Alexander Burry and Frederick H. White (ed.): Border Crossing: Russian Literature into Film

Edinburgh University Press 2016, ISBN 978 1 4744 1142 4, 298 pages.

Marija Weste
Russian literature; Film adaptation; cross cultural communication

Border Crossing. Russian Literature into Film is a collection of eleven essays and articles which focus on Russian literature. Each chapter analyses films based on Russian literary works. This collection, edited by Alexander Burry and Frederick H. White, follows the thematic complex laid out at a 2002 conference at the University of Surrey organized by Stephen Hutchings and Anat Vernitski. Hutchings and Vernitski edited a volume entitled Russian and Soviet Film Adaptations of literature, 1900-2001: Screening the Word in 2005 in the BASEES / RoutledgeCurzon series on Russian and East European Studies dedicated to the relationship between Russian literature and the camera (Hutchings 2005). The book edited by Vernitski and Hutchings is limited to the Russian-language films produced in the twentieth century – in other words, Russian and Soviet screen adaptations. The volume Border Crossing extends the scope of research by including non-Russian film adaptations and by, to some extent, redefining the concept of “screen adaptation” itself.

Each chapter of this volume includes a brief summary and analysis of relevant literary hypotexts followed by an analysis of a film form and themes depicted in it. The volume is organized chronologically, starting with screenings of adaptations of Russian literature of the mid-nineteenth century, including works of Fëdor Dostoevskii and Lev Tolstoi, then depicting the beginnings of the Soviet era through the works of Il’ia Ilf and Evgenii Petrov, and, finally, exploring the mid-twentieth century works of Vasilii Aksënov.

Similarly to the volume authored by Vernitski and Hutchings, the foundation of this book was laid at a conference entitled Adaptation: Russian Text into Film, held at the Ohio State University in 2013. Alexander Burry brings up the concept of the transposition of Russian literary texts into film (Burry 2016: 3), explaining the intention of Border Crossing in terms of a deliberate departure from the concept of screen adaptation itself, seeing this concept as imposing restrictions on the possibilities within the relation between literature and film. The binary opposition of “original” and “adaptation” asserts the primacy of literary text. The approach taken in this volume is based on Robert Stam’s proposal to view film adaptations as a Bakhtinian dialogue amongst various intertexts on one hand and, on the other, to adopt a culturological approach to these film, understanding them as cultural texts entering different temporal, spatial, and social contexts. on the other. Referring to Stam’s theories of intertextuality and Gérard Genette’s theories of hypotextuality, Burry explains the significance of approaching screen adaptations as a reading of original and thus equally valuable cultural texts (ibid.: 7). This is an important development, though it only reflects the dynamics of recent decades. From my point of view the key feature of the approach employed in Border Crossing is the attention paid to changes of time and space, which is indispensable in cinematically reading Russian literature.

The approach to research in this text is remarkable: each film analyzed is immersed in its cultural context. As proclaimed by Burry, the essential task of the research in this volume involves exploring how the adaptation of a Russian literary text to another medium and to another cultural space and time opens up a sensitive area of transition where it is possible to clarify the complex cultural semantic language that takes place at the intersection between Russian and world cultures.The reference to crossing borders, appearing in the volume’s very title, refers to the authors’ focus on time and space. This focus is chronotopical as it is on intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships expressed in literature (Bakhtin 1981: 84). According to Bakhtin, literature – and, I would argue, art in general and film in particular – is an activity of reflecting upon and processing isolated aspects of time and pace available at a given historical moment through the devices available at this particular moment (Ibid. 84). Thus, analysis of screen adaptations must be informed by reflection upon their temporal and spatial conditions. Burry explains that the aim of Border Crossing is to examine how changing political, cultural, economic, and social circumstances affect cinematic hypertexts (Burry 2016: 16).

The first essay of this volume – “Across the Russian Border”, authored by Thomas Leitch – directly addresses the metaphor of crossing borders discussed by Burry. Leitch states that both adaptation and border crossing are equally factual and metaphorical concepts. Screening of Russian novels by Western European, Indian or American filmmakers demands factual presence and accessibility of Russian literature, protagonists crossing fictional borders (re)presented in films is another aspect touched upon in this volume, not to mention the issues of crossing borders in media formats, genres and time between films and their literary hypotexts. Leitch’s innovative approach to these concepts is his inclusion of changes in readership/viewership. He employs the somewhat unexpected term “market” to refer to the changes in reception that are brought about by adaptation of classical novels to the capital-intensive medium of cinema (ibid.: 17). Leitch extends the “borders” of the metaphor of border crossing, exploring not only the crossing of geographical, historic, and economic borders, but also the crossing of hermeneutical borders, by referring to Cristina Della Coletta (ibid.: 18). Leitch analyses cinematic adaptations of Russian literature in Hollywood and internationally co-produced movies in the twenty-year-long period of the Cold War following the end of the World War II. The focus of his research is on the virtual border crossing represented in these works. After analysing over a dozen films, Leitch arrives at a conclusion which is formulated in his analysis of David Lean’s 1965 film Doctor Zhivago (USA). Leitch writes that the journeys of protagonists never take them anywhere except to different scenery (ibid.: 38). The Hollywood productions of the Cold War era suggest either disavowal in naming the enemy which the movies (re)present or dilution of Russia’s borders by presenting characters in universalistic terms; in doing so neither characters nor audience need to cross borders (ibid.: 39). I believe that Leitch’s research provides valuable insights into the dynamics involved in portraying the Other in Hollywood productions of the Cold War period.

The second article, “Dostoevskii’s “White Nights”: The Dreamer Goes Abroad” by Ronald Meyer, contains the broadest research of the volume: it extends from the literary text by Fëdor Dostoevskii written in Russia in 1844 to Luchino Visconti’s film Le Notti Bianche / White Nights (1957, Italy) and Robert Bresson’s film Quatre Nuits D’un Rêveur / Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971, France, Italy), then all the way into twenty-first-century Indian cinema with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Saawariya / My Love (2007, India), finally concluding with José Luis Guerín’s European co-production En la ciudad de Sylvia / In the City of Sylvia (2007, Spain, France). A remarkable feature of all these films is a recurring spatial construction made up of two worlds of reality and dreams, which are mutually permeable for their protagonists and audience. Meyer argues that the way of seeing “White Nights Text” is shaped not only by Dostoevskii’s hypotext, but also, and cinematically more influentially, by Visconti’s intertext (ibid.: 41). Meyer goes so far as to claim that Visconti’s and Bresson’s films supplant the hypotext in their subsequent transpositions by brilliantly decontextualizing Dostoevskii’s story and recontextualizing it in their contemporary Europe (ibid.: 53). Over the course of these changes of media, as well as of cultural and historical context, Dostoevskii’s narrative is stripped of its references to the social, national, cultural, and economic context of eighteenth-century Russia and transformed into a visual cinematic tale.

In the volume’s third essay, “On not showing Dostoevsky’s work”, Olga Peters Hasty argues that director Robert Bresson’s film Pickpocket (1959, France) successfully creates distance from the literary pretext of Dostoevskii’s works. From Peters Hasty’s point of view, Bresson’s approach to Dostoevskii is individual: Bresson engages with Dostoevskii in an ideational sphere (ibid.: 64). Ideational ties between Bresson and Dostoevskii, argues Peters Hasty, are of greater significance for understanding this adaptation than a focus upon the reproduction of novelistic and psychological stories or their cultural recontextualization. Pickpocket engages in a dialogue with Dostoevskii’s Prestuplenie i nakazanie / Crime and Punishment and presents Bresson’s own reflections and contemplations on the issues raised by Dostoevskii. Bresson works against the referential hypotext by replacing Raskol’nikov’s axe murders with Michel’s pickpocketing and by employing journal entries to create the protagonists’ world in the film. Peters Hasty argues that the brutality of Raskol’nikov and the petty crimes of Michel equally demonstrate the notion of the exceptional man sith which the respective characters identify (ibid.: 74). Both Dostoevskij and Bresson explore how the boundaries between self and others can be negotiated to attain selfhood (ibid.: 76). The journal entries in Bresson’s film allow Peters Hasty to involve another text by Dostoevskii; namely, Igrok / The Gambler, which is written in the first person in order to draw readers to the protagonist’s inner world. Bresson emphasizes the subjectivity of the camera by employing the format of a diary. Peters Hasty interprets the journal entries in this film as director’s way to reintegrate the protagonist’s divided selves and to reconnect with the surrounding world on screen (ibid.6: 70). She states that the eye of the camera merges with protagonist’s mind’s eye to show his inner vision on the screen (ibid.: 71) The events are organized according to their significance to the protagonist, enabling viewers to put the plot together from these subjective pieces. According to Peters Hasty, in this way Bresson develops cinematographic, as distinctly different than literary, tools to convey the inner world of his protagonist (ibid.: 69).

S. Ceilidh Orr also devotes her research to Bresson’s 1959 film Pickpocket. In the article “Stealing the Scene: Crime as Confession in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket”, Orr argues that in Bresson’s film the crime itself is a confessional act. Similarly to Peters Hasty’s observation, Orr sees Dostoevskii’s Prestuplenie i nakazanie as a not-quite-assimilated hypotext (ibid.: 86). Peters Hasty considers the journal as the key genre of Pickpocket and builds a connection between Dostoevskii’s and Bresson’s works, supporting her argument with a reference to Dostoevsky’s Igrok. Orr opposes Peters Hasty’s argument that Raskol’nikov and Michel share a self-perception as “extraordinary” men. She claims that Michel only borrows Raskol’nikov’s explanation for his own deeds because of his strong urge to confess, rather than out of a belief in his own exceptionality (ibid.: 95). According to Orr, the confessional characteristics of Bresson’s film make reference to Albert Camus’s L’Ètranger / The Stranger (ibid.: 92). Furthermore, the act of confessing is represented through a mute gesture, implying Michel’s crimes are a confessional act which cannot be articulated. Orr concludes that Bresson creates a form of confession influenced by, but distinct from, those found in the works of Dostoevskii and Camus, which leaves the viewer realising what she or he does not understand and cannot say (ibid.: 99).

In his essay “The Eye-deology of Trauma: Killing Anna Karenina Softly”, Yuri Leving , in contrast to Peters Hasty and Orr, does not analyse the transposition of a literary text to film as a dialogue between authors – rather, he focuses on the presentation of one key scene in various hypotexts of the novel Anna Karenina by Lev Tolstoi, published in serial installments from 1873 to 1877. In his analysis of Anna’s suicide scene, Leving begins by describing the social and historical context of suicide in 1870s Russia and continues with a brief history of Anna Karenina film interpretations. Referring to Eisenstein’s analysis of Griffith through Dickens, Leving emphasizes numerous “cinema-ready” qualities present in Tolstoi’s novels, such as the dissolve, the superimposed shot, and the close-up (ibid.: 104). Russian researcher Irina Mart’janova describes this quality of Russian literature in the twentieth century as "kinematografičnost'" (cinematographicity) tracking it in works by Andrei Bely, Michail Bulgakov, Vladimir Nabokov, Ilia Ilf and Evgenii Petrov (Mart’janova 2002), while finding its origins in Aleksandr Pushkin’s and Lev Tolstoi’s oeuvre. Leving’s study of cinematic representations of Karenina’s suicide includes a literal, straightforward transposition of the suicide sequence. Leving notes that each storyboard differs from author to author and from film to film each creating their own distinctive visual language from Tolstoi’s hypotext (Leving in Burry 2016: 110). Leving analyses the development of references to Lumières’ L'arrivée d'un train / The Arrival of a Train (1896, France) being replaced by references of early films to Dziga Vertov’s Chelovek s kinoapparatom / Man with a Movie Camera (1929, UdSSR) and Luis Buñuel’s Un chien andalou / An Andalusian Dog (1929, France) in various cinematic representations. Leving links Karenina’s filmic representation to technology and sex. Many representations of Karenina’s suicide on screen share recurring visual elements: candle, eye, knife, blood. Leving concludes that in the course of crossing borders in time as well as in geographical and medial space, Anna Karenina has lost her distinctive Russian character, becoming an international tragic figure (ibid.: 119).

Alexander Burry, in addition to writing the introduction, makes another contribution to the volume in which he analyses Karen Shakhnazarov’s interpretation of Anton Chekhov’s Palata № 6 / Ward no. 6. Burry argues that Shakhnazarov diverges radically from the attitude toward fidelity to literary works on the screen by using the genre of mockumentary, where the fictional plot intersects with interviews of actual patients of a psychiatric hospital (ibid.: 121). This director’s choice addresses not the actual literary text, but the major themes of Chekhov’s Palata № 6 . The unstable boundary between madness and sanity and the elusive possibility of redemption are themes represented in the film, although Burry sees Shakhnazarov’s position between Dostoevskii’s hope and Chekhov’s pessimism (ibid.: 134). Burry notes that Shakhnazarov extensively explores the metaphorical parent-child relations which manifest in the hospital setting of Chekhov’s play, emphasising a kind of infantilisation of patients in his film. Burry argues that by filming children, not patients, at the end of the film, Shakhnazarov suggests that a vicious circle of cyclical violence and abuse is depicted by Chekhov and other writers (ibid.: 137).

The volume’s editor Frederick H. White’s essay “A Slap in the Face of American Taste: Transporting He Who Gets Slapped to American Audiences” looks at a play by Leonid Andreev and its transpositions as a film, a novel, and an opera. White provides an overview of Andreev’s understanding of panpsyche theater, emphasising the duality which structures his approach to the tensions within internal/external actions of characters, real/circus worlds, and acceptable/unattractive truth. White criticizes Victor Sjöström’s film He Who Gets Slapped (1924, USA) for losing this sense of duality, but praises the psychological motivation of the film. White then analyses a novel adaptation by George A. Carlin in 1925 demonstrating how Carlin combines elements of both the play and the film. Finally, he turns to the operatic hypertext by Robert Ward and Bernard Stambler from the year 1956. White concludes that Andreev’s circus, the metaphysical space of the hypotext, is transplanted into the fertile soil of the American circus, making the various hypertexts culturally familiar and transforming them into a new source of entertainment for American audiences (ibid.: 141).

Alastair Renfrew, renowned for his publications on Bakhtin and the Russian formalists, discusses the multiple facets of Jurij Tynjanov and the screen version of his novel Lieutenant Kijé (Poruchik Kizhe / Lieutnant Kijé 1934, UdSSR). Renfrew’s discussion establishes a circle from Formalist engagement with cinema through examination of Tynianov as a theorist, writer and administrator to the recent discourse around the relationship between literature and cinema and to the question “Against Adaptation?” posed in the title of this chapter.

Robert Mulcany analyses Mel Brooks’ adaptation of Il’ia Ilf and Evgenii Petrov’s novel Dvenadtsat’ stul’ev / Twelve Chairs for the US-American audience. The title of his essay is “Chasing the Wealth: The Americanization of Ilf and Petrov’s The Twelve Chairs”. Transposition of this novel is a fundamentally different enterprise from the other previously-discussed adaptations not only because of the genre – comedy – but also because it is the first hypertext in this volume that belongs to the twentieth century and is written in the “Soviet system” as Aleksei Yurchak understands it (Yurchak 2006). The Soviet system, according to Yurchak, contains a set of strict rules, principles, directives, and values, along with a multiplicity of contradictions and unexpected and unforeseen possibilities – including the possibility of self-destruction (Yurchak, 2016: 37) Dvenadtsat’ stul’ev is a satire of the Soviet system. Any work within the genre of comedy is deeply embedded in the system it ridicules. The comedy by Ilf and Petrov is verbally, thematically and referentially rooted in the Soviet system. In order to escape the threat of getting lost in translation, Brooks opts for a generalisation of human foibles (Mulcany in Burry 2016: 189). Mulcany analyses transformations and extrapolations done by Brooks to Ilf and Petrov’s plot and summarises that throughout the film Brooks emphasises that personal relations are more important than financial gain. Mulcany sees the easing of political tensions between the USA and the Soviet Union during the 1970s reflected in Brooks’ film through its portrayal of the genuine human connection which develops between the protagonists, a connection initially motivated by greed (ibid.: 199).

Dennis Ioffe analyzes themes of homosexuality, Jewishness, and Anti-German sentiment in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film Despair (1977, Germany), based on a Russian novel by Vladimir Nabokov serially published in 1934 in France. Ioffe aims to highlight the personal and aesthetical differences that emerge in the border-crossing between Nabokov and Fassbinder and concludes that Fassbinder’s hypertext, upon relocation within Nazi Germany, allows for a more intricate cultural map of sexual and religious identity (ibid.6: 220).

In the next article “‘The Soviet Abroad (That We Lost)’: The Fate of Vasilii Aksënov’s Cult Novel A Starry Ticket on Paper and on Screen”, Otto Boele analyses two texts of extreme spatial and temporal proximity: the film Moj mladshii brat / My Younger Brother (Aleksandr Zarkhi, 1962, UdSSR), adapted from Vasilij Aksënov’s novel Zvezdnyi bilet / Ticket to the Stars from the year 1961. Boele is the first in this volume to address the issue of the ideology of vigilance within the Soviet state and its interference with the process of film adaptation. Although his main interest is post-Soviet viewer reactions published on the Internet, he examines not only the novel and the film themselves, but also the film’s production history. Boele demonstrates how ideological pressure grows and becomes more complex as the novel Zvezdnyi bilet becomes a film. Similarly to Tynianov, discussed by Renfrew in chapter eight of this volume, Aksëenov recycles his own hypotext for screening. Analysis of audience reactions fifty years after the film’s release proves that the question of film’s fidelity to Zvezdnyi bilet is replaced with a demand for historical accuracy (ibid.: 236). Boele concludes that this adaptation resulted in crossing of both temporal and spatial borders due to the constant vacillation between liberal and conservative cultural agendas within the Soviet system; however, I would argue that only viewers and readers of today undertake this metaphorical journey in time and space to the Soviet past.

The final essay of the volume, authored by Frederick H. White, names screen versions of literary works as they appeared in Russian, French, German, Italian, American, and British cinemas, arranging the works according to their respective years of production. a In this way, White gives these films a “passport”, as announced in the chapter’s title: “Conclusion: Passport Control – Departing on a Cinematic Journey”. White places these films in their historical and political context with varying degrees of rigidity. Russian cinema is almost exclusively depicted as bound to historical and political changes; however, when speaking of British and American cinema, White mentions awards, actors, and success at the box office.

To conclude, Border Crossing: Russian Literature into Film should be of interest to film scholars, particularly to those specialising in the screening of literature and the history of film. In addition, this volume could be of equal interest to researchers of literature, as it explores a broad variety of approaches to reading literary pretexts.

Marija Weste

Linköping University


Marija Weste is currently a doctoral student at the Graduate School “Culture and Language in Europe” at Linköping University, Sweden. She is working on her dissertation Chronotope in Film: Case Study of Soviet Latvian Films in the 1960s.


Bakhtin, M. M. 1981. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. by Michael Holquist, trans. by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin; London.

Genette, Gerard. 1997. Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree. Lincoln.

Hutchings, S., Vernitski, A. (ed). 2005. Russian and Soviet Film Adaptations of Literature, 1900-2001. Screening the Word. London; New York.

Mart’ianova, Irina A. 2002. Kinovek russkogo teksta: Paradoks literaturnoj kinematografičnosti. Sankt Petersburg.

Stam, Robert. 2005. Literature Through Film: Realism, Magic, and the Art of Adaptation. Malden, MA.

Yurchak, Aleksei. 2005. Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: the Last Soviet Generation. Princeton; Oxford.

Yurchak, Aleksei. 2016. Eto bylo navsegda, poka ne končilos’. Moskva.

Literary Texts

Aksënov, Vasilij. 1961. Звёздный билет / Ticket to the Stars

Andreev, Leonid. 1914. Тот, кто получает пощёчины / He Who Gets Slapped

Camus, Albert. 1942. L’Ètranger / The Stranger

Chekhov, Anton. 1892. Палата № 6 / Ward No. 6

Dostoevskii, Fëdor. 1844. Белые ночи / White Nights

Dostoevskii, Fëdor. 1866. Преступлéние и наказáние / Crime and Punishment

Dostoevskii, Fëdor. 1867. Игрок / The Gambler

Dostoevskii, Fëdor. 1869. Идиoт / The Idiot

Dostoevskii, Fëdor. 1880. Бaртья Караaмзовы / The Brothers Karamazov

Ilf, Il’ia and Petrov, Evgenii. 1928. Двенадцать стульев / The Twelve Chairs

Nabokov, Vladimir. 1934. Отчаяние / Despair

Tolstoi, Lev. 1877. Анна Каренина / Anna Karenina

Tolstoi, Lev. 1899. Воскресение / Resurrection

Tyn’ianov, Yurii. 1927. Подпоручик Киже / Lieutenant Kijé (or Kizhe)


Bhansali, Sanjay Leela. 2007. Saawariya. SPE Films, SLB Films Pvt. Ltd.

Bresson, Robert. 1959. Pickpocket. Compagnie Cinématographique de France.

Bresson, Robert. 1971. Quatre Nuits D’un Rêveur / Four Nights of a Dreamer. Albina Productions S.a.r.l., I Film Dell’Orso, Victoria Film.

Brooks, Mel. 1970. The Twelve Chairs. Crossbow Productions, The Twelve Chairs Company.

Brown, Clarence. 1935. Anna Karenina. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Buñuel, Louis. 1929. Un chien andalou / An Andalusian Dog. France.

Faintsimmer, Aleksandr. 1934. Poruchik Kizhe / Lieutnant Kijé. Belgoskino.

Fassbinder, Rainer Werner. 1977. Despair. Bavaria Atelier, Bavaria Film, Filmverlag der Autoren, NF Geria Filmgesellschaft GmbH, Société Française de Production (SFP).

Guerín, José Luis. 2007. En la ciudad de Sylvia / In the City of Sylvia. Eddie Saeta S.A., Château-Rouge Production, Televisión Española (TVE) (participation), Televisió de Catalunya (TV3) (participation).

Lean, David 1965. Doctor Zhivago. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Rose, Bernard. 1997. Anna Karenina. Icon Entertainment International, Icon Productions, Studio Trite.

Shakhnazarov, Karen 2009. Palata № 6 / Ward No. 6. Mosfil’m.

Sjöström, Victor (as Seastrom, Victor). 1924. He Who Gets Slapped. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Vertov, Dziga. 1929 . Chelovek s kinoapparatom / Man with a Movie Camera. VUFKU.

Visconti, Luchino. 1957. Le Notti Bianche / White Nights. Cinematografica Associati (CI.AS.) (co-production), Intermondia Films, Vides Cinematografica (co-production) (as Franco Cristaldi per la Vides).

Wright, Joe. 2012. Anna Karenina. Universal Pictures, Focus Features, Working Title Films.

Zarkhi, Aleksandr 1962. Moi mladshii brat / My Younger Brother. Mosfil’m.

Suggested Citation

Weste, Marija. 2019. Review: “Alexander Burry and Frederick H. White (ed.): Border Crossing: Russian Literature into Film.Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 8 (2019). DOI:


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