None in Russian

Dostoevsky has not been particularly well-served on big screen, despite the dramatic and sometimes melodramatic nature of his stories and novels . Well-known adaptations are few and far between. A snapshot of shows that by votes the top five Dostoevsky films are: Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), based on Crime and Punishment; a certain Saawariya (2007), a Bollywood musical based on White Night; Visconti’s Le notti bianche (1957), again based on White Night; Kurosawa’s The Idiot (1951), and finally Richard Brooks’ The Brothers Karamazov (1958).

Conspicuously, all five films were made outside Russia in five different foreign languages: French, Hindi, Italian, Japanese and English. Except for the Brooks’ film, all of them transplanted the stories from Russia to their respective lands. Excluding the Bollywood musical, all other four adaptations were made in the 1950s by major directors of the time.

It’s likely that the absence of Russian adaptations is partially due to’s Western-centric world view: some good old Soviet films are simply not documented. Leaving this issue aside, among the five adaptations by well-known filmmakers, I suspect there is only one true masterpiece: Bresson’s Pickpocket.

Bresson’s film is at the same time most un-Dostoevskian and the most Dostoevskian. Un-Dostoevskian, because of its ultimate simplicity in style and because of its silence. Dostevsky’s chaotic ramblings and psychological imbalance are replaced by a very French sense of serene classicism that climaxes in the passionate finale. The film is first of all French and Bresson, then it’s Dostoevsky. But its Dostoevskian nature is not to be underestimated: the painful converge of the high and the low, the traumatic existence of poor gentry in inner cities, an upward society that is looking confusedly for a dignified way to express herself in the most sincere way … all those Dostoevskian elements find their perfect expression in this Bresson film. Is the film really as quiet as it looks? No! Look and listen– behind all those shadows, gestures, serious looks and bright eyes, there are waves of passionate yearnings.

Admittedly, among other three adaptations, I have only watched the Visconti version of White Night. As with most of his other films, this is a disaster. Visconti is probably one of the most overrated filmmakers. The only spontaneous work he made is his early comedy, Bellissima. The rest can be used to define the word “cheesiness”.

I skipped a recent local screening of Kurosawa’s Idiot for two reasons. First of all, I’m currently reading the book (Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation). Secondly, I think all Kurosawa’s non-Samurai films (Ikiru, High and Low, Dersu, Uzala, etc.) are overrated bland fares, although whenever they are screened, here in Toronto the audience would give a round of warm applause – it seems there is still market for grandstanding. Kurosawa is good at “big talks”. Dostoevsky’s strength, however, lies in his “small talks”.

I’m an admirer of Richard Brooks’ Elmer Gantry and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But those two films are quintessentially American. How is his Dostoevsky adaptation? I could not tell at the moment.

All those films appeared in the 1950s. At this point, Cinema, being a young art, reaches modernity. Can Dostoevsky survive on the new screen? It’s still too early to tell.