There is no story like a Russian story. Most Russian novels are known for many pages, long sentences, and deep philosophical dialogue. Even in 2014 the Great Russian writers continue to be a source of inspiration for artists all over the world, including filmmakers who have produced hundreds of movies based on Russian novels.
The Double, starring Jesse Eisenberg, is the most recent movie based on a Russian novel. Since the release of the movie has also led to an increase in book sales, we decided to put together a list of the best movies based on Russian novels. In some cases you will be familiar with the novel, and in other cases the movie will resonate more. Either way, it is a great list that shows what directors can do with the great Russians. Here we go: films based on Russian novels.
Top 10 films based on Russian novels
The Double (2014)
Directed by Richard Ayoade
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska and Noah Taylor
Based on the novel The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky, originally published in 1846
The Double is the most recent movie based on a Russian novel. The film is based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel and stars Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska. The story was originally published on January 30, 1846, in the literary magazine Fatherland Notes. In the next twenty years it was revised and eventually republished by Dostoevsky as a novel in 1866.
The novel is heavily based on the writing by Nikolai Gogol – a Russian novelist, dramatist and poet who lived 1809-1852. The Double centers on a government clerk who goes mad. It deals with the psychological struggle of its main character, Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin, who repeatedly encounters someone who is his exact double in appearance but the opposite in behavior to the pushover protagonist. The motif of the novella is a doppelgänger (Russian “dvoynik”), something we now know best from Facebook campaigns.
Richard Ayoade directed the movie and released it in 2013. He has translated the story into a creepy and crumbling nightmare-world. His sad protagonist is a data-input manager in a dreary warren office and he lives in a similarly grim flat. Simon, the main character in the movie, is played by Jesse Eisenberg who gives a great performance as a shy programmer, whose talents are being ignored by his boss and who is hopelessly in love with his co-worker Hannah (Mia Wasikowska). James (the doppelganger who is also played by Jesse Eisenberg) enters the company and is loved by his superiors and of course by Hannah. At first Simon and James are good friends but as James starts to take over Simon’s life more and more they end up as sworn enemies.
The strong absurdity of the story in combination with the cinematography (Erik Wilson) makes this a movie that you must watch. It is funny, dark and gives a great view life in the Soviet Union.
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Starring James Mason, Sue Lyon and Shelley Winters
Based on the novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, originally published in 1955
Many will argue that Lolita should not be part of this list of movies based on Russian novels. Nabokov wrote the novel in English and published it in Paris in 1955. He only translated it into Russian many years later.
He originally intended to write it under a pseudonym because of the subject matter. But when several publishers rejected the work he eventually gave in and had it published under his own name. Although the first 5000 copies sold out quickly, it took a while for the novel to hit it big. Only after the Sunday Express called it “the filthiest book [they] had ever read” sales started to take off. In the US it sold 100.000 copies in its first three weeks.
The story deals with the 37 year old literature professor named Humbert Humbert. He is obsessed with the 12 year old Dolores Haze, who he gives the nickname Lolita. After he becomes her stepfather he becomes sexually involved with her.
The novel quickly became a classic. It is one the best known and most controversial examples of twentieth century literature. The name Lolita has entered pop culture and usually refers to a sexually precocious girl.
Many adaptations of the story have been made. It has been adapted for stage play several times, there are two operas and a failed musical. Adrian Lyne adapted it to film in 1997 but in this article we will discuss the famous Stanley Kubrick version of 1962.
The film stars James Mason as Humbert Humbert, Sue Lyon as Dolores Haze (Lolita), and Shelley Winters as Charlotte Haze, with Peter Sellers as Clare Quilty. Due to the MPAA’s restrictions at the time, the film toned down the more provocative aspects of the novel, sometimes leaving much to the audience’s imagination. The actress who played Lolita, Sue Lyon, was fourteen at the time of filming. Kubrick later commented that, had he realized how severe the censorship limitations were going to be, he probably never would have made the film. But we are glad he did.
There are many differences between the movie and the novel. Lolita is three years older in the movie and therefore not a child, which takes away a large portion of the perverted side of the story. And also, most of the sexually explicit innuendos were taken out of the film due to the strict censorship of the 1960s. In the movie the sexual relationship between Lolita and Humbert is merely implied and never shown on the screen. In addition, some events in the film do not match those of the novel exactly, and there are also differences in Lolita’s character. It is fair to see we cannot speak of the book and novel as if they were the same. The movie is based on the novel and really takes a different take on the themes and story. Kubrick sometimes dwells on in scenes that have little purpose, but the movie has a pure and powerful overall tone. Both the movie and novel are classics and this one cannot be left out of our list of movies based on Russian novels.
War and Peace (1956)
Directed by King Vidor
Starring Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda and Mel Ferrer
Based on the novel War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, originally published in 1869
This is a Russian heavy weight. Leo Tolstoy is one the greatest Russian writers and this novel has 1.440 pages in paperback. What is really astonishing is that Tolstoy rewrote the whole novel no less than seven times. It was published in 1869 and is regarded as one of the most important literary works from around the world.
The story describes the French invasion of Russia and what impact that has on Tsarist society, as seen through the eyes of five Russian aristocratic families. Interesting fact is that Tolstoy himself does not regard War and Peace to be a novel. He sees it as philosophical writing and has said that he sees Anna Karenina as his first true novel.
Although Russian is the main language in the novel, many of the earlier dialogues are written in French. French was the language spoken in Russian aristocracy – as it was in many European aristocratic circles – but as the French invasion progresses while Tolstoy is working on the book, the French is toned down and all characters end up speaking English solely.
War and Peace was, in 1956, the first English-language film version. It is in fact an American/Italian version, directed by King Vidor and produced by Dino De Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti. The music score is by Nino Rota and the cinematography by Jack Cardiff.
The film stars Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda, and Mel Ferrer, along with Vittorio Gassman, Herbert Lom and Anita Ekberg, in one of her first breakthrough roles. It had Academy Awards nominations for Best Director (King Vidor), Best Cinematography, Color (Jack Cardiff) and Best Costume Design, Color (Maria De Matteis). The movie, that is 208 minutes, was made with a $6 million budget and grossed only $6,25 million.
Reducing 1440 pages to a 208 minutes movie is not easy. Therefore there are many differences between the novel and movie. The movie focuses primarily on Natasha, Pierre, and Andrei. It deals with their complex relationship and personal maturation on the backdrop of the historical events of the Napoleonic invasion. What is done well by King Vidor is the scope of the movie, the story is gigantic but detailed enough to really touch the audience.
In Moscow, most of the scenes take place at the Rostov residence, and episodes at the country estates are curtailed, with some exceptions such as the hunt where Natasha first meets Andrei. This is a mix of two scenes at the Rostov country estate, since in the novel Andrei, who by then is already Natasha’s fiancé, is not present at the hunt. There is no scene from St. Petersburg. The relationship between Nikolas, Sonya, and Mary is toned down. Historical figures retained are General Kutuzov and Napoleon. Minor battles are omitted, while Napoleon’s crossing of the Berezina is added. The concept of the inner dialogue is still there but the extensive use of French is cut out in the movie. The movie does not beat the book in a long shot but it is a great introduction to a famous story that you do not have time for to read.
Dr. Zhivago (1965)
Directed by David Lean
Starring Omar Sharif, Julie Christie and Alec Guinness
Based on the novel Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, originally published in 1957
Boris Pasternak’s 1957 novel was published in the West amidst celebration and controversy. Parts of Pasternak’s book had been known in Samizdat since some time after World War II. However, the novel was not completed until 1956. The book had to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union by an Italian called D’angelo to whom Pasternak had entrusted the book to be delivered to Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a left-wing Italian publisher who published it shortly thereafter. Helped by a Soviet campaign against the novel, it became a sensation throughout the non-communist world. It spent 26 weeks atop the New York Times best-seller list.
A great lyric poet, Pasternak was awarded the 1958 Nobel Prize for Literature. While the citation noted his poetry, it was clear that the prize was mainly for Doctor Zhivago, which the Soviet government regarded as an anti-Soviet work, and so they interpreted the Nobel Prize as a hostile gesture to the Soviet Union. The Soviet government’s labeled him a traitor, and Pasternak felt compelled to refuse the Prize. The situation became an international cause célèbre and made Pasternak a Cold War symbol of resistance to Soviet communism.
The British film from 1965 was directed by David Lean (The Bridge Over The River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia). It still is the eighth most grossing movie of all time. Even though the movie is faithful to the novel’s plot, it is noticeably different in the depictions of several characters and events. Many critics believed that the film’s focus on the love story between Zhivago and Lara trivialized the events of the Russian Revolution and the resulting civil war.
Told through a frame narrative, in which a KGB agent (Alec Guinness) searches for the daughter of his half-brother, the movie tells romantic history between the titular Zhivago (Omar Sharif), a battlefield doctor who falls in love with Lara (Julie Christie), who’s married to Bolshevik activist Pasha (Tom Courtenay), and under the thumb of the powerful Komarovsky (Rod Steiger). The chemistry between Sharif and Christy is electric and therefore the epic running time is not disturbing at all. It feels real and resonates. Definitely a movie based on a Russian novel that you should watch.
Read about modern classics like Anna Karenina (2012) on the next page.
Anna Karenina (2012)
Directed by Joe Wright
Starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law and Aaron Johnson
Based on the novel Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, originally published in 1878
All bad writing is alike, all brilliant writing is brilliant in its own unique way. Anna Karenina is one of those masterpieces that you simply need to have read. But sure, we do not all have the time to read more than a hundred pages a week so luckily there is a movie you can watch. Not just one. It has been turned into a movie no less than fourteen times. Here we will be discussing the 2012 version by Joe Wright, starring Keira Knightley.
But first the novel. The novel was written, like War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. It was published in serial installments from 1873 – 1877 in the periodical The Russian Messenger and it first hit the shelves as a novel in 1878. Both Dostoyevsky and Nabokov see Anna Karenina as a flawless masterpiece and the best book ever written. It tells the tragic story of the socialite Anna Karenina and her affair with the rich Count Vronsky. At the core it is just a love story, but Tolstoy did not just leave the themes of War and Peace behind, besides love he lets us think about fate, chance, our powerlessness against circumstances and our determination to change them. There are great comparisons to be made between Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, Karenina is prepared to lose all the advantages of high society in favor of the man she loves. Bovary abandons the man who loves her in an attempt to climb socially. As portrayed by Leo Tolstoy and Gustave Flaubert, both women are devastated by the prices they pay.
This movie is the third collaboration of Joe Wright and Keira Knightley following both Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007). Jude Law appears as Karenin and Aaron Taylor Johnson plays the role of Vronsky. Wright takes an interesting approach to the story and sets the entire movie in the theater, a place that is usually to be mistrusted in Tolstoy his work. The theater is where the show and theatricality of high society is underlined, where the norms and hypocrisies of public life are conspicuous. Scenes will begin in the theatre building, on stage, or in an auditorium where the seats have been removed, often among costumed extras who will freeze while the principals exchange dialogue. Or sometimes, characters will tensely quarrel backstage amid the ropes and pulleys controlling the scenery. This approach gives the scenes a hyperreal quality, though the film’s action will at times open out into the normal sets and outdoor locations of a regular adaptation. Wright’s adaption of Anna Karenina was far from a box-office success, but it is a bold and creative approach to the story and ideas behind it.
The Brothers Karazamov (1958)
Directed by Richard Brooks
Starring Yul Brynner, Maria Schell and Lee J. Cobb
Based on the novel The Brothers Karazamov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, originally published in 1880
The Brothers Karamazov is Fyodor Dostoyevsky his final novel. Dostoyevsky spent about two years writing it and it was published as a serial in The Russian Messenger and completed in November 1880. He intended it to be the first part in an epic story titled The Life of a Great Sinner but he died less than four months after the publication.
The Brothers Karamazov is a philosophical novel set in 19th century Russia. It deals with ethical debates of God, free will, and morality. It is a spiritual drama of moral struggles concerning faith, doubt, and reason, set against a modernizing Russia. Dostoyevsky composed much of the novel in Staraya Russa, a city 285 kilometers south of St. Petersburg, which inspired the main setting. Since its publication, it has been acclaimed as one of the supreme achievements in literature.
The 1958 movie The Brothers Karamazov is a film made by MGM. It was directed by Richard Brooks and produced by Pandro S. Berman. The screenplay was by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Richard Brooks. The story follows Fyodor, the patriarch of the Karamazov family and his sons. When he tries to decide an heir, the tensions between the Brothers of the film run high, leading to infighting and murder. Money simply is the root of all evil. The three brothers are played by Yul Brynner, Richard Basehart, and a very young William Shatner in his film debut. An interesting fact that you may want to remember for your upcoming pub quiz is that Albert Salmi turned down an Oscar nomination for his acting role in the film.
Directed by Aleksei Balabanov
Starring Leonid Bichevin, Ingeborga Dapkunaite and Andrei Panin
Based on three short stories by Mikhail Bulgakov,
This movie by Aleksei Balabanov is based on three stories short stories by Mikhail Bulgakov. The stories are autobiographical and are about a Russian doctor who gets into a drug using habit as the whole country around him slides into the horrors of the civil war.
Even though the revolution and the war is hardly shown in the movie, one can feel its dark but subtle presence in every scene and dialogue. It really captures the spirit of Mikhail Bulgakov his stories and it is a great movie to watch for everyone interested in Russian literature and history.
Read about the last three classics on the next page!
The Sea Gull (1968)
Directed by Sydney Lumet
Starring James Mason, Vanessa Redgrave and Simone Signoret
Based on the playThe Sea Gull by Anton Chekhov, originally published in 1896
The Sea Gull is based on Anton Chekhov’s play The Seagull. The plot is as Russian as it can be. Fading leading lady Irina Arkadina has come to visit her brother Sorin, a retired civil servant in ailing health, with her lover, the successful pulp writer Trigorin. Her son, the experimental playwright Konstantin Treplev, adores the innocent Nina, who in turn is blown away by Trigorin. Their interactions slowly lead to the moral and spiritual disintegration of each of them and ultimately leads to tragedy.
The movie is directed by Sidney Lumet and stars Simone Signoret as Irina Arkadina. Although the movie is praised by some as being the best adaption of the Chekhov play, it has some bad reviews as well. Where Variety calls the movie “a sensitive, well-made and abstractly interesting period pic”, Time wrote The paralyzing problem with this film version of Chekhov’s first major play is that it is far too dramatic . . . Any traces of wit have been pretty well destroyed by Lumet’s lumbering technique. The actors perform as if they were all on the verge of a nervous breakdown . . . Lumet moves his camera incessantly to give the illusion of action, but uses fadeouts to duplicate the curtain falling at the end of an act . . . Most disturbing of all, [he] and cinematographer Gerry Fisher have shot the whole film in softly gauzed pastel colors, thereby reducing Chekhov’s intricate dramatic tapestry to the sleazy cheapness of a picture postcard.”
See for yourself. The movie is a great introduction to Chekhov his work but the movie itself can perhaps be described best as an actor’s movie.
The Master and Margarita (1994)
Directed by Yuriy Kara
Starring Anastasiya Vertinskaya, Viktor Rakov and Mikhail Ulyanov
Based on the novel The Master and Margarita by Mikhail A. Bulgakov, originally published in 1967
The Master and Margarita is a novel written by Mikahil A. Bulgakov. It was written between 1929 and 1940 but remained unpublished until 1967. Bulgakov his widow found the manuscript and ended up publishing it. The novel was a great success and turned the Russian writer into a critically acclaimed novelist.
It is a complex story with different storylines intertwining. And although the story of Master and Margarita is a complex one, many adaptations have been made for stage play, tv series and movies. Many have tried and many have failed. However, this version is the one to watch as it answers to both the literary fan and the objective movie critic.
The movie is directed and written by Ukrainian filmmaker Yuriy Kara. Kara grew up in the USSR and the Soviet Union plays an important role in his work. Both his other movies, Vory v Zakone (1988) and Zavtra byla Voyna (1987), are also set in the Soviet Union and are critical on the former regime.
Master and Margarita is set in the 1930s Moscow under Stalin and in Jerusalem under Pilate, and has several story-lines that are intertwined. Master (Rakov) is a talented writer in Moscow working on a manuscript about the biblical Jesus (Burlyayev) and Pontius Pilate (Ulyanov). Authorities in Moscow are harassing Master by surveillance and intimidation. Victimized by their harassment, Master throws his manuscript into the fire, before he is locked up in a mental clinic. His assistant and Muse Margarita (Vertinskaya) uses the supernatural powers of Woland (Gaft), trying to help Master. The character of Master is thought to be autobiographical, burning of his manuscript alludes to what Bulgakov himself did under threats from Soviet authorities.
Besides being amazingly true to the book, this 1994 movie version brought together some of the most talented actors of the soviet era, from Gaft as Satan to Durov as St. Matthew. And the entire cast, old and new, managed to feel the responsibility of playing one of the greatest Soviet novels of the 20th century, and so they’ve put on a great performance. The characters are so vivid, sometimes it feels like a theater play rather than a movie, but, in this setting, it works.
The Queen of Spades (1982)
Directed by Igor Maslennikov
Starring Viktor Proskurin, Alla Demidova and Innokenty Smoktunovsky
Based on the short story The Queen of Spades by Aleksandr Pushkin, originally published in 1834
The Queen of Spades is a short story written by Aleksandr Pushkin. He published the story in 1834 and the supernatural work has been the inspiration for the opera by Tchaikovsky (1890), many plays and quite a few movies – the most notable the 1949 version by Thorold Dickensen.
As the title of the story suggests the story is about gambling. Hermann, who is an officer of the engineers in the Imperial Russian Army, watches the other officers gamble but never plays himself. He then starts telling the story of his grandmother, who also has a history with cards. The movie was directed by Igor Maslennikov, an established versatile Russian director. That narrative sets in motion a story that could have only been written in such a magical way by Pushkin. What is interesting is that the adaption of Tchaikovsky is also present in the movie, which is a great example of how stories alternated by different interpretations.
This is it. The list of movies based on Russian novels. Make sure to check out our list of our favorite Russian Films of the noughties too! Please follow us on facebook and be the first to get the latest articles.