A ratty film clip, but some nice captures of Keira Knightley's sexy appearance in Atonement
The Master and Margarita
Now here's a puzzle for you. How does one adapt a large, multi-layered,
serio-comic, metaphysical novel that is held sacred by its devotees?
Here's one possible answer: do not attempt to create a normal
feature-length movie. Instead, think mini-series, include all the dialogue
exactly as it appears in the novel, and simply let it run as long as it
runs, using as many episodes as necessary to incorporate every essential
element of the original work. This can work out fairly well if the novelist
is also a playwright, and if the novel is almost as heavy with dialogue as a
play, thus adapting easily to a screenplay.
Just make it as long as it takes? Hey, they do things BIG in Russia!
The Master and Margarita is perhaps the most popular work ever created in
Soviet Russia. It was written by Mikhail Bulgakov over a period of ten years
- the thirties - and was not published until a quarter of a century after
Bulgakov's death in 1940. Bulgakov was already on Stalin's bad side before
this novel was written, and the driving force of this work is to ridicule
the values of life in the USSR under Stalin's brand of Communism, so you can
probably imagine why it remained unpublished. By Soviet standards, it is an
orgy of the forbidden: the supernatural, Christianity, elitism, sex ...
forbidden matters presented in forbidden ways.
The scholar Simon Franklin, a specialist in Russian studies at Cambridge
University, wrote the following in his introduction to the first English
translation: "The Master and Margarita is not a book of occasional risqué
allusions, but a work wholly outside any habitual or orthodox Soviet
definition of what writing ought to be, gloriously and integrally
irreverent. Not a page was publishable."
In fact, it's amazing that it managed to get published in the mid
sixties, when Bulgakov's widow finally released her late husband's
manuscripts, because that was the Brezhnev era, and Big Leo didn't have any
better a sense of humor than Stalin. I suppose the work was able to sneak
because it satirized life in the thirties, and the venom was just remote
enough in the sixties to have lost its toxicity. Many of the characters,
recognizable in the thirties as specific people in Moscow, seemed merely to
be arch stereotypes 25 years later. I don't know what Brezhnev's regime
thought of the book officially, but for the people living in the society
being satirized, it was a steam valve of humor which released all their
pent-up frustrations with their society, and it has continued to be one of the most popular works
ever written in any language. According to one report, this mini-series
attracted as many as eighty million viewers in the episode which ran during
Christmas week - an astounding figure for a country with only 140 million
What's it about? Well, do you have a few hours for me to explain? It
seems that the devil holds his annual ball in a different city every year,
and this year he has chosen Moscow. During the few days when he and his
entourage visit the city, Satan and his crew wreak havoc with the city's
residents, causing mayhem everywhere. Bulgakov chose to save his most
corrosive acid for the writer's union, a bumbling bureaucracy in which
success was measured by the political correctness of ideas rather than by
actual talent, but the author also pointed some cynical arrows at official state atheism,
the state police, government hypocrisy, the housing shortage, and various
human foibles. Like Dante's Inferno, another work featuring Satan, Bulgakov's novel chose to transmogrify his personal enemies into the most
unfortunate (and thinly-disguised) servants and/or dupes of Satan.
Intertwined with the story of Moscow in the thirties is another complete
story about Jerusalem in the time of Jesus, the centerpiece of which is the
relationship between Pontius Pilate and Jesus himself. As this version goes,
Pilate not only found Jesus to be innocent of his alleged crimes, but
actually admired the man, and wanted to learn from his philosophy.
Unfortunately, Pilate was too much of a pussy to stand up against the Jewish Sanhedrin,
which wanted Jesus out of the way, and that weakness caused him torment for
... well, eternity ... almost.
The two storylines intersect in several ways. First, the devil holds a
conversation with a hack writer and his editor in which the Dark One
recounts the Pilate story in order to refute the mistaken perceptions of the
state-approved atheism. Later, it turns out that the story is continued as
part of a novel-within-the-novel written by a character called The Master,
who seems to have had a revelation in which he saw the events precisely as
the devil described them. The two stories are interwoven, but are tonally
opposite. The satirical Moscow scenes tend toward farce while the scenes in
Jerusalem present a serious contemplation of what the historical figures of
Christ and Pilate might really have been like, stripped of the mythical
aspects of the biblical story. The juxtaposition of such unlike stories may
sound truly odd to you, and I assure you it will seem no less odd when you
read the book or watch the DVDs, but Bulgakov was not the first Russian
writer to meld the base and the sublime and to mix slapstick with
metaphysics. Bulgakov's literary idol was Gogol, whose own Dead Souls took
the same kind of approach. In the scope of world literature, Bulgakov fits
in perfectly with other writers whose work was released in the sixties and
seventies, notably Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams, and Gabiel Garcia Marquez,
all of whom juxtaposed fantasy and comic invention with serious social criticism and
high-minded spirituality. Looking back from a new millennium, the fact that Bulgakov's work was written three decades earlier than the others doesn't
seem to matter, and serves to certify his elite status among the avant-garde of
Russians have generally found the mini-series to be a faithful adaptation
of the work, if only for the fact that it usually presents a verbatim transcription of the
dialogue. Except for the deletion of some minor scenes, there is really only
one modification to the novel: an additional character. The film script
added a character not in the book, a cold-blooded high-level figure at the NKVD ("the secret police," as we know them), who delivered his lines with a
Georgian accent and a rhythm all too familiar to some older Russians. If you know your
Russian history, you know that this unnamed character is meant to represent
Stalin's most vicious crony, Beria, who was a Georgian (as was Stalin) and was
the head of NKVD. Since the same actor played this role and the role of the
scheming Caiaphas in Jerusalem, the new character served to link the story's
two worlds, and to show the pervasiveness of this type of authority figure
throughout mankind's history.
I have mixed feelings about the addition. Part of me says that one should
not tinker with sacred texts. How would you feel about some new characters
and dialogue in MacBeth or Don Quijote or the Book of Exodus? But another
part of me thinks that Bulgakov would have approved of this embellishment.
Your own reaction to the new character will probably depend on your
expectations. While many Russians wanted the story told just as they
remembered it, and thus objected to the new character, I tend to think it
was a good addition. Of course, I'm not Russian and I have only read the
book in English, and then only in the first expurgated version that came out
in 1967, so for me it is not a sacrosanct cultural touchstone that demands a
worshipful literal interpretation.
I'm less enthusiastic about the visual realization of the story. I do admire
the work that went into it, and the comprehensiveness of the treatment, and
I am impressed by all the scenes that could be presented without special
effects or with minimal effects. The director found some locations which
look like they did in the thirties, created others to match, and even found some old
newsreel footage which he was able to work in quite seamlessly.
But I find the fantasy sequences to be weak, sometimes even comically
(1) One of Satan's minions is a giant cat. The character is played by a
dwarf in a cheesy cat suit which seems to be left over from a 1950s Ed Wood
(2) The CGI in general is ... well ... without consulting my thesaurus, the word "primitive"
is the first that comes to
mind. This is a major liability in a work which features witches on
broomsticks, surreal landscapes, ancient Jerusalem, and a parade from hell,
just to name a few of the supernatural elements. The director could have
used some help from Peter Jackson or the Harry Potter people.
One other thing bothered me. Censorship. Much of Margarita's nudity is
obscured by digital blurring, and the parade of naked woman from hell are all clad in bottoms, in the manner of Vegas showgirls. These faults are
particularly egregious in that (a) the whole point of the novel is to think
and imagine freely, without the constraints of small-minded authority; and
(2) it's simply inappropriate that Satan would bother with modesty,
particularly in hell itself. To the show's credit, there is some complete
(albeit dark) nudity in the bacchanalia dancing scenes, and beautiful
breasts are on screen just about non-stop throughout the middle of the film.
Ignore those quibbles. All right, the show isn't perfect, but my general
take on the series is quite positive. I invested eight and a half hours of
my time watching a work in a language I don't understand, and I rarely lost
interest. I watched every episode straight through, and sometimes I was
curious enough to watch several in a row. I think it was time well spent.
Overall, a hearty "bravo" to those
who created the show and a special nod to those who invested in creating a Region 1 version of this three disk set.
(With wildly inconsistent English subtitles: often extremely good, but
sometimes utter gibberish. But at least I always knew what was going on.)
If you're interested, it is available through Amazon Marketplace from
Marina's Books. It is also available from another seller at double the
price, but Marina is your girl. In addition to her low prices, her customer
service is so good it is almost annoying. I ordered it online and she sent
me an e-mail almost immediately, not to tell me that she had received the
order, but to tell me it was already shipped! I thought it must be
bullshit, but it arrived post haste, in mint condition, and she has
continued to follow up to make sure I was satisfied. I was surprised to see
that her satisfaction rate was only 99% at Amazon. I wonder what that other
There is so much nudity in the 8 1/2 hours that Tuna probably could have
done a thousand collages from this film, but I decided to make it a
manageable project for my own time constraints, and concentrated on the
prettiest shots of the gorgeous Anna Kovalchuk (Margarita).
And a brief sample of the bacchanalia scene