In honor of Richard Ayoade’s recent adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novella, The Double, we’re here to remind you of all the other times the Russian writer has provided inspiration for the silver screen. While many have a tendency to view his work as too inaccessible for film, Dostoyevsky has actually spurred a number of classic and memorable adaptations. These are the author’s best contributions to cinema:
Crime and Punishment
There have been many versions of Crime and Punishment, including a 1998 one starring Patrick Dempsey, Ben Kingsley and Julie Delpy made for TV, but the true standout among these adaptations is the 1935 rendering by Josef von Sternberg (best known for directing Shanghai Express). Regardless of von Sternberg hating the way the film turned out, Peter Lorre is brilliant in the role of Roderick Raskolnikov.
One of two legendary auteurs on this list that chose to take on Dostoyevsky's prose, Akira Kurosawa adapted The Idiot into 1951's Hakuchi. Kurosawa makes the story of Prince Myshkin — renamed to Kinji Kameda — feel right at home against the backdrop of a war in Japan and Japanese culture in general.
Le Notti Bianche
In 1957, Italian directorial powerhouse Luchino Visconti re-worked the narrative of White Nights, a short story written by Dostoyevsky in 1848. Le Notti Bianche takes Dostoyevsky’s concept of a lonely, lovelorn man and transforms it into something quintessentially neorealist. Marcello Mastroianni plays the lead character, Mario, a man of lowly status who covets a woman named Natalia (Maria Schell). Her affections, however, are with another.
Au Hasard Balthazar
Robert Bresson's affecting 1966 film, Au Hasard Balthazar, is a loose interpretation of The Idiot. The main protagonist, a wayward donkey named Balthazar, is intended to represent the Christ-like figure that is Prince Myshkin.
Jean-Luc Godard's La Chinoise, released in 1967, re-imagines Dostoyevsky's The Possessed. Centered around five Parisians from different extremes of left-wing politics who want to overthrow the Russian government, La Chinoise melds the best elements of Dostoyevsky's sensibilities with Godard's. Although Godard strays more than slightly from the original plot, he kept the fate of one of the characters, Kirilov (played by Lex De Bruijn), just as tragically similar.
The Brothers Karamazov
The Academy Award-nominated 1969 version (apparently the ‘60s were where it was at for Dostoyevsky) of The Brothers Karamazov was a Russian-made film and, as such, pays fitting homage to one of the country’s most revered authors. Taking a classicist approach to the work, director Kirill Lavrov maintains the setting and characters faithfully.
Four Nights of a Dreamer
Robert Bresson again showed admiration for Dostoyevsky in 1971 with Four Nights of a Dreamer. Based on White Nights, Bresson’s tale tells the story of an adrift wanderer named Jacques (Guillaume des Forêts) who encounters a woman named Marthe (Isabelle Weingarten) the day he decides to step out of his existence of isolation. Just as in White Nights, the protagonist’s love goes unrequited from the object of his affection.
La Femme Publique
Even the ‘80s found time amid its coke-addled trance to adapt some Dostoyevsky. Appropriately, the film was called La Femme Publique (The Public Woman) and gleaned its inspiration from The Possessed. Although it received less attention in the United States, it did garnered much acclaim and success in France, and went on to be one of the highest grossing movies in the country in 1984. Directed by Andrzej Zulawski, La Femme Publique is extremely meta, with a plot focused on an actress named Ethel (Valérie Kaprisky), who agrees to star in a movie based on Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed.
2008’s Two Lovers, the last movie Joaquin Phoenix starred in before he “went crazy,” also takes its own unique approach to White Nights. Director James Gray modernizes the plot with awkward lead character Leonard (Phoenix), a damaged man caught between his lust for his neighbor, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), and the accessibility of Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of his parents’ friends.
The Double is an interesting and somewhat unexpected choice for British actor/writer/director Richard Ayoade to have chosen as the source material for his second feature. With Jesse Eisenberg in the role of the faceless main character, Simon James (originally named the usual Dostoyevskyan mouthful, Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin), Ayoade takes Dostoyevsky’s commentary on madness and transforms into one about human interchangeability.
So once you’ve brushed up on your Dostoyevsky reading list, take a moment to check out all the author has to offer in the world of film, too. Or just watch the movie versions and pretend to speak intelligently on their literary inspirations. Enjoy!
Genna Rivieccio graduated with a degree in screenwriting and closely identifies with Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard. She has written for pop culture blogs, including Culled Culture, The Toast and Behind the Hype, as well as satire for Missing a Dick and The Burning Bush.
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