Tolstoy goes to Hollywood: Our Talk with director Bernard Rose

by Phil James

When most of you think of classic novels on the big screen, a few obvious images pop up: extravagant period-piece pageantry, swordfighting, royal intrigue, forced British accents. Hollywood has effectively turned the irreplaceable works of Austen, Dickens and God-knows-who-else into something vaguely resembling a fashion show.

I recently spoke to someone looking to change all that. On the verge of releasing Two Jacks, his fifth feature film based on the works of Lev Tolstoy, Bernard Rose understands the difficulties of portraying century-old fiction to the masses. Unlike recent efforts in popular cinema, though, he is not seeking to revive an aesthetic of the era; rather, his films uphold the complexity of Tolstoy’s themes in a modern context.

Starring Sienna Miller, Jacqueline Bisset and the father-son duo of Danny and Jack Huston, Two Jacks is a revival of Tolstoy’s Two Hussars, an examination of two generations of Russian noblemen arriving in the same Provincial town, both intent on rousing the locals with their eccentricity. While the Count Turbin makes an unforgettable splash when he first arrives, his son is much less successful, and Tolstoy makes a point of criticizing the younger generation for a lack of tact in their rakish pursuits.

Rose updates the tale to modern times, using two generations of Hollywood directors instead of rural Russian counts. ImageThis is not a first for Rose, though. His adaptation of The Death of Ivan Illych, Ivans XTC, is set in the star-studded bacchanalia of drug-fueled Hollywood, and his portrayal of The Kreutzer Sonata, also starring Danny Huston, replaces Russian nobility with a group of California nouveau-riche. Rose’s lo-fi, low-budget approach may be off-putting for those seeking high-budget blockbusters, but they make the films oddly familiar, as though a monumental tragedy could be occurring in the room right next to you.

Rose considers Tolstoy’s storytelling “utterly unforced and naturalistic”, two characteristics seriously wanting in the bells-and-whistles, CGI-bloated movies dominating the box office. The movie is due for release in select theaters and on video in October.

Here is my full interview with Bernard Rose:

Many people know who Tolstoy is, but few have read much of what he’s actually done. Why, in your opinion, do you think it’s important to expose this generation to a great Russian Novelist?

Tolstoy’s message is as relevant and potent today as when he was writing more than a hundred years ago. He wrote the following to Ghandi about the colonial occupation of India by the British Empire;

” A commercial company enslaved a nation comprising two hundred millions. Tell this to a man free from superstition and he will fail to grasp what these words mean. What does it mean that thirty thousand men, not athletes but rather weak and ordinary people, have subdued two hundred million vigorous, clever, capable, and freedom loving people? Do not the figures make it clear that it is not the English who have enslaved the indians, but the Indians who have enslaved themselves?”

I can’t think of a more relevant quote for our age and the world we live in. Often the insights of artists have more power and resonance than philosophers politicians and scientists. Tolstoy tried to record what was in his very human and fallible heart and did so from a spiritual perspective before the pathologizing of human behavior that came about with the advent of Freud.

This is your Fourth adaptation of a Tolstoy novel/la. Why do you keep going back to him, and what are some of the challenges you face when adapting 19th century lit?

Tolstoy’s story structure is very pure and very clever but disguises itself and seems utterly unforced and naturalistic. This makes it very easy to adapt for film – but with one caveat: Tolstoy contains nothing which is unnecessary, irrelevant or repetitious so when faced with a book of the length of Anna Karenina cutting it down , as one has to do to fit into a normal length feature film, renders it a pale and anemic skeleton of the original. That’s why I turned to the shorter fiction where one can elaborate passages and keep everything in.

Two Hussars is, admittedly, one of Tolstoy’s lesser-known efforts (though that’s not to say it isn’t one of his best). What did you see in this story that made you so eager to adapt it?

Two Hussars dates from the early period of Tolstoy’s writing, predating War and Peace and long before the long personal crisis that enveloped him after Anna Karenina. There is a lightness and charm that I found very appealing and was a nice change after adapting The Kreutzer Sonata, The Death of Ivan Illyich and Master and Man.  It also has a very bold and original structure, being essentially the same story twice, twenty years apart, once for the father and once for the son.

And how do you think the modern viewer will approach them?

Tolstoy never editorializes or compares their lives and behaviors, but we as the reader/viewer do and that creates a kind of third phantom movie where one thinks about how the two stories relate and that really fascinated me.  It is also about the nature of nostalgia, the feeling all generations have that “twenty years ago” things were so much more fun, more glamorous, more elegant.  Tolstoy was comparing the 1850s to the 1830s and of course we can’t tell the difference from our vantage point, but can absolutely see how our own era is less chivalrous that that of the recent past.

How do the actors like working with Tolstoy’s fiction?

Actors respond to roles that are psychologically complex and convincing. That is why good actors are often the best judge of a screenplay. They have to absorb it and make it work and often they despair at the sentimental nonsense macho posturing and bad expositionary dialogue that masquerades as character in the standard Hollywood movie. Tolstoy’s characters live and breathe like Shakespeare’s and so are very appealing to actors.

Considering the breadth and experience of your cast, do they seek it out, or–for the sake of the roles–do you seek them out?

In the case of Two Jacks, I specifically wrote the parts for Danny and Jack Huston to play as I knew both of them well and thought as uncle and nephew they would be perfect as father and son.

Do you think that literature needs film to survive, or do you think that film needs high-quality writing to maintain its artistic dignity?

I think that literature and film are both legitimate forms of “writing”.  Tolstoy was fascinated with early cinema at the end of his life and said that this would be the medium of the future.  For writing to be great it must be truthful and unfettered by economic pressure. This is hard for films over a certain budget, so it will always be necessary for writers to express themselves in literary form if they have a serious message. I think the future of cinema is changing too though, as technology puts the ability to make films into the reach of any determined person. But it is still at heart a collaborative form and writing, whether in the form of screenplays or novels is part of that collaboration, so I think both mediums will continue to exist and cross fertilize one another.

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