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Soviet Literary Adaptation

Soviet administrators in cultural affairs considered entertainment not only as a diversion, but as having a crucial social function: the restoration of the citizenry's energies through a nurturing “rest.” Ideally, entertainment would also improve their moral and intellectual faculties, contributing to its ongoing project of building an enlightened, cultivated society. Cinema was considered a legitimate form of culture in the loftiest, most artistic sense, like opera, ballet, or poetry, even if some of the more “commercial” (kassovoi) films did not live up to this mission. Given the special place of Gold and Silver Age literature in Russian culture, it is not surprising that adaptations were a prominent genre. Such films not only granted the film industry a degree of respectability and the appearance of fulfilling its mission, but, on a practical level, were easier to produce. For each project, filmmakers went through a long and arduous process at Goskino in order to get the film approved for production, one difficult step of which included approval of its script with Glavlit, the literary censorship board. An older literary work likely had been approved in the past already, so directing an adaptation allowed a filmmaker to bypass this process.

Jaroslavl Rzhevsky's organization likewise tried to transmit culture and education through cinema, and while his organization was no proponent of Soviet ideology, they both agreed on the value of classic literature. The collection contains adaptations of Pushkin (Eugene Onegin [Evgenii Onegin], The Stone Guest [Kamennyi Gost], The Captain's Daughter [apitanskaia Doch'], and The Queen of Spades [Pikovaia Dama]), Dostoevsky (The Idiot [Idiot], The Gambler [Igrok], and The Brothers Karamazov [Bratia Karamazovy]), and Chekhov (The Seagull [Chaika]). Among the most famous of literary adaptations is Sergei Bondarchuk's colossal, four-part adaptation of Tolstoy's War and Peace, which was shot with a literal cast of thousands and was the first Soviet film to receive a US Academy Award. The scale of the production was only rivaled by its fastidious attention to being a “faithful” adaptation. Promotions for the film that appeared in Soviet Film—sold abroad, not in the USSR—claimed that the most precise details of sets and costumes had been designed based on the very words in Tolstoy's book. If a dress was a particular color in the text, it would be the same color in the film. Soviet directors also adapted classic works from beyond their borders. Grigori Kozintsev's adaptation of Hamlet (Gamlet), the Russian favorite of Shakespeare's works, starred legendary actor Innokenti Smoktunovsky, and granted a more or less traditional Elsinore with a sleek, modern look through its black and white photography. Scholars of English literature have made special mention of this film as one particularly notable adaptation of the Bard.

While War and Peace strives for an authentic literal-ness, more frequently, censorship agencies and filmmakers' interests left a mark on the original stories as they were translated to the screen. Artistic license was an acceptable basis for change. "Based on elements from" or "Based on motifs from" ("Po motivam") are common words in these credits, as if the viewer was presumed to know the stories well. A good example is Vladimir Naumov and Aleksander Alov's 1971 adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov's 1926 play The Flight, which follows the defeated Whites' escape to Europe at the end of the Russian Revolution. Unsurprisingly, just as in theatrical renditions of the play at this time, Bulgakov's very unflattering portrayals of Red Army soldiers, which balance the vices of the White émigrés, are nowhere to be found. Other aspects, however, are undoubtedly creative decisions by the directors. Distended, dialogue-less, sequences of massive battles and the destruction of the Civil War are interspersed with the scenes that appear in the text of the play, which are for the most part character-centered, dialogue scenes in private settings. Juxtaposed with combat sequences, the focus on the White émigrés' personalities casts a different light on the Soviet victory.


The far extreme of directorial intervention in the literary tradition can be seen in Sing a Song, Poet (Poi Pesnu, Poet), directed by Sergei Urusevsky, most famous for his camerawork on Mikhail Kalatozov's films such as the seminal The Cranes are Flying (Letiat Zhuravli, 1959). Urusevsky imaginatively juxtaposes various poems by Sergei Yesenin with a bio-pic of the author. Verses from a variety of his poems make up the entire voice-over narration that accompanies appropriately poetic imagery. Poems about Yesenin's childhood become opportunities for Urusevky's famously flamboyant camerawork, presenting fragmented images of an outright Edenic Russian countryside. The West appears as a mirrored hellscape. The film is more interested in the poet's subjective experience than the precise details of his life. An unusual film, it is evidence of the range of attitudes towards the literary tradition preserved in the Rzhevsky Collection.