Sunday, January 22, 2012

Ralph Fiennes on Pushkin and literary film adaptations

Tonight I am kicking off my year of Eastern European Classics with Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, which I've read many MANY times and love, oh god, love so much!

I remembered that Ralph Fiennes made Onegin a few years ago and while I was trying to figure out whether the movie was available online, I came across this strange site and a long essay by Fiennes on his self-professed admiration for Russian literature in general and Pushkin in particular.

The essay is a wonderful reminiscence on Fiennes's literary journey, on his actual travels through Russia in preparation for his film and, more broadly, a reflection on literary adaptations: 

As we head toward the frozen river, I am turning over in my mind the vast discrepancy between the immediate sensations of being here, absorbing Sasha's commentary, and the tortuous process of making a film. We are walking toward the windmill, and I ask Sasha if it has any connection with thewater mill at the site of the duel in "Onegin." He's not sure, but I ask him to describe the duel, the ritual--the events as Pushkin describes them. He punches a finger into the frozen snow at our feet. "Here is Onegin, here is Lensky, the barrier is here--about ten paces. They walk toward each other. Onegin fires first."
"Doesn't Lensky fire first?" I ask.
"No, no, Onegin," Sasha replies.
"Are you sure?" I say.
"Yes, yes, Onegin shoots first and kills him."

To my embarrassment, I see that I have been so preoccupied with the script that I have forgotten what changes we have made in key areas of the story. This moment is the beginning of an unwinding distrust within me about the way literature is adapted into film. Even with the best of intentions, this appropriation is often a distortion or a mutation for the sake of audience satisfaction and accessibility. Martha and I have tried to remain faithful to Pushkin's poem, but we have also been told that a contemporary audience may not sympathize with Onegin, or may not understand why Tatyana would write him a passionate love letter on the basis of one meeting: how are we to make these things credible?

In our script, Onegin arrives late for the duel, as he does in the poem, but he makes a substantial attempt at reconciliation, which Lensky refuses. Lensky then fires first and wounds Onegin,whereupon Onegin returns fire, but with a look of deep reluctance on his face. My conversation with Sasha at Mikhailovskoye spurs me to reexamine this scene, and, on reflection, our script seems a betrayal of the original. In the poem, Onegin is more glib, as if any show of remorse were a sign of weakness:

      Malevolently now,
      similar to hereditary foes,
      as in a frightful, enigmatic dream,
      they for each other, in the stillness,
      prepare destruction coolly.

Onegin's "look of deep reluctance" in our screenplay now seems sentimental; the poem's portrayal of this confrontation is far more disturbing and realistic. Only when one man lies dead should the barbarity of the duel sink in--not before.
Full text and photo credit: HERE.


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