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8 most interesting film adaptations of Russian literature

Paul Dano, Lily James posing for the camera

Russian literature plays an important role in the country’s cultural heritage. It usually goes with the epithet “the great one”. Foreign directors admire the mysterious Russian soul and sometimes even try to transfer Russian classics to their own reality. Some film adaptations are really worth watching. 

We at ExploRussia adore Russian literature, so we made a list of the most interesting adaptations of Russian literature by foreign directors.

Paul Dano, Lily James, James Norton posing for the camera

1. War and Peace, 2016, Tom Harper

War and Peace by Tom Harper could be called one of the biggest premieres of recent years on BBC. Mini-series was partially filmed in St Petersburg, in palace interiors. The scale impresses. 

Any attempt to film the four-volume by Tolstoy seems to be an unrealistic target. Tom Harper also loses a lot of details, compressing the narrative into six episodes. But what is remarkable about the new version of the story of Pierre Bezukhov and Natasha Rostova is that from the first episode you feel a breath of fresh air. 

There is a lot of confusion in War and Peace, filmed on BBC, but the series was made with great respect to the original source and now, perhaps, it can be called the best adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel.

Jon Hamm, Daniel Radcliffe are posing for a picture

2. “A  Young Doctor’s Notebook and Other Stories”, 2012,  Sky Arts

In 2012, many Russians were surprised by the fact the British had made a series based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s short stories “A  Young Doctor’s Notebook”. The role of the young doctor, who had just graduated from medical school and was sent to work in the Russian backwoods, was played by the main character of Harry Potter – Daniel Radcliffe.

It should be noted that the British film adaptation is a black comedy with subtle humor and deep morality. It has received positive reviews among many film critics. The audience was not even annoyed by Russian folk music sounded from time to time behind the scenes, the image of peasants and another contradictory attempt to reveal the mentality of Russian people.

Keira Knightley wearing a dress

3. “Anna Karenina”, 2012, Joe Wright

The film adaptation of “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy directed by Joe Wright with a  screenwriter Tom Stoppard caused the most fierce debates in Russia. The creators were blamed for the criminal gag, improper casting, Keira Knightley, and misunderstanding of Tolstoy’s intentions. 
But hardly the director wanted to offend us. Master of costume melodramas Joe Wright and expert on Russian culture Tom Stoppard work in the context of the prevailing foreign tradition of “Anna Karenina” film adaptations. More attention is paid to the relationship of Karenina and Vronsky than to Levin’s emotional difficulties. 
However, the creators filmed it as if there were no previous 30 adaptations of the novel. So they build a high melodrama about impossible love and destructive passion. But the main thing here is an idea to play the novel in theatrical scenery almost turning it into a musical. That’s why any comparison of the film with the novel is meaningless. The film is owned by Joe Wright. But Tolstoy is just an excuse for organizing this mystery.

a woman posing for a photo

4. “Doctor Zhivago”, 2002, Giacomo Campiotti

Keira Knightley again! Apparently, the authors think that Keira Knightley looks like a real Russian woman.:) The British film adaptation of Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak is a mini-series with starring Keira Knightley and Hans Matheson. 
The adaptation looks very accurate. 

Julie Christie et al. looking at the camera

5. “Doctor Zhivago”, 1965, David Lean

 We can not help but mention another cult film “Doctor Zhivago” directed by David Lean, in which Omar Sharif and British actress Julie Christie starred. The movie won five Oscars: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Color Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Original Musical Score (and Best Costume Design.

The film shows very sensual and passionate relationships between Lara and Yuri Zhivago.

a group of people around each other

6. “Love and death”, 1975, Woody Allen

Woody Allen is known for his love of Russian literature. References to Dostoevsky can be seen in the films “Irrational Man”, “Match Point”, “Cassandra’s Dreams”, Chekhov can be seen in “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Bullets over Broadway”. However, Allen’s main tribute to Russian literature is the comedy “Love and Death”. 
The film is a mix of everything: balls, the war with Napoleon, a duel, Prokofiev, and numerous quotes from Hollywood and Russian adaptations of Russian literature. Allen’s film debunks the myth of the mysterious Russian soul. He explains rather in a hilarious way why everyone in Russia suffers, thinks of God, dreams of Moscow, and is unhappy in marriage.

a person holding a sign posing for the camera

7. The Double, 2013, Richard Ayoade

A nervous breakdown, schizophrenia, or a real double.

Most of Dostoevsky’s stories easily turn into psychological thrillers. Director Richard Ayoade also saw this opportunity in the Double, inviting Jesse Eisenberg to play two versions of one hero. Whether he is Simon James or James Simon, his signature charisma and uttering thoughtful monologues are his distinctive features. The Double is a story about the desire of exclusivity and constant competition with a better version of yourself. It is filmed by Ayoade in theatrical scenery.

Gwyneth Paltrow, Joaquin Phoenix standing in a room

8. The Lovers, 2008, James Gray

Fyodor Dostoevsky is one of the most screened Russian writers. The American director James Gray took the author’s lesser-known story “White Nights” and retold in the scenery of contemporary American reality. 
A charming Michelle moves to a new flat near to a confirmed bachelor Leonard. His family wants to marry him to a family friend. So that careless man has a difficult choice between a family friend and an extremely changeable new neighbor. 
The main roles in Gray’s film “The Lovers” were played by popular Hollywood actors Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Winessa Shaw. In 2008 the drama was the Golden Palm nominee. 

If you are more into reading books find out the list of best books about Russia.