Thursday, January 07, 2010

In the First Circle discussion: First Circle (1991 movie)

How do you present a multi-layered novel of over 700 pages in a 3 hour movie? This production makes an honest effort and it proves successful on some points but unfortunately falls short on many others. There are some substantial changes and additions which complicate making an evaluation.

A few examples of these differences:
- In the movie, Volodin hangs up after his attempt to alert the American embassy about nuclear secrets about to be passed to a Russian spy. The novel has the phone line abruptly cut, signaling to Volodin that officials had been listening, an important difference. (The competency of the officials eavesdropping is greatly enhanced in the movie as well)
- Rubin admits he had turned a cousin over to the officials, but in the book his earliest arrest occurs when he shields a family member. While Rubin shows his loyalty to the Communist party, in spite of their persecution of him, he is also loyal to family and friends and having him snitch undermines one of his best qualities.
- There are several scenes with Stalin in the movie, showing the leader as unstable and violent. While that may have been the case, Solzhenitsyn took care to paint Stalin in a sympathetic and complex light. The novel emphasizes his weariness and age during the one section that focuses on him.

The movie does not have the luxury of unfolding slowly the way the book does. Nor can it take time to provide background stories for many of the characters. Volodin’s change from a so-called follower of Epicurus, reveling in the plenty that the upper circles of Soviet society provides, to someone torn between loyalties is glossed over. In addition, many storylines are compressed or combined for the movie. The novel shows many links or bridges between the prison and the outside world. For the movie, that bridge is condensed into the character of Klara, the actress Coraly Zahonero ably shouldering the burden (yes, I was smitten). The philosophical discussions between Rubin, Nerzhin and Sologdin are reduced but can still be effective, as in this pointed exchange:

“I’m talking about the real world. Not the malcontents like you behind bars.” (Rubin)
“This is the real world. Right here in this prison. This is your Stalinist dream.” (Nerzhin)

Fortunately there are a few scenes that strengthen the story. The visit between Nerzhin and his wife is particularly poignant. In addition, the movie does a great job of showing the disparity between the two parties held in the book. The paucity of the prisoners’ birthday celebration for Rubin lies in stark contrast to the opulence of an official’s soiree.

Even with the good parts I have trouble recommending the movie. While semi-faithful to Solzhenitsyn’s novel, the unevenness in quality can be frustrating. When the movie departs from the book, little is added. Even worse, the changes often undermine what Solzhenitsyn painstakingly builds. It is easy to be dismissive and sniff "Read the book instead", yet not everyone has the time to immerse themselves in this large, complex novel. I think in this case it would be better to say this film provides a good introduction to anyone wanting to read the book.

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