I have this terrible tendency whenever I read a really good book that I have an innate desire to translate it to film or TV. To spread the story to a wider audience. This tendency of course wouldn’t be an issue for an immortal, but for someone who would be lucky to live to the age of eighty, even more lucky to become a successful film maker by thirty five and further privileged to be able to produce fifteen or twenty productions- then there is an issue.
I cannot adapt all these great stories and thus I’m left a little bitter and disappointed. I have a bucket list of sorts for all the books I want to adapt. I’m definitely looking to adapt Patrick Ness’ The Rest of Us Just Live Here, as it’s a great coming of age story that serves as a rebuttal to the already exhausted Young Adult dystopian genre. I also hope to adapt another book of his, More Than This, for a mini series as I already have a soundtrack for it- but the ending needs a little adjustment.
I’m definitely going to make a TV series adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. To me it’s one of the best books ever to be written and, if I may be a bit theatrical, I believe it to be the cure of Xenophobia. Steinbeck’s writing has been a great influence on both my very own style and worldview, that raw unadulterated empathy is hard to find.
I’ve given consideration to adapting The Sun Also Rises into a Mini-series, because I like the story by itself and I already have a good soundtrack for it- but I’m hesitant because I know the real story it was based off and I have a love/hate relationship with Hemingway (well, as much as you can have a relationship with a dead yet still raging asshole). Other considerations I’ve had included 1984, as I didn’t think the movie did too well and To Kill a Mockingbird– because I think although the film is fantastic it could do with a miniseries.
That being said there are some books that I have little to no interest in adapting. Mostly because they’re bad or boring, but often times they seem to be incapable of adaptation. These stories are so complicated that they can’t exist in any other medium than novelisation. That’s where The Idiot comes in.
Now I like the book, although I have to admit it has some gaping flaws. Such as the random changes in tone, failure to address plot points, a continual back and forth between an omnipotent narrator, a third person account and the occasional fourth wall break alongside the former.
All of this makes much more sense when you consider that the novel was originally published in a Russian journal, each chapter being released bi-weekly for about a year. Dostoevsky was extremely broke at the time and his editor was up his ass for some new book, so most likely we’re reading the first and only draft.
The reason I feel that this particular story would be hard if not impossible to adapt to the screen is because there is far too much packed in it. For starters there’s the initiation into bourgeois and ruling class Pre-Lenin Russia- a rigid social hierarchy who make the British look like hippies. There’s continual references to plays, art and news of the time, there’s the issue of effectively translating the text and above all else the ability to secure such an intricate drama.
The story of the Idiot is expansive that it makes Gatsby look like a sub-tier high school drama.
The book follows a man by the name of Prince Myshkin as he returns home from Switzerland, where he’s been in treatment for Epilepsy for the past four years. On the train home he meets a man named Rogozhin, the main antagonist of the novel. At first they hit it off as they have great chemistry, but the relationship corrodes overtime as they’re both chasing after the same woman- Natasya Fillipovna.
Natasya herself is a smart, beautiful and kind woman- but she has a lot of baggage. Namely the severe grief she received upon being orphaned at age seven and then later groomed by her guardian, Totsky, to become his mistress. She holds a great deal of resentment toward her guardian but soon enough it’s replaced by self loathing and severe guilt- the guilt being that she is, in the eyes of society, a disgusting and shameful woman.
This guilt and her own mental illness causes her to do a tremendous amount of damage to the people closest to her. In particular, Myshkin and Rogozhin. The prior she is actually in love with but refuses to marry as she claims to be unworthy of him, possessing a continuous fear that she will only make him miserable. The latter she treats as a consolation prize, leading her to be very emotionally abusive to him. Which then leads him to be extremely physically abusive. It’s a very toxic relationship.
The novel is at it’s best when it focuses on Myshkin but it often dwindles away to some remarkably dull side-plots featuring the Epanchin family (an upper middle class family Myshkin befriends) and the Ivolgin family (a middle class family that Myshkin had lodges with) and all their inner workings.
There’s a good few chapters dedicated solely to explaining the family dynamics for each group. The prior is a bit melodramatic and the latter is down right dysfunctional. However we hear more of the prior than the latter. I’m not gonna lie, reading whole chapters dedicated to the dreary family dynamics while Myshkin is off screen doing some crazy shenanigans is like watching a poorly adapted Agatha Christy novel while Eyes Wide Shut plays in the background.
Due to Dostoevsky’s hectic writing schedule a good few subplots are never really addressed again. An example occurs in part three of the novel where Yevgneny (a friend of the Epanchins) asks to speak to Myshkin alone about a personal matter but that conversation never takes place nor is ever brought up again. Another example is this weird non-linear subplot Dostoevsky uses in the last third of the book when General Ivolgin steals 500 roubles from his friend and later has a stroke- which is only addressed four chapters later.
The last part of the book, part four to be exact, feels a little rushed. Dostoevsky has just bulldosed this bullshit romance between Myshkin and Aglaia (one of the Emanchpin’s daughters) so that he could have him and Natasya hook up at the end. There’s one chapter that summarises the fallout from Myskin’s choice alongside the wedding and it’s written in such a vague and unenthusiastic tone that it feels downright lazy.
My main issue with the novel as a whole is that it tries to balance between being a compelling narrative and a philosophical essay. Yes, the main tenant of the book is to discuss philosophy- but it shouldn’t come before the plot. Often times it feels a little bit repetitive and preachy, the fact that most of the protagonists and a few side characters go on these intricate monologues about the meaning of life, the morality of capital punishment and the existence of God is a little off putting- particularly when one character (Ippolit, a nineteen year old nihilist dying of tuberculosis) reads an entire essay/suicide note that goes on for four chapters.
Though I suppose of the intention was to depress, bore and agitate the reader- than Dostoevsky succeeded in regards to that later criticism.
The main theme in the novel is love, specifically romantic love. Dostoevsky writes three characters who at one point or another pursue the same woman; Myshkin and Rogozhin chase after Natasya while in the beginning Ganya (the eldest son of the Ivolgin family) is planned to be engaged to her.
Myshkin loves her for her personality, Rogozhin is obsessed with her and Ganya secretly despises her and is literally just in it for the money. Myshkin is depicted as the objective, Orthodox Christian love which Dostoevsky praises- love through compassion. In Rogozhin, love is depicted as passion and desire. In Ganya’s case, it is simply love depicted via vanity and greed.
In Rogozhin’s case his obsession with Natasya leads to him being abused and later becoming an abuser. His love is volatile, unrequited and ultimately corrosive. Ganya is literally a basic bitch who thinks he’s special because he’s somewhat smart. He’s so self focused that he seems in capable of loving anyone else, all he sees in a partner is an advancement in wealth or social status.
As for Myshkin, while Dostoevsky has intended to elevate his position of love as the definite position- there is several flaws with this proposition as well. Particularly with the fact that Myshkin doesn’t love Natasya as a person that could make his life better, but out of pity. Loving someone out of pity is as vain and pathetic as loving someone for the size of their ass.
Through Myshkin, Dostoevsky has intended to create a wonderful person. He’s kind, polite, intuitive and introspective- an all around nice guy. There’s only one issue though; he’s an idiot. Now that’s not to see that Myshkin has a low IQ or lacks some much needed observational skills, in actuality he’s quite good at understanding people.
Now, what makes Myshkin idiotic is solely down to the minor brain damage that comes along with his epilepsy. Which causes some minor amnesia, difficulty understanding words and a tendency to drift off in thought and a limited attention span. Mix this with a continual dosage of serotonin to create an eternal state of bliss, little to no experience with social situations, particularly among the Upper class, and you can see why many seem to believe that he’s an idiot.
Because he’s uninitiated to this world, he is ignorant of it’s norms. Thus he sees no problem in talking to servants in a personal or friendly manner, hanging around people deemed immoral or undesirable. Decency appears abnormal and idiotic to the indecent.
But I’m a great believer in the fact that no matter how educated a man can be, he can still be a great idiot *cough* Boris Johnson *cough* because, in my view, a smart man is someone who does smart things. So in other words, an idiot can be seen as someone who does idiotic things. In this case Myshkin fully qualifies.
I mean for starters he’s greatly diminished his wealth by handing every man who comes up to him for money, even when it’s obvious they don’t deserve it. Then of course there’s the fact that Myskin constantly surrounds himself with the worst possible people. He hangs around with violent drunkards, slanderers, thieves, backstabbers- even managed to forgive a guy who literally tried to murder him. And the guy wasn’t even sorry!
There’s also the fact that Myshkin at times can say the worst thing possible, purely by accident. Alongside an inability to understand sarcasm and is prone to take everything quite literally. He’s oblivious to the entire superficiality of the class he has introduced himself to, he’s incapable of understanding that these posh nobodies are all miserable nobodies- fake people that make a man feel a great deal of sympathy for Lenin.
Despite the general untidiness of the book, it does possess some remarkable imagery. Namely this painting of Jesus Christ by Hans Holbein.
On his trek across Europe (and by trek I mean self imposed exile so that he could get away from debt collectors) Dostoevsky saw many paintings. This one in particular struck a chord with him. Being a devout christian, it made him question his faith- even just for a moment.
As you can see here is Jesus Christ, dead and stored away in his tomb. Unlike most other paintings he doesn’t look heroic or poetic or even beautiful. No, what we see is the remains of a man who had been tortured to death. The skin around his feet, head and hands have gone blue. His eyes are wide open- giving this haunted look of despair.
When you look upon this man, you do not see a man who cold ever possibly rise from the grave. That’s why it’s so haunting.
In regards o this we have Myshkin, a Christ like figure. A truly devout and selfless man, albeit a little idiotic and naive. Dostoevsky delivers a critical condemnation through the novel, essentially claiming that if Jesus Christ were to come back in the Russia of that time. He would not just die, he would stay dead.
In Myshkin’s case, the abuse he gained in the pursuit of love and the inability to adapt to Russian society had driven him mad. His presence effected little to no one, his existence was practically worthless. For such a religious man, Dostoevksky sure gives quite the nihilistic outlook.
In conclusion the novel is imperfect, features quite a bit of outdated worldviews (ranging from the sectarian to the anti-semitic) and some hefty philosophical diatribes. However the drama, for the most part, is quite compelling. Although I think the translation may have nullified some of the narrative, it is still an enjoyable read. I recommend it to those who like Oscar Wilde, as I found both authors to possess a similar style.
Although the novel falters in parts, it does stand by it’s main idea. But it also springs to mind another idea; is it better to be a miserable genius or a happy idiot? Because although ignorance is considered to be bliss, it is also a detriment to society. One that cannot help such idiots.