Long ago, I read a story in the Washington Post on the topic of literacy. It presented John, a student working on his Masters in Education, who hoped to be a teacher someday. He stated that he didn’t like to read. In fact, if he is given an assignment based on a novel or short story, he always looks for the film version and watches that instead of reading the book.
As someone who loves to read, I admit to being surprised and dismayed by such a confession. Communications Guru Marshall McLuhan warned us back in the 1960s that a post-literate society was coming, one in which the written word was virtually obsolete as different media eclipsed and surpassed it.1 In fact, Maryanne Wolf, author of Reader Come Home, suggests that we are losing what she calls “deep literacy” which is “what happens when a reader engages with an extended piece of writing in such a way as to anticipate an author’s direction and meaning, and engages what one already knows in a dialectical process with the text.”2 I don’t think we are there yet. However, it is certainly true that there are people like John who would rather watch a film than read a novel, they certainly have that option, given that some 65 percent of movies made are based on books.3 I have heard people say ‘I haven’t read the book, but I’ve seen the movie’, which suggests that doing one is the same as doing the other. But is it? Is watching a film version of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s work, for example, tantamount to reading the text on which it is based?
In this article, I attempt to answer that question, focusing on film adaptations of the Russian author’s work in general, and two adaptations of his short story, The Dream of the Ridiculous Man, in particular.4 I have chosen that tale for three reasons.
First, the author incorporates almost all of his major themes in this brief work, including the issues of evil, morality, the duality of man’s nature, suffering, nihilism, the meaninglessness of life, and suicide, as well as hope, truth, dreams as bearers of that truth, and selfless love. This piece is, as such, a microcosm of Dostoevsky’s concerns and ruminations that is “as profound as any of Dostsoevsky’s works in terms of the ultimate questions it raises.”5
Second, it is an overtly Christian piece which lends itself readily to discussions about Jesus, the moral state of humanity, and the hope that we have in Christ. In fact, it has been described as “the key to Dostoevsky’s religious outlook.”6 Therefore, it can be used apologetically.
Third, the film adaptations of the story are vastly different and demonstrate just how much – or how little – a filmmaker can use the original material to reinforce Dostoevsky’s meaning, or to alter it and send a completely different message to an audience.
The film adaptation of literary works became a scholarly discipline in the 1960s following the publication of Film Professor George Bluestone’s seminal work, Novels Into Film, in 1957.7 Originally, fidelity to the source text was considered to be the goal of film adaptations, and works were critically dismissed if they strayed too far from the novel or short story on which the cinematic product was based.8 This suggested that somehow the film was of less worth than literature, being merely derivative and catering to the so-called masses. However, other critics see adaptations as transpositions of the original work, as hypertexts that may reflect only a little on the literature from which they draw, yet which are equally valid and of a high artistic quality in their own right.9
People were already making dramatic adaptations of Dostoevsky’s work in his lifetime. In 1871, Princess Varvara Dimitrevna Obelenskaya requested his permission to present a stage version of Crime and Punishment. He agreed to it, but warned her that previous theatrical adaptations of his work failed, explaining that
there is a mystery in art by which the epic form never finds a correspondence in the drama. I even believe that each art form corresponds to a series of poetic thoughts, so that one idea cannot be expressed in another non-corresponding form.10
He then suggested that the princess should “rework and change the novel thoroughly” or “take the original idea and change the plot completely.”11
Because of this, I expect that multiple versions of Dostoevsky’s most-oft-filmed short story, White Nights, would not alarm the writer.12 This would be the case whether it’s Luchino Visconti’s Neo-realistic film set in Livorno, Italy, following the Second World War;13 Andre Bresson’s placement of the love triangle in Paris in the 1960s, replete with hippies, in his French Wave adaptation;14 or Rafi Mohammed’s Bollywood take on the story.15 Among the dozens of movies based on his novels, the most well-received include Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of The Idiot for post-WW2 Japan, with the country reeling from its catastrophic loss in the war, and Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. The latter is a modern-day saga about an ophthalmologist who wants his mistress dead, in which the writer/director examines the issues of right and wrong with a nod to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
The diversity of films based on Dostoevsky’s work is in fact remarkable. Alexander Burry, professor of Slavic and East European Languages at Ohio State University, claims that “the artists who successfully set the novelist’s works in other media tend to develop the elements of his thought that resonate with their political, social and ideological concerns.”16 This speaks to the variety, universality, and timelessness of Dostoevsky’s themes. Burry also claims that “in their departure from the text, (filmmakers) create continuations of their fundamental material in new directions, (offering) fresh interpretive angles on the novels themselves,” the end result being that they “acquire new significance in succeeding eras and cultures.”17
It is Dostoevsky’s polyphonic writing style that allows filmmakers to translate his works into such vastly different films.18 The author infuses his work with competing ideologies, worldviews and philosophies, multiple literary allusions, complex ambiguities, and startling paradoxes and dichotomies.19 There are a great many voices in his work encapsulating and expounding on a great many beliefs and issues, sometimes contradictory, and often with an open-endedness towards unresolved dilemmas, perhaps reflecting the conflict in Dostoevsky himself.20 In fact, it seems that “Dostoevsky’s heroes are endlessly trying to resolve the unresolvable” as Russian Literature Scholar Robert Louis Jackson has claimed.21 Therefore, the author does not always answer the questions he raises or, if he does, he gives us oblique or multiple answers according to the characters he has created and their differing viewpoints. This attracts filmmakers and gives them opportunities to clarify, re-work, and extend the literature in new and vital ways.
It is, of course, impossible to recreate literature as a film, scene by scene and word by word. One major difference between movies and books rests in the fact that “visual images stimulate our perceptions directly while written words can do this indirectly.”22 This means that, when we read the word ‘chair’, we have to mentally translate that word into a picture.23 English Professor Evan Horowitz expands upon this idea in an essay regarding what he calls the invisibility of literature. “Literature is visibly thin,” he notes, adding that “words shield us from the sometimes frightening force of visuality.”24 He uses ugliness as an example, noting that Robert Louis Stevenson describes Dr. Jekyll’s alter-ego, Mr. Hyde, in the novel that bears their names, but it is up to the reader to picture the frightening Hyde. However, with a cinematic adaptation of the book, we don’t have to imagine anything. The filmmakers have done that for us. What we see on the screen is their visualization of the monster that Dr. Jekyll becomes. The same is true of all adaptations, including those of Dostoevsky’s work. We are looking at the filmmakers’ visualizations which may not represent the Russian author’s vision – or our own, had we read the original texts. In other words, film does not always leave much for the imagination, and we can be passive viewers, having the story acted out in front of us instead of participating in the story ourselves through our imagination that we must employ when we read.
And now to The Dream of the Ridiculous Man itself.25 Dreams are, for Dostoevsky, “the key to the unconscious” with the unconscious life “just as real and true” as the conscious one.26 A single narrator tells the story in the first person. He begins by announcing that he is a ridiculous man who some consider mad. On his way home, on what he describes as “the gloomiest of nights” wherein he can see only one single star in the heavens, he runs into a little girl who begs him for help. But he refuses because the world seems meaningless to him, so why bother? He had purchased a gun a few months before and decides that this is the night he will put that gun to his head and end his life. Sitting with it in his hand in his dingy flat, he falls asleep and begins to dream. In his reverie, he shoots himself, not in the head, but in the heart, and finds himself in a coffin in the ground, water dripping onto his eyes. However, he is only there temporarily as he is whisked out of his grave by “some dark being” unknown to him who travels with him through time and space until they reach a world that looks like earth.
Only, this other earth is different. The ridiculous man compares it to “a Greek Island” from “the Golden Age” of the past wherein “children of the sun,” with faces “gleaming with wisdom,” “consummated all tranquility.” These “beautiful innocent people” live in harmony and happiness. There is no sin here until the ridiculous man corrupts the paradise by introducing it. The people learn to love iniquity and their world becomes just like ours, full of selfishness, hatred, violence, murder, and ungodly sensuality. So saddened by what he has done, the ridiculous man offers to sacrifice himself for them, even going so far as to show them how to make a cross.
The ridiculous man awakes. He is filled with joy because he has learned the truth, that is, that we don’t have to live in a fallen condition. He has seen for himself the reality that people can live in a state of perfection if we simply love others more than ourselves. He goes out into the world, preaching this message. People still think him a fool, but he doesn’t hate them for that. He realizes that they don’t know any better and that his job is to keep preaching the truth. And he looks for the little girl who initiated the whole experience with her plea for help because he wants to help her, and he now realizes that his life isn’t meaningless, but full of purpose.
The allusions to Christianity are obvious. A star grabs his attention as a portent of something remarkable to come; drops of water represent a baptism of sorts as he lies in his grave; an angelic being transports him to an Edenic paradise where people live in love and harmony as only inhabitants of the Kingdom of God could; sin is introduced into the world followed by the recognition of the need for a sacrifice to atone for that sin; a man’s hard heart changes into a tender one. Lastly, the truth is that we can rightly hope for the day when people will be able to live out the Golden Rule perfectly. In the end, the ridiculous man, now “a fool for Christ,” takes on the Great Commission to tell the world of the good news.27
The ridiculous man plays several paradoxical roles. He is, initially, the atheist/nihilist who sees no meaning in the world, but he becomes the believer/prophet, full of hope, who sees his purpose as a preacher informing people of the truth. He is a devil who introduces sin to the people of the sun. He is a Christ-figure willing to die for them. Ultimately, the reader is left with the promise of Christ that we will once again live in the kingdom of God where there is no sin, no pain, no suffering, no evil. This is where humankind’s hope lies. This is, in a nutshell, Dostoevsky’s presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, not stated blatantly, but strongly and clearly implied in the tale.
The BBC production of this story, filmed in 1990, consists of a 27-minute-long monologue delivered by one of England’s finest actors, Jeremy Irons, written by Murray Watts, and directed by Norman Stone.28 29 For the most part, it employs exact narration from the short story. The actor does not just stand in one place to recount it. After all, we are talking about moving pictures here. So the filmmakers have Irons travel throughout a large derelict mansion as he relates his tale. The film begins with Irons sleeping in a chair in a large, empty, shabby room. He awakes, looks up, and sees a little girl standing on the sill inside his window. He blinks and suddenly she is outside the window, running away from him, her head turned to look at him as she laughs.
Then Irons begins to speak. “They call me a ridiculous man, although they call me a madman now. I love them, but what makes me sad? They don’t know the truth and I do.”
He dresses and begins his journey through the mansion. He tells his story looking at the camera, addressing us, the viewers. He strides down stairs and through barren rooms to the wine cellar where he gets a bottle and glass. He returns upstairs and goes to a conservatory full of all kinds of plants and Greek statues. Aside from the ridiculous man and the little girl, we see only three other people in this film – a man carrying a window; a man sweeping the floor; and a man sitting at a desk. None of them say a word. As the ridiculous man relates his story, he sips his wine, picks a red flower, floats it in a fountain, and speaks about knowing the truth, that people can live in harmony if they love each other more than they love themselves.
The key to the story in Dostoevsky’s text rests in the ridiculous man’s desire to sacrifice himself on a cross. The recognition of the need for atonement is all-important and it opens the door for the Christian apologist to talk about good, evil, sin, and restoration. In the BBC adaptation, its importance is highlighted visually. The ridiculous man stands in front of a door with a glass window, divided into four sections by a wooden crossbar. When he speaks passionately of his desire to die for these people he has come to love, the ridiculous man thrusts his hands through the panes of glass, smashing them, and leaves his arms hanging there so that it looks like he is hanging on the crossbar. It represents the strongest scene in the film and is true to the meaning of Dostoevsky’s text.
When the ridiculous man’s story concludes, the filmmaker cuts to a shot of him back in his chair in his night clothes where the film opened. We see the girl again, running away from the window, laughing. We then see a shot of the ridiculous man from behind. The camera draws back and reveals the fact that he is sitting in a wheelchair. He has a red flower in his hand which he drops. And so the story ends.
There are a number of observations one can make about this production. For one thing, why didn’t the filmmakers use flashbacks? It might have been for a mundane reason such as not having the budget for it. Or perhaps they wanted to stay as true to the source as possible, honoring Dostoevsky’s written word, not detracting from it with visuals, but trusting the text’s strength to engage and hold the audience’s interest. Interestingly, by not using the common film technique, the filmmakers place the viewer in the position of a reader in that we are left to visualize the events of the dream ourselves based on the ridiculous man’s narration.
Secondly, what are we to make of the ambiguous ending? Dostoevsky’s story concludes with the ridiculous man going out into the world to preach the truth that he has learned. Watt and Stoneman chose to add a final scene with the ridiculous man in his wheelchair as in the beginning. Are we to surmise that he really is a lunatic in an asylum, and what we have witnessed was his dream within a dream? Such an interpretation would hearken to the Edgar Allen Poe poem in which the dreamer questions if life is merely an illusion.
And yet, we see the ridiculous man with a red flower just like the one he deposited in the fountain in the greenhouse. This suggests that he really was in that conservatory, that he really is a sane person relating a dream. This indefinite ending might well suit Dostoevsky with his penchant for ambiguity. However, the addition of the scene suggests the ridiculous man is just as lost at the end of the story as he was at its beginning. He isn’t just thought of as a madman, he IS a madman confined to an institution with nothing to offer the world. In changing the ending of Dostoevsky’s tale, the filmmakers have enervated its message of hope and left the viewer – this one at least – dissatisfied and unfulfilled.
The second film version of The Dream of the Ridiculous Man is that of Alexander Petrov who produced a 20-minute animated version of the story in 1992.30 Petrov’s animation is remarkable in that he engages in finger-painting to create his films. He places a sheet of glass above a lamp, then deposits transparent oil paints on it and draws pictures with his fingers. Only rarely does he use a brush to create small details in any given scene.31
Petrov chooses to place the ridiculous man on a train where he relates his story to us, perhaps to highlight the fact that this man is on an emotional and intellectual journey. The filmmaker begins in the middle of Dostoevsky’s story, as he says, “Everything was exactly the same as it was with us.” He describes the beauty of the twin earth and wonders if a paradise really could be established. However, as he ponders this, we see flashes of ugly scenes – naked people writhing in pain, flames soaring, a man with his hair on fire – all a foreshadowing of what’s to come.
“The main thing,” our narrator says, “is to love others like yourself. That’s the chief thing. Nothing else is wanted.”
At this point, the ridiculous man puts a gun to his heart and pulls the trigger. We then flash back to the beginning as Dostoevsky wrote it, with the ridiculous man walking home and encountering the little girl who pleads for his help. From this point, the film follows Dostoevsky’s timeline, with the ridiculous man ultimately ending up on the twin earth.
Petrov chose to show the Edenic world through scenes of people laughing together, a little girl building sandcastles on the beach, a shepherdess carrying a lamb with a flock of sheep behind her, a large black dog that allows its pup and a human baby to suckle, an elderly man washing the ridiculous man’s feet.
But then comes the Fall. Dostoevsky never identifies how the ridiculous man came to corrupt the children of the sun. Petrov chooses to make the sin a sexual one. An old man approaches a young scantily-clad woman lying on the grass. He kisses her. The girl looks startled. The old man removes his mask to reveal that he is actually the ridiculous man. She smiles, gets up, grabs the mask and runs off, giving him an inviting look. He grins in anticipation. What follows is five minutes’ worth (one-quarter of the film) devoted to the chaos and debauchery of these people. Petrov includes scenes of drunken revelry, violence, and terror. Even the friendly black dog is now menacing, baring its teeth and growling, wolf-like.
The filmmaker then takes us back to the ridiculous man on the train, who states, “The dream revealed to me a different grand, renewed life.”
The final scene occurs back in the city where the little girl who had asked the ridiculous man for help stands beneath a lamppost. He joins her, takes her hand, and together they exit.
It’s an exquisite film, but its lack of answers to the issues of good and evil overshadow its beauty because Petrov has secularized the story, choosing to ignore the key scene central to Dostoevsky’s story, that is, the ridiculous man’s desire to make things right for the people he has corrupted by dying on a cross. In Petrov’s film, the narrator says his life has changed. But how? Why? Does he think that, through the revelation in the dream of a paradise in which people practiced brotherly love perfectly, he can make himself a better person, able to love unconditionally and sacrificially as the children of the sun initially did? “Russian intellectuals of Dostoevsky’s era, having converted to French Utopian Socialism, believed that humankind had the strength and intelligence to change their own fate, but Dostoevsky’s short story does not suggest that they can and, indeed, may actually constitute a response to the intelligentsia as it reveals the fact that someone can intellectually grasp an idea but still be powerless to act on it successfully.”32 Dostoevsky’s tale demonstrates how the ridiculous man goes from “an indifferent solipsistic being to a dynamic person who, under the transforming influence of Jesus Christ and Christian thinking, is passionately committed to persuading other humans to change as he has and, in doing so, change society around him.”33
Ultimately, without the cross and the good news of Jesus Christ, we are left with a technically brilliant film by a master animator who provides no answers regarding evil and how to overcome it. Given his background as an atheist in Russia, this is not surprising, but it is disappointing.
So there we have it – two film adaptations that echo Dostoevsky in many aspects, but omit or change some of the key elements in his story. The movies say almost as much about the filmmakers as they do about the author, as we see these visualizations of his fiction that do not necessarily reflect Dostoevsky’s meaning or message. If we want to know what Dostoevsky said, we must read what he himself wrote and turn to film adaptations to see how others have interpreted and employed his fiction out of interest if not for enlightenment.
Personally, if I watch a film based on a book or story from another medium and I am intrigued by it, I will look up the original text to see how it compares. I suggest that others do the same. In this way, the cinema might guide us to the great authors such as Dostoevsky and their original works, rather than supplant them.
1 Michael Cuenco, “America’s New Post-Literate Epistemology” from Palladium, April 17, 2021, Accessed July 1, 2023 at https://www.palladiummag.com/2021/04/17/americas-new-post-literate-epistemology/.
2 Adam Garfinkle, “The Erosion of Deep Literacy,” National Affairs, Spring 2020, https://nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/the-erosion-of-deep-literacy , n. p.
3 No Author Given, “Adaptation from Novel into Film”, WBGH Educational Foundation, 2011, Accessed July 1, 2023 at https://d2buyft38glmwk.cloudfront.net/media/cms_page_media/11/FITC_Adaptation_1.pdf.
5 Roger W. Phillips, “Dostoevsky’s Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” Criticism Vol. 17, No. 4 (Fall 1975), 355.
7 Alexander Burry, Multi-Mediated Dostoevsky: Transposing Novels Into Film (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2011), 18.
8 Simone Murray, “Materializing Adaptation Theory: The Adaptation Industry,” Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 1 (2008), 6.
9 Burry, 23.
10 Ibid., 2
12 Ronald Meyer, “Dostoevsky’s White Nights: The Dreamer Goes Abroad” in Border Crossings:Russian Literature Into Film, Ed. Alexander Burry & Frederick H. White (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017), 40.
13 Neo-realism in film refers to the presentation of lower-class life.
14 French New Wave refers to cinema that is the product of a director who has creative control over his film that reflects his worldview and does not follow the strict rules of narration that dominated film prior to the 1950s.
15 Bollywood refers generally to the film industry in India and specifically to movies in the Hindi language. Mohammed’s White Nights is actually more of an homage to Visconti’s version of White Nights than to Dostoevsky’s work itself, which shows a new trend in film adaptations. Such adaptations are just as likely to draw from another visual medium, be it film, comic book, graphic novel, video game or even toys and dolls, as noted by Ian Olne, “Texts, Technologies, and Intertextualities: Film Adaptation in a Postmodern World,” Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Special Issue, LPA 2009).
16 Burry, Multi-Mediated Dostoevsky, 4.
17 Ibid., 5.
18 Just as there are many melodies in music played at the same time, so are many voices and themes manifested simultaneously in Dostoevsky’s literature.
19 Dickens and Hugo were among his favorites (Burry, 28).
20 Aileen Kelly, “Dostoevsky and the Divided Conscience,” Slavic Review, Vol. 47, No.2 (Summer, 1998), 242.
21 Robert Louis Jackson, “Bakhtin’s Poetics of Dostoevsky and Dostoevsky’s Christian Declaration of Faith” in Close Encounters:Essays in Russian Literature (Brookline, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2013), 291.
22 PBS, Adaptation from Novel into Film, n.p.
24 Evan Horowitz, “Literary Invisibility,” New Literary History, Vol. 45, No.3 (Summer 2014), 463.
25 I am using the translation by Constance Garnett available here: https://gustavus.edu/threecrowns/files/The%20Dream%20of%20a%20Ridiculous%20Man,%20Fyodor%20Dostoevsky.pdf
26 Halimur R. Kahn, “Diamonds in the Rough: Dostoevsky’s Early Works” in Russian Language Journal, Vol. 50, No. 165/167 (Winter/Spring/Fall 1996), 120.
27 Gerald J. Sabo, “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man: Christian Hope for Human Society,” Dostoevsky Studies, New Series, Vol. XIII (2009), 53.
28 Watts is a Christian screenwriter known for The Miracle-Maker, a drama about the life of Christ, and KJB: The Book that Changed the World.
29 Stone, a Christian and self-described lover of all things C.S. Lewis, directed a television series entitled Shadowlands about Lewis and Joy Davidman, as well as the recent film The Reluctant Convert about Lewis’s conversion to Christianity.
31 A video of Petrov, an Academy Award winner for his animated Old Man and the Sea (1999), explaining and demonstrating his technique, is available here: https://youtu.be/GYc4xLylhS4?si=VF5YIYH_pPmvBQRe.
32 Kahn, Diamonds in the Rough, 131.
33 Sabo, The Dream of A Ridiculous Man:A Christian Hope, 46.