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The 5 best Fyodor Dostoyevsky book to film adaptations

@TomTaylorFO

“The real 19th-century prophet was Dostoyevsky, not Karl Marx.” – Albert Camus.

In Mikhail Bulgakov’s utterly masterful novel The Master and Margarita, he pays homage to another Russian literary great with the following passage: “’You’re not Dostoyevsky,’ said the citizeness, who was getting muddled by Koroviev. ‘Well who knows, who knows,’ he replied. ‘Dostoyevsky’s dead,’ said the citizeness, but somehow not very confidently. ‘I protest!’ Behemoth exclaimed hotly. ‘Dostoyevsky is immortal!’”

It is undoubtedly true that Dostoyevsky lives on, a whiff of him emanates from almost every page of literature following his passing. As such he has escaped the pages of history, influencing things as wide-ranging as Iggy Pop’s album The Idiot and even Steve Martin’s magnificent comedy The Jerk. With his poignant viewpoint that “the mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for,” he strikes upon something primordial with poetry that proceeding generations have tried to grasp as they cut through the postmodernist murk of a convoluted society. 

His influence on cinema has not only been second hand in this philosophical sense, as many of his works have been directly transposed to the big screen with varying degrees of fidelity. Below we have collated five of the best, from the slightly whimsical The Double to darkly layered The Idiot.

The 5 best Fyodor Dostoyevsky movie adaptations:

The Idiot (dir. Akira Kurosawa)

Although the hot Russian summer might be traded for a snowy post-War Japan in a culture clash with the society, season and zeitgeist of the novel, it is a mark of the transcendent nature of his work that the message and prose shine through into Kurosawa’s bottomless work. Brooding, uncompromising but oddly touching, the film crams a sense of the man into the film and not just his literary work. 

Kurosawa’s original mammoth four-and-a-half-hour cut was slashed by the studio down to 166 minutes in a move that he deemed “ruinous” of his career. In a strange sense, this almost mirrors the difficulties that Dostoyevsky faced when it came to his work; gladly, neither suffered in an artistic sense as a result. 

The Double (dir. Richard Ayoade)

It is a mark of the influence of his work that the notion of a nefarious doppelgänger is now so ubiquitous we probably all have a lingering sense that we came up with the idea independently ourselves. However, back when it was written in 1846, this was the sort of Promethean thinking that landed the author in hot water. 

The comedic stylings of Richard Ayoade might not leap to mind when you think about when you think of the tortured minds that pervade Dostoyevsky’s novels, however, forever in the welter of Russian literature is the subversive force of twisted dark humour and he exploits this factor to a fantastic degree as Jesse Eisenberg’s life is thrust into turmoil in such a way that makes tragedy seem like a vital eviscerate of the malaise of the everyday. 

A Gentle Creature (Une Femme Douce) (dir. Robert Bresson)

Jean Luc-Goddard once said: “Robert Bresson is French cinema, as Dostoyevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is the German music.” Therefore, you might wonder whether never the twain shall meet. Fortunately, when they did, they met like a hand a glove and Bresson added New Wave stylings to the mix of Dostoyevsky’s take on materialism in an age when it was all the more vital. 

The beautiful Dominique Sanda stars as the alluring face of innocence as we view her harrowing life in reverse in a minimalist expose of the society of the time, which alarmingly doesn’t seem all that different from a century-old novel. This stark message meets with the dazzle of Bresson to create a glowing naturalist feature.

White Nights (Le Notti Bianche) (dir. Luchino Visconti)

White Nights provides perhaps the best entry point to his literary works, and you could also choose a lot worse first chapters when it comes to cinematic adaptations as Visconti pits idealism and reality in a musing as to whether we really are governed by circumstance. The battle proves entertaining on a surface level but also succeeds in ensuring that you will be thinking about the film long after the curtain has fallen. 

Praised by the likes of Martin Scorsese, there is obviously a lot of skill at play in the production, but this is tempered by the same central tenet that soars throughout Dostoyevsky’s work — the simple cathartic joy of creativity. With this in mind, the film escapes getting bogged down in the dower side of things that sadly a lot of adaptations succumb to. 

Taxi Driver (dir. Martin Scorsese)

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Whilst most certainly not a direct adaptation, it is a measure of how much culture that the late Russian writer permeated that his works have gone beyond being transposed and spawned their own darkened oeuvre instead. In Notes From the Underground, an isolated and paranoid protagonist finds himself in a deepening pit of despair where moments of diegesis begin to pass him by as serenely as the linear unfurling of his life before he even tried to stop the slide, compounding a message that his misery was somewhat inherent. 

Paul Schrader was feeling similar when he penned the grisly screenplay for Taxi Driver and he drew inspiration from his timeless Russian counterpart. In both the movie and book, the protagonist mirrors the decrepitude around them. As Schrader once stated: “I know when I got this idea, I knew there were two books I wanted to reread. I had recently read Notes from the Underground, so I reread [it]. These characters were his parents and his grandparents, and not so much characters from American movies, but really characters from literature.”