the character become practically congruent figures, as far as their inner world is concerned, with fairly similar types of culture codes. At the same time "any creativity is a dialog between an artist and the world' [6, p.21], in which they both belong to the opposite sides if not in a confrontation, then at least of the silver screen. Perhaps, the same metaphor of a dialog could be applied to the cinematographic life of the heroes of the world classic literature. It is well known, that the work of Dostoyevsky is one of the most often adapted by the film industry. Besides the philologists, literary critics, linguists, theologians, philosophers, and psychologists, the cinematographers never leave in peace the Dostoyev-


sky's characters in their attempts to comprehend the depth, flexibility, and modernity of the dramatic scenarios, that are displayed to the reader (spectator) by the will of the writer. The problem of recreating these characters in the screen language combines both the challenge of complexity and the promise of success, guaranteed by the "stylistic genius" of Dostoyevsky, who filled his works not only with the rhythm of events but with the peculiar rhythm of language, that draws us into the drama of characters' tortuous existential searches.

As far as we know, there are fourteen screen adaptations of "The Idiot', including some with other titles, available for general public. It seems to be an old, well memorized stoiy. And still, it remains open to the improvisations and interpretations, and participation in the drama. Once, Vladimir Veidle wrote about this eternal "fascination." for Dostoyevsky's works. "It is not the plot in his novels that attracts the reader: we can learn it by heart but still be fascinated. We open his book at random, read a page or two, and soon we get involved, like into the whirlpool, by this uninterruptible and irrepressible narration. Its rhythm seems to become our own heartbeat, our breathing, the rhythm of our most secret beincf' [10, p. 111].

The fashion of a kind that follows the screen adaptations of Dostoyevsky's novels is supported by the high tension of his dramatic writings. This style, as Dmitiy Merezhkovsky said, cuts short, and makes secondary the narration in the "architecture of the oeuvre as a whole". In this case the function of narration lies in the fact it is "not the text yet but so to say a kind of small print in parentheses, notes to the drama, that explain the place and the time of action, the previous events, the scenery and the look of the characters; these being just the necessary steps in the construction of the stage; only when the characters will come out and speak - only then will the drama begin!' [5, p. 108].

Against the background of this "small print', the dialogues and monologues, where all the characters participate by their heart-rendering words or painful silence, concentrate in themselves the peculiar artistic power of expression. The discourse of Dostoyevsky's characters is absolutely personal. There is no place for any cliché neither in the style nor in the intonations or originality of emotional experience. As Merezhkovsky said, in Dostoyevsky's work "human personality is everywhere, and it is


pushed to its ultimate limits" [5, p. 107]. This opens the great space for cinematographic experiments. Dostoyevsky's heroes by "peculiarities of language, sounds of voice" hint at their inner personalities. Witness to that is the "collective" cinematographic experience of "The Idiot" screen adaptations during more than a hundred years of world cinema's history. Dostoyevsky's novel is not only dramatic, but full of dramaturgy. In his epic creativity he obeys the laws of stage, and provides the necessary plasticity that helps to translate his own works to the language of theater and cinematography.

Long ago, Luigi Chiarini said mercilessly that "the world of cinema - is the most awful blending of wisdom and foolishness, culture and ignorance, honesty and cheating, innocence and cunning, which was ever made by a human society" [2, p.21]. No doubts that the history of cinema reflects this polysemy in the evaluation and interpretation of cinema as a phenomenon of art. It becomes even more complicated when we examine the so called "relationships" between classical literature and cinema. The latter indulges itself in reading and interpreting literary texts quite freely, and often with mixed feelings do we look closely at the screen versions of a literary work. The problem is not only that two extremely complex art forms are using very different languages, both highly expressive and able to capture the attention of a spectator/reader. In this sense the screen adaptation is not merely a translation of a book on film, it is an independent work. More important is that both, the movie and the literary work, are infused with cultural markers of their own time, and each has its own original social, cultural and art history. Let us add that the creative act and the perception of its results also depend on cultural contexts, to which the participants of the cultural exchange belong. In our opinion, a great example here is the history of cinematographic adaptations of The Idiot. Let us survey briefly the experience of these adaptations, that came to the scope of our attention. We permit ourselves to give the result a metaphorical name: The collective "Idiot". Obviously, the detailed critical analysis of each attempt of screen adaptation that would compare it with others and take into account cultural contexts may require a separate article. Conscious of volume limits, we will permit us to use instead some generalizations and references.



The first attempt to create a cinema version of Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot was done in 1910 by Pyotr Chardynin during the early formative years of Russian cinema. Though it was only a short film, it was to some degree a good approximation of the novel because it captured the key dramatic points and themes that keep the spectator's attention in all subsequent versions1. As N. Zorkaya put it, main scenes of the novel, winning moments of action are successfully threaded on the plot string [11, p. 39]. The dominant ones are the plan with the rushing train and the scene where prince Myshkin meets Rogozhin for the first time, the theme with the portrait of Nastasya Philippovna, the scene of money thrown into the fire, Ga'nya's fainting, fixation on Hans Holbein's Dead Christ in the Tomb, Rogozhin and prince Myshkin mourning together the loss of Nasta'sya Phili'ppovna. In the very first experience "there are already the attempts to put the screen picture «on equal footing» with the literary text, to achieve accuracy. <...> Everywhere honest intentions «to learn», «to imitate» the original are present' [11, p.40]. However, it was the time when the idea of cinema as a genre was forming. And those first screen versions presented as "dramas" may now merely draw a smile. Maybe it is the reason why the next avatar of prince Myshkin had appeared in Russian cinema almost fifty years later, as an essay of interpretation of Dostoyevsky's novels by Russian film director Ivan Aleksandrovich Pyryev. Thanks to him, the treasure trove of Russian cinematography has been enriched with such movies as: Idiot / The Idiot (another name: Nastasya Philppovna, 1958), Belye nochi / White Nights (1959), / The Brothers Karamazov (1968). The movie in three-parts Bratya Karamazovy was finished after Pyryev's death by Kirill Lavrov and Mikhail Ulyanov who also played the main characters, he had filmed by himself only the first part of the novel. This is the reason why the movie has another name in some sources2.

lOne can find some of the comments in periodicals ofthat time in the Encyclopedia of Russian cinema [3].

2 In some filmographies you can find the following version of the name: Idiot (1st Episode: Nasta'sya Philippovna, Ivan Pyryev, 1958) [9, p. 428].


According to the historians of cinema, "you can argue about adequacy of Pyryev's treatment and his interpretation of literary sources, and doubt his decisions as a director, but in any case, Ivan Pyryev's late movies are far from «romantic optimism»" [11, p.304], that attracted him in the early period of his work.

Turning back to the history of prince Myshkin's representations in world cinema, we should add that during 1940-1950s film directors from all over the world paid a great attention to Dostoyevsky's writing, including The Idiot. For example, in 1946 in France appeared on screens the full-length movie by Georges Lampin (L'Idiot, 1945). The iconic Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa created his cinema version of the novel, juggling freely with the names, times and places (Hakuchi, 1951). A TV series based on the novel appeared on Italian television thanks to the work of Giacomo Vaccari (L'idiota, 1959). In the third part of this article we shall give some student's accounts of perception of this TV series and their comparison with a series in 10 episodes filmed by Vladimir Bortko, a well-known contemporary Russian film director (Idiot, 2003). It has to be noticed that foreign screen adaptations in serial form keep fairly well the proximity with the content of the novel. The same may be said about the image of prince Myshkin, and other "positive" characters -Alyosha, Zosima, Makar, the incarnations of Dostoyevsky's "infinite love to Christ' [4, p. 151].

Of course, each film director tries to solve in his own way the problem of re-creation on the screen of Myshkin's "Christ-like-person!' created by Dostoyevsky. Let us notice the contribution by British film director Alan Bridges (The Idiot, 1966), the attempt in the style of French romantic drama directed by Andrzej Zulawski (L'Amour Braque. English: Mad love, 1985), an Indian adaptation as TV series directed by Mani Kaul (Idiot, 1991). Let us mention Nastasja, a Polish film presented on 14 of September 1994 in Canada, directed by Andrzej Wajda. It was an experimental adaptation in the style of Japanese Kabuki theatre. There were only two Japanese actors, one of them played the roles of prince Myshkin and Nasta'sya Phili'ppovna, another - the rest of characters. A joint work of Czech and German cinema-tographers directed by Czech film director, Sasa Gedeon, metaphorically named The return of Idiot (Navrat idiota, 1990), by its name suggested to continue the tradition of the novel's screen


adaptations. And so it has been continued. It should be noticed, that the established tradition to experiment with the plasticity of the dramatic content of the novel had set the scope of director's "freedom", from grotesque farce created by Russian director, Roman Kochanov, in Down House (2001), to refined "chain of metaphors" in the work of Estonian film director, Rainer Sarnet (Idioot, 2011).

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This "hot-tempered Estonian!' prince Myshkin with his "peculiar and very human face", who very convincingly combines the "psychological realism and visual symbolism" [1], is certainly a significant event in the history of the novel's adaptations. No doubt, despite an impression of a "stonelike sculptural monu-mentality" that may give Dostoyevsky's works, they are in fact "fluid and changeable, yielding and workable like wax. As though the mind of genius has found the point where all genres meet, and become equal' [8, p.9].


To complete this brief historical outline, let us cite some fragments of student's accounts. The students of Saint-Petersburg State University who attended our special course "Russians in Italy" were asked in the end to compare two cinematographic interpretations of F. M. Dostoevsky's novel "The Idiot': Italian TV series directed by Giacomo Vaccari (6 episodes, 1959 ) and Russian TV series directed by V. Bortko (10 episodes, 2003).

On many points the student's accounts were sufficiently similar. Probably, this fact reflects merely the difference between Russian and Italian culture. We decided to include two full accounts, one that seemed a typical emotional response, whereas the other seemed to be inspired by a more analytical approach.

It is significant that the young audience felt keenly Dostoyevsky's "dramaturgy" and that its language, even if its cinematographic translation is disputable, could ensure the recognizability and a kind of timelessness of these film adaptations. Some of the opinions below may seem too strongly stated, let us treat them with indulgency: I believe that this illustrates the diversity of readings of Dostoyevsky's work in different cultural contexts.


The texts are uncut, except for some minor corrections and disambiguations.


Bortko's screen adaptation transmits exactly the feeling, meaning or design [of the story], as it was thought by Dostoyevsky. In the Italian version of "The Idiot" almost all characters seem to differ from their Russians counterparts. Prince [Italian] Myshkin is more naïve, not so thoughtful and deep as ours. There is much fuss and superfluous movement. All heroes are under some kind of tension, uneasy, as if they found themselves in unfamiliar surroundings.

Watching Russian film version, you don't think how the actors act, as if the whole action is happening right now, in front of your eyes, because Russian actors play very harmonically, one may even think that they simply live [on stage] and there is no roles and no scenery.


It is hard to judge how well the film director Vaccari has managed to transmit "the Russian spirit" of the novel, because this spirit is felt, first of all, through the language of the characters, which is perceived differently in Italian translation. When it comes to the visual components - the characters' likeness and scenery - it cannot be disputed that they are much more authentic in Russian version: the scene is laid in Saint-Petersburg, the atmosphere of this city is inseparable from the spirit and inner life of the novel.

Moreover, it seems to me that the characters in the Russian version are more sharp and lively. For example, Rogozhin. His appearance is quite similar in both movies, but in the Russian version the whole look of this character, his flaming unpredictable temper, fervor, passion that boils deep inside, - all this is more brightly rendered through his obviously messy, "unwashed" look, heavy stare and permanent deep furrow between his eyebrows. From the very first minutes the Italian Rogozhin is somewhat more joyful, less severe, maybe even perfunctory. The Myshkin's role in the Russian film is played magnificently, the appearance and softness of the actor's voice are very well-chosen and reflect the inner pureness and naivety of the character. The Italian


Myshkin is handsome, broad-chested, statuary. The spectator is impressed by forcefulness and physical beauty of the character, not his spiritual force and moral courage, that were the defining feature and main virtue of our Myshkin. And finally, Nasta'sya Philippovna. In the Italian version she even hardly could be called pretty, while in the Russian movie the actress seems to be more beautiful and noble, the selfish tricks of her character do not cause so strong a contempt in the heart of a spectator.

And finally, let us quote the end of a third student's account: "Overall comparison results: both film adaptations are good at representation of characters'tempers. But, of course, the Russian one is closer to me in spirit, there the philosophical problems of the society as a whole are concerned, the main question is asked: "and what happens to our souls?" The play of actors shows well Russian mentality, prince Myshkin represents perfectly the temper of a man not tarnished by mundane problems and rows, he is pure of mind, and faces problems that keep all their actuality in the modern world. "


1. Caraev N. A Hot Estonian "Idiot". Independent Russian Weekly. 2011. № 42 (273). 21-27 okt.

2. Chiarini L. Power of the Cinema / Translation from Italian U. Lisovskogo, I. Petrova. Moscow, Foreign Literature Publishing House. 1955. (Luigi Chiarini, И film, nei problemi dell'arte, Roma, Ateneo [1949]).

3. Encyclopedia of Russian cinema, ed. Lubov Arkus, <http://russiancinema.ru/films/filml3901> (last accessed February 10, 2016).

4. Iustin (Popovich). Philosophy and Religion of F. M. Dostoyev-sky. Minsk,_publisher D.V. Kharchenko. 2007.

5. Merezhkovsky D. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Eternal Companions, Moscow, Publishing House "Republic" 1995.

6. Mitta A. The Cinema Between the Hell and the Paradise. Moscow, Publishing House "Podkova". 2002.

7. Орлова H.X. Коллективный «Идиот»: К вопросу об экранизациях романа Ф.М. Достоевского / / ПРАКСЕМА.



8. Saulskaja Е. The Stone Sculpture of a Soft Vax. Friday-Sunday. 2011. № 201 (1497). 14-16 okt, p. 9.

9. The History of Homeland Cinema. Project coordinator Ludmila Budjak. Moscow, Canon. 2011.

10. Veidle V. Umiranie iskusstva. Moscow, Publishing House "Republic". 2001.

11. Zorkaya N. The illustrated history of soviet cinema. St. Petersburg, Aleteia. 2006.

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