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Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Immortal Dostoyevski (originally published 10/00)

Few authors have proven as consistently irresistible to filmmakers through the years as Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevski. In view of the fact that the motion picture developed into an art form entirely in the 20th Century, this is perhaps not so hard to understand. Although Dostoyevski wrote in the 19th Century, the tortured and brooding proto-existentialist spoke directly to the soul-deadening malaise that informs so much of 20th Century art. The marriage of such socially precocious fiction with the 20th Century's most visible art form seems only right and proper.

Although Dostoyevski set his stories in his own time, their themes seem so naturally wedded to contemporary times that the temptation for filmmakers who borrow from his works, even now, is to update them, transplanting them across cultural and temporal boundaries. It is a testament to their universality that they often survive such translation with their emotional impact intact. The latest cinematic effort at updating Dostoyevski is the recently released "Crime and Punishment in Suburbia," which loosely reimagines the doomed Raskolnikov as an American teenage girl. For a sampling of how earlier films have transplanted Dostoyevski's works in time and space, look for these titles on home video.

"Hakuchi (The Idiot)" (1951). Master Japanese director Akira Kurosawa was known for his ability to create Japanese versions of foreign literary classics. His adaptations of Shakespearian plays, integrating them gracefully into the social milieu of feudal Japan, are legendary. His first such exercise, however, was this attempt to translate Dostoyevski's "The Idiot" into a Japanese setting. Clearly, he was still figuring out how best to accomplish this dramatic sleight of hand, and the result is therefore imperfect. The film's subsequent reputation as an utter failure, however, is grossly overstated. It may not be the equal of "Throne of Blood (Macbeth)" (1957) or "Ran (King Lear)" (1985), but it is still recognizably Kurosawa. His fascinating attempt to render Dostoyevski's enigmatic, almost Christ-like Prince Myshkin as a Japanese aristocrat reminds us that Kurosawa's "failures" are more worthwhile than most filmmakers' successes.

"White Nights" (1957). Taken from an uncharacteristically sentimental Dostoyevski short story, this film from Italian director Luchino Visconti tells a touching story of a chance meeting between a man and a woman, and the relationship that grows from it. The man falls in love with the woman and entertains the notion that he might win her love, but ultimately he must reconcile himself to the fact that she has already committed herself to another. Visconti transplants the setting from Russia to Italy without missing a beat. If this was an unusual tale to flow from the pen of Dostoyevski, it was an equally unusual choice for Visconti at this point in his career. He was, after all, one of the leading lights of Italy's influential neorealist school of filmmaking. From this point on, however, his films became generally less realistic and more romantic.

"The Gambler" (1974). Screenwriter James Toback and director Karel Reisz loosely adapted Dostoyevski's semi-autobiographical story of a man drowning in his addiction to gambling, setting it in contemporary America. James Caan plays a college professor who can't stay out of trouble with bookies. Ironically, one of the subjects he teaches is Dostoyevski. Toback is taking no chances that we might miss the point.

"Notes From Underground" (1995). Dostoyevski's unnamed "underground man," surely one of world literature's first "anti-heroes," pours his misanthropic musings on the inevitable failure of society into a journal. Screenwriter-director Gary Alan Walkow neatly updates the premise by having his underground man address his jeremiads to a video camera in his basement apartment. The character's capacity for capricious, almost random acts of cruelty fits so well into the 1990s that it is difficult to realize that the original story was written over a hundred years earlier.

I should point out that none of these films is especially accessible to the casual viewer. They aren't your basic popcorn movies. Then again, Dostoyevski's novels aren't exactly light reading themselves. In each case, however, if you're willing to work at it a bit as a reader/viewer, you'll find that you are rewarded out of all proportion to the investment you've made. That's the hallmark of great fiction, as it has been since the time of Homer.

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