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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
2) “War and Peace (1956 film)” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_and_Peace_(1956_film)