The cultural and aesthetic challenges of putting Russia's national poem on the big screenby Yuri Senokosov / March 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
I enjoyed seeing the film of Eugene Onegin with you during your brief stay in London. I know that the film had a hostile reception in your country. Many Russians considered it impertinent of a British director to film their national poem. Critics leapt with glee upon the movie’s most conspicuous blunder-a Soviet song in a 19th-century drawing room. But I saw nothing offensive to Russia in this modest and intelligent attempt to render Pushkin to film. The idea that a nation’s culture is inaccessible to foreigners would have puzzled Pushkin, who wrote French as fluently as Russian and borrowed freely from Byron. Pushkin is credited with giving Russia a voice of its own, but he could only do that because he had assimilated everything that was best in European culture. Now that he himself has become part of European culture, it is only fair to grant Britsh artists the same licence with him.
Onegin is very much an Anglicised version of Pushkin’s poem. Martha Fiennes wisely decided not to try to replicate the Russian tone of the original. Awkward silence has replaced easy chatter, and the whole thing is pervaded by a typically English atmosphere of brooding introspection. The characters are what the Russian originals might have been had they been English. Lensky is an amicable but hapless public school boy; Onegin himself resembles one of those taciturn heroes of Victorian romance-a Rochester or a Heathcliff. Superbly acted by Ralph Fiennes, he is a more substantial figure than the “superfluous man” of Pushkin’s poem.
These differences reflect not only the translation of Russian into English, but also the translation of poetry into film. Film is a more stolid medium than verse. It is tethered, by the very nature of mechanical production, to the real world; it is best suited to the realism of a Tolstoy or a Dickens. How could one possibly reproduce in film the endless digressions and asides, the parodies and self-parodies, the irony and nonsense of Eugene Onegin? In Pushkin’s hands, the sad story of Eugene and Tatiana all but disappears under a sumptuous display of virtuosity. Pushkin is often writing for the sheer pleasure of writing itself. Martha Fiennes does not try to imitate Pushkin’s stylistic exuberance. Instead she limits herself to the bare action of the poem-a sombre narrative of thwarted love.
The combined effect of these two transformations, cultural and…