Adapting Chekhovian Mood

By Smorodinskaya, Tatiana | Post Script, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Adapting Chekhovian Mood


Smorodinskaya, Tatiana, Post Script


It has become a cliche in Chekhov scholarship that Chekhov is hard to adapt to the screen. His prose is too structured and precise, his plays too symbolic, elusive and uneventful. Most film adaptations of Chekhov in Russia have been reproached for their lack of fidelity to the original and for their failure to capture the Chekhovian mood. Recently, fidelity's status as the primary criterion for judging film adaptations has been challenged. But in Russia, which traditionally likes to portray itself as the "most reading nation," and in which literature has always held the highest rank in the hierarchy of arts, fidelity to literary source has always been the main focus of criticism. As well-known Russian film scholar M. Turovskaya wrote, in Russia, "traditionally film is judged according to the degree of its correspondence to the original ... the second traditional criterion is the expert evaluation of literary scholars, who define whether this is 'Gogol' or 'not Gogol' (Chekhov, Tolstoi, Dostoyevsky, etc.)" (Turovskaya ob ekranizatsii 27) (1). But what if there was no original text? What if there were an original play but only parts of it were used in a screenplay? Suppose that there were also motifs and quotations from various other works, that all dialogues consisted of phrases written by the author of the original, though gathered from a variety of different texts, including letters and notebooks, but together never comprised any complete piece? Yet, the spirit of the authors' original works is faithfully preserved.

Nikita Mikhalkov's film Unfinished Play for Mechanical Piano (or An Unfinished Piece for a Piano Player) was produced at Mosfilm Studio in 1977, and gained recognition not only in the Soviet Union, but also abroad. It won a Golden Seashell award at the San Sebastian International Film Festival in 1977, and a Golden Plaque at the International Film Festival in Chicago in 1978. (2) The film is set in a picturesque Russian countryside at the end of the 19th century and depicts one day in the life of a local gentleman visiting the estate of a general's widow, Anna. It has a subheading "based on Chekhov's works" or, to give a more accurate translation, "based on motifs from Chekhov's works." Unfinished Play for Mechanical Piano was the first film adaptation in the Soviet Union that dared not to follow Chekhov's text(s) word for word. However, even the most uncompromising defenders of Chekhov's legacy did not remonstrate against such a "barbaric" handling of the classical author. The unanimous perception of this film by viewers and critics was very favorable to say the least, despite a general suspicion of adaptation. In fact the film was considered to be indisputably "Chekhovian" in mood, tone and style. In an interview, director of the film Nikita Mikhalkov admitted: "In general I think that one should retain only the reigning spirit of the literary source, the sole and inimitable world created by the author" (Mikhalkov 98). It was a revolutionary attempt by Mikhalkov and his team to create their own personal interpretation of Chekhov's world rather than a screen version of a particular text. In this article I will discuss the innovative approach to cinematic adaptation of Chekhov taken by the filmmakers who explicitly set out to respect the spirit of their literary source and achieved true fidelity

to the Chekhovian mood while adapting a non-existing original text.

Besides the artistic challenges of adapting a literary work to the screen, Soviet filmmakers had to face serious ideological constraints. In the Soviet Union, classical literature could be part of intellectual or artistic discourse as long as it served communist ideological purposes. Life before the Bolshevik revolution in Russia should be portrayed as gloomy, hopeless, and unbearable. Thus, only those works of pre-revolutionary Russian writers that had the potential to be read as satirical representations of upper class decadence or as naturalistic depictions of the sufferings of the poor were welcomed for publication, stage, screen and school programs. …

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