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.

20 Great Russian Novels You Should Read Right Now

Russia’s output of great literature over two centuries is nothing short of miraculous. Having endured tyranny under their czarist regime, as well as great suffering during two world wars and under Josef Stalin, it seems unlikely that they would have time for sure monumental, soul-searching novels. But don’t be fooled; the Russian literary tradition rivals most if not all countries, and its consistent ambition to define (and even redefine) social conditions has kept even it’s oldest works relevant in the public sphere. Here are twenty of the greatest novels in Mother Russia’s storied history.
Previously to Lermontov’s groundbreaking novel, Russian literature had been populated by short prose works and dominated by the poetry of Evgeni Pushkin. But once Lermontov introduced his character Pechorin, he would go on to set a benchmark for the complexity of characters in Russian fiction. A flawed, non-Romantic figure who must live up to ideals he can’t uphold, Lermontov proclaimed the end of the Romantic era and ushered the great era of realist fiction.
Gogol’s novel about a man who tries to trick landowners into buying their dead serfs (“dead souls”), who are technically still alive until the next Russian census, is a satirical picaresque similar in style to Cervantes but which stands alone for its odd and grotesque caricatures of Russian provincial life. Although Gogol was a self-professed conservative, the younger generations used it to argue against the ills of 19th century Russian society.
Goncharov tied together the social and personal issues of the day with this novel about a member of the gentry grown who is caught between the “idyllic” life of pre-emancipation serfdom and the “new”, more liberated Russia. Combining the romance of Pushkin and the rising school of realism, Oblomov is one of the best records of Russia’s great societal transition.
Fathers and Sons did what many other Russian novels did: pit the younger generation against the old. When Bazarov, a strict nihilist, challenges the well-established mores of Provincial life, he lures the naive towards his radical ideas. But when his beliefs get challenged by the unexpected appearance of passionate love and spirituality, he suffers a crisis that will force him to rethink his entire worldview.
Written while the author was in prison for subversive activities, What is to be Done? became a favorite among the rising left for the next half-century. The novel tells the story of Vera Pavlovna, a woman who looks to be free and emancipate herself from the conservative oppression of the czarist regime. Lenin professed that it was his favorite novel, and he saw its positive-minded protagonists as models for the revolutionaries that would eventually take over the country several decades down the road.
The first of Dostoevsky’s major novels, this presumably simple tale about a murder and its aftermath has remained one of the great preservers of 19th century urban life in Russia, describing everything from poverty, religion, family and of course, evil. When Raskolnikov, a former student enamored by Napoleonic ideals of superiority, decides to commit a murder against a old pawnbroker, it provokes one of the greatest personal transformations ever portrayed in literature.
The Great White Whale of Russian literature, War and Peace is a 1,300 page work that includes hundreds of subplots and characters all intertwining during the failed Napoleonic invasions of 1812. It has been criticized for its narrative looseness, but the transition from innocence to experience of its 5 main characters beautifully details the personal and historical happenings of early 19th century Russia.
Before Oprah Winfrey praised Tolstoy’s great work about adultery and family life in Russia’s aristocratic circles, Karenina was already one of the most important novels in the European canon. Written on a much smaller and personal scope than War and PeaceKarenina has been touted as Russia’s great realist novel, and along with Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and George Eliot’s Middlemarch, it has become an exemplary text of the genre.
It is difficult to exclude many of Dostoevsky’s works, but Karamazov has not only retained its status as one of the seminal works in Russian Literature, but it has also gone on to become one of the most celebrated novels of all time. Part murder-mystery, part exploration of faith, the novel describes the murder of a father at the hand of one of four brothers, and like many other works by this great, troubled visionary, questions in great detail the existence and purpose of God.
One of the first major works of socialist literature, Gorky’s Mother exposed the absurdities of the czarist regime in Russian Provincial life in the late 19th century. Based on the life of his grandmother, this deeply intimate portrayal of a typical Russian life gradually undergoing an ideological metamorphosis would, in a little over a decade, help influence the Bolshevik revolution and change Russia forever.