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Russians Await a Cult Novel's Film Debut With Eagerness and Skepticism
Paul Sonne. Russians Await a Cult Novel's Film Debut With Eagerness and Skepticism. Dec. 19, 2005.
MOSCOW, Dec. 18 - Sixty-five years after Mikhail Bulgakov's death, his novel "The Master and Margarita" has yet to lose its cultlike ability to capture readers with its mystical exploration of text, truth and a bargain with the devil for the sake of love.
Despite what has been called a curse over film adaptations of the novel and doubts about the possibility of representing the narrative's fantastical elements convincingly on the screen, an 8 hour and 40 minute television version is to begin on Monday; it is the first Russian adaptation of a story that, for many, has a supernatural presence of its own.
"For the Soviet or Russian person, meeting with Bulgakov's novel in 1966 was a taste of freedom," said Roman Yerikalov, the director of the Bulgakov House Cultural Center in Moscow. "It was contact with an unknown world. No one had written like he did, and the reader found himself in a world that no one before Bulgakov had dared to enter."
Bulgakov, who died of kidney disease in 1940, never finished editing the book's final version, and the Soviet public read it for the first time only 26 years after his death, when the journal Moskva serialized it in a government-censored version. The novel's release occurred not long after the end of the Thaw, the period after Stalin's death during which Nikita S. Khrushchev relaxed literary censorship.
"The Master and Margarita" begins with two story lines: the Devil and his retinue show up to make mischief in 1930's Moscow while Matthew the Evangelist attempts to uncover the truth about Pontius Pilate and the Crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem in A. D. 33. Halfway through the novel, Bulgakov unveils a third story line set in Moscow, in which the love-stricken Margarita bargains with the Devil to be reunited with her lover, the Master, a tormented writer-hero who pines away in an insane asylum. Bulgakov gradually weaves the three scenarios together, all the while exercising devilish lampoonery and wit to satirize Soviet life under Stalin.
Because public discussions of religion and critiques of the government had long been punishable by a trip to the gulag, the themes addressed in "The Master and Margarita" very rarely surfaced in the Soviet Union: many Soviet citizens read the Gospel story for the first time in Bulgakov's narrative.
Today, with hundreds of advertisements all around Moscow entreating Russians to watch the story of the toiling writer and his fearless lover's dance with the Devil, it has become clear that the fascination with Bulgakov's story has retained its force over almost four decades. Nevertheless, the novel's popularity will not necessarily guarantee the screen version's success.
For Vladimir Bortko, the director and screenwriter of the new adaptation -- which will run as a mini-series of 10 52-minute episodes on the state television channel Rossiya -- the project is a big gamble.
"The channel has risked both money and its reputation, and could lose both in the event that the television adaptation fails," Mr. Bortko said. "The novel is not just famous, but cultlike, and how readers will react to such a television adaptation is still unknown."
Living in a country that takes its history and literary traditions very seriously, many Russians have become personally invested in the characters of "The Master and Margarita," and such feelings may make it harder for the series to win them over.
"For the most part, we don't know anything about the Master," said Marietta Chudakova, one of Russia's foremost Bulgakov scholars, in an interview with the radio station Ekho Moskvy. "We don't even know his name or biography, but we feel like we know everything about him. Why? Because Bulgakov so cunningly constructed him, we automatically add to him every minute without knowing it."
She said that readers reimagine Bulgakov's Master themselves subconsciously, adding, "To portray that visually is a whole different thing."
If Mr. Bortko's mini-series fails to capture the public, it will confirm years of speculation that all Russian screen adaptations of the book are doomed. Though two Polish versions and an Italian-Yugoslav version came out in the 1970's and 1980's, Mr. Bortko's is still the first one in Russian. In 1994, the Russian director Yuri Kara filmed a movie based on the novel that was never released. Arguments between Mr. Kara and the producer, as well as copyright issues, defeated the attempt. The project's failure led a superstitious public to conjure up the curse theory.
Yet Mr. Bortko dismisses all such talk. He and his crew have taken pains to ensure that the psychological and surreal elements of the novel transfer to the screen in a compelling way. The series producer, Anton Zlatopolsky of Rossiya, calls "The Master and Margarita" one of the largest endeavors in the history of Russian television and the largest project his channel has ever undertaken.
The technology used to portray flying witches, a talking cat, rolling decapitated heads and numerous metamorphoses required a special-effects staff of more than 200, and the series includes 164 minutes of special-effects sequences. Mr. Bortko had wanted to buy a mechanical cat from an American manufacturer in Hollywood, but the $3 million price forced him to settle for a Russian version. Behemoth -- the obese chess-playing cat that plays a starring role in Bulgakov's novel -- will be a combination of computer technology, a costume and the Russian-made mechanical device.
In the novel, the Devil, his one-fanged assistant and Behemoth take up residence at 10 Bolshaya Sadovaya, the same building where Bulgakov lived in Moscow. The hundreds of readers who make pilgrimages to the building every year cover the walls of the stairwell leading up to the apartment with quotations and messages that praise Bulgakov and examine the novel's mystical elements.
"Return to us, Bulgakov!" reads one message. "We will be waiting."
Mr. Bortko, well-respected among Russians for his 1988 screen adaptation of Bulgakov's "Heart of the Dog," finished writing the screenplay for "The Master and Margarita" in 1996. He says the series will not seriously diverge from Bulgakov's text. His decision to make a mini-series rather than a film stemmed from his desire to adhere to the novel, to include its psychological depth as well as its mysticism and sharp wit. It would be impossible to fit all the scenes from the novel into a single film.
"I didn't write one word of the screenplay from my own ideas," Mr. Bortko said. "It is Bulgakov's text."
His attention to the finer points of Bulgakov's narrative may help him win over the Russian public this Monday. Because, after all, the devil is in the details.
A version of this article appears in print on Dec. 19, 2005, Section E, Page 3 of the National edition with the headline: With Eagerness and Skepticism, Russians Await a Cult Novel's Film Debut. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe