Few films suffer more withering contempt than those based on a great novel, and fall far short of greatness themselves. Literature snobs deride them for failing to capture the genius of whichever author; film snobs for being unnecessary, prestige-hungry subordinations of cinematic imagination. But I often still gain some pleasure from compromised adaptations of novels I love, if they exhibit even an ounce of independent cinematic wit and capture something of the substance of their source material that can’t be easily transcribed from the page. Richard Brooks made a mark as a director of gimmicky but entertaining morality plays like Crisis (1951) and Trial (1955), and then became, from the mid-‘50s on, Hollywood’s premiere literary adaptor, helming films of the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Sinclair Lewis, Joseph Conrad, Truman Capote, and Judith Rossner. The quality of these films wavered, but Brooks at his best was powerful and intelligent director, and whilst his reputation has subsided to near-invisibility these days, he was considered important enough in his day to be ranked in some surveys amongst the most interesting directors then at work. His conversion of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s monumental final novel into a
Hollywood film was always going to be a fraught proposition. There were obvious limitations: Russian locations were off limits to American filmmakers at the time, so the nineteenth-century, provincial Russian setting had to be entirely recreated. The novel is vast, and feature films are short, so much had to be compressed and the narrative irrelevances, no matter how important to what the novel’s actual thesis was, had to be shorn away.
There were more subtle difficulties, too. In spite of the novel’s great length, not much happens in the first half, where the keynote is a vibrant threat of violence waiting in the wings. More than a third of the film’s running time is taken up in portraying scenes that don’t actually take place in the book, but form its background story. Old libertine Fyodor Karamazov has four sons by three women. Dmitri (Yul Brynner), a soldier, and Alexei (William Shatner), a young seminarian, had the same mother; the third, Ivan, a journalist and intellectual (Richard Baseheart), was brought up by other relatives and hardly knows his brothers. They represent a metaphor of Gogol’s, one which Dostoyevsky ran with, which likened the heart, the religious spirit, and the mind to the horses hauling a troika, being Mother Russia, along. A fourth brother, Smerdyakov (Albert Salmi), is illegitimate, epileptic, and employed, or rather exploited, as a servant in Fyodor’s house, a diseased manifestation of sin. Dmitri becomes engaged to Katya (Claire Bloom), an aristocratic officer’s daughter, who’s obsessed with him after he bailed her family out of a shameful situation. Dmitri is chronically in debt, partly because of his father’s determination to spend his entire fortune in sensual indulgence to the end. He won’t give Dmitri his inheritance, forcing him always to sign IOUs. The old scoundrel does have a point, to some extent, as Dmitri treats money with contempt and also lives a life of messy, volatile indulgence.
Fyodor sets his lustful sights on Grushenka (Maria Schell), a young but worldly tavern owner, and convinces her to buy up Dmitri’s debts and then threaten to throw him in debtor’s prison, in order to force Dmitri to turn to Katya for the money. When Ivan comes to visit and Katya arrives, living with a relative to await marriage, all these fractious parties are brought into proximity. Fyodor offers Grushenka money if she’ll come to his house and sleep with him; this happens to be, mockingly, the same amount Dmitri is now in hock to Grushenka for. Katya offers him the money, but Dmitri’s too proud for that; instead she gives him the same amount to mail to her father, expecting Dmitri, as he does, to pocket it. When Dmitri confronts Grushenka, he becomes immediately smitten by her, and instead blows most of Katya’s money on a night of drunken carousing with Grushenka. The almost sado-masochistic overtones of the internecine struggle build to a head one night, as Dmitri is arrested for having clubbed in his father’s head with a pestle, a crime for which he is put on trial. But in fact this was the scheme of Smerdyakov, who claims inspiration and justification from Ivan’s atheistic treatises on the legitimacy of crime in the face of a godless universe.
Capturing Dostoyevsky’s almost hallucinogenic strangeness as a writer, as well as the irreducible complexity of the psyches he plumbed, is a task that’s defeated many filmmakers: even Kurosawa wasn’t entirely up to the job, although his adaptation of The Idiot (1951) is quite undervalued. The most successful English-language adaptation of Dostoyevsky I’ve seen, Josef von Sternberg’s Crime and Punishment (1935), balanced high expressionist stylisation and a brilliantly hysterical performance from Peter Lorre. Brooks’ gift in the early phase of his career was in presenting challenging concepts and reputable artistry in terms that were forceful and adult yet palatable to mainstream audiences. He sticks close to the novel with surprising fidelity in parts, and yet renders the material down to a far more basic drama. Gone, naturally, is Ivan’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor, as is the background and philosophy of Father Zossima, Alexei’s mentor and legendary local holy man. In doing so, Brooks essentially makes a film, then, of Dostoyevsky’s melodrama, and not his epic moral and spiritual parable. In its place is a lot of faux-Russian flavour, furiously fiddling gypsies and white nights, as the setting of the novel is changed to winter from the book’s mid-summer, a detail nobody forgets after reading the chapter detailing the ruckus about the odour coming from Zossima’s body when he’s being venerated at his wake on a hot day. Most problematically, Alexei, with his naïve yet engaged and canny Christian faith, has been reduced to a minor and rather corny supporting player, whilst Dmitri, whose outsized passions create the drama, nonetheless takes over the narrative more than he ought to, even though the edge of what comes across on the page as deeply irrational behaviour has been significantly blunted.
The last person who springs to mind to embody innate saintliness from today's perspective is Shatner, who, in his second film and
Hollywood debut, looks more than a bit odd with a monkish haircut, trying to communicate spirituality by affecting a look of bovine openness in early scenes. But his trademark angular line deliveries and Captain Kirk stare, already present in a muted, prototypical fashion, do achieve their seeming purpose in imbuing the sidelined Alexei with the necessary smarts and rectitude, particularly towards the end in which he assures Dmitri that he knows he is innocent and approves of his escaping the law. Brynner, in other films, had the right kind of supercharged egotism to play Dmitri, and he has some strong moments, perhaps most memorably when he’s merely reacting, playing a guitar as he listens to a confession of Grushenka’s about her attempts to use him to make a former amour jealous, his eyes widening a fraction aglow with boding fire, maintaining a constant stare as he absorbs her story. The greatness of Dostoyevsky’s characterisation was not in literal, realistic portraiture but in the way he always conceived of his characters as having two or even three people living within them, constantly in conflict, consuming in their changeableness, as his way of exploring the constant fluidity of the human experience. In this light, Brynner, whilst decent enough throughout, fails to work up the off-the-wall, tortuously conflicted force Dmitri needs, for the character ends up seemingly consistently too noble and reasonable, except in the couple of scenes in which he loses his temper with his father, when he releases a demonic rage that Brynner's performance needs more of.
The rest of the cast fares generally well, especially Cobb. He gives a big, theatrical performance, but seems in doing so to understand what’s required best. His Fyodor’s a physically powerful yet gross, morally weak and ludicrous being who’s fully aware of his own ludicrousness, sometimes ferocious, sometimes hideously wormy, full of spectacularly inchoate impulses and hypocritical, accusatory rhetoric. Basehart’s performance is a perfect counterpoint, full of terse, smouldering hate even as he tries to play the rational, humane savant. His performance builds well through levels of frustration and irritation, Ivan contending with his love for Katya in spite of her obsessive thraldom to Dimitri, through to the climax in which, having faked his way successfully through Smerdyakov’s gleeful re-enactment of the method by which he killed their father by pretending to be eager to hear, when his body suddenly contorts in wild, aggrieved humour in a prelude to nearly strangling his bastard sibling to death.
Bloom handles Katya with sublime confidence, shifting from desperation to clinging neurosis in trying to retain Dmitri’s affections, to subtly destructive hate in the final scenes in which she purposefully sabotages Dmitri’s hopes of acquittal, memorably calling Dmitri’s bluff when she begs him for the money in he first scene by starting to strip down, all without losing her necessary sheen of Brahmin composure. Schell, on the other hand, feels all wrong: she needs more of the peasant in her performance as Grushenka. And yet she’s good in her early scenes, tossing off brightly cynical lines with ease, as in her exchange with Cobb, whose Fyodor proposes that women should never be given money because it makes them independent and choosy, she retorts, “Bad for you but good for me,” putting down two millennia of patriarchal power with one casual bon mot. Equally good is her first scene with Brynner, spying him whilst skating on a frozen lake, looking him up and down with undisguised lust, and making an obvious, fearless come-on within moments, whilst mocking him with salutes in reply to his parade ground bark. She fares less well in portraying Grushenka’s conversion to a happy martyr.
Two other performances are worth noting. Salmi, with his mixture of the porcine and the insidious, and David Opatoshu, who each appeared in a handful of films in the period with memorable effect before sinking out sight. Opatoshu plays Snegiryov, the pathetic retired officer and agent of Grushenka’s whom Dmitri humiliates in a fit of pique by dragging around by his beard, and whose dying consumptive son Ilyusha (Miko Oscard) becomes an emblem, a la Tiny Tim, of frailty in a cruel world, insisting that his father reject a recompense of cash that Dmitri sends to him as a matter of honour. Unfortunately this aspect of the film opens the door to Brooks’ biggest mistake in the adaptation. The novel is open-ended, concluding with Dmitri’s conviction, Grushenka’s resolution to follow him into exile, Ivan beset by fever, nearly destroyed by a fatal collision of his moral self with his intellectual one, and Alexei trying to follow through on Ivan’s plans to spring Dmitri whilst finding himself a spiritual leader for the children who gather at Ilyusha’s graveside.
Brooks decides to follow through and portray the rescue as successful, which is fair enough, but he then goes one better (or worse) by having Dmitri expiate his sins by grovelling for forgiveness to Snegiryov, earning Ilyusha’s final satisfaction, a sticky moment that, whilst not exactly out of key with Dostoyevsky’s sometimes overwrought emotionalism and thematic concerns, still smacks far more of Hollywood dictates than appropriate invention. Equally tin-earned and overdone is Ivan’s repudiation of his anti-religious philosophies at Dmitri’s trial. It’s especially disappointing considering that Brooks has clearly worked hard to try and avoid rewriting the characters to obey more familiar
Hollywood precepts until this point. And yet he certainly, whilst dumbing the material down, doesn’t sink to the depths of near-idiotic simplification that dots King Vidor’s adaptation of War and Peace from a couple of years before.
Brooks’ best films – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Elmer Gantry (1960), Lord Jim (1965), In Cold Blood (1968) – and even his less successful but still vivid ones, a la Looking for Mr Goodbar (1978), usually achieved, in spite of their literalism, a tone of impassioned, but modulated hysteria and stoking emotion that made them richly dramatic. Karamazov doesn’t reach such heights, except in flashes. That said, it ought to be better known as one of the most vital American colour films of the late ‘50s, as the look of the film has a solid yet perfervid, semi-expressionistic look that suits the material (although perhaps a bit more appropriate to, say, The Devils rather than Dostoyevsky’s most realistic later novel), full of violently clashing, saturating tones, especially memorable in Ivan’s stygian encounters with Smerdyakov, defined by sulphurous hues, hellish reds and sickly greens, outdoor scenes awash in warmly harbouring lights and blue iridescent snows, with a layering of colour effects upon darkness that brings to mind, as intended, much Russian art.
The visual texture seems, as a result, to well out of the overheated, shadow-laden psyches of his characters as much as the evoked climatic extremes gnaw at their bodies. Particularly good is the scene in which Ivan discovers Smerdyakov has hung himself before Ivan can bring the police to make him confess, stirring him to beat the dangling corpse in rage, the house about him a cage of insidiously clashing colours and corroding darkness. Best of all is the sequence in which Dmitri makes his ill-fated descent on the Karamazov villa, striking his father’s housekeeper Grigori (Edgar Stehli) in the head and then clasping him in anguish, red blood coating his hands, the door to the house swinging in the wind in sinister import and the pestle he has dropped resting on the snow, dyed red by the glow from the house and driven by the wind, in a perfect image of infernal threat. It’s the sort of visualisation that truly utilises the hyperbolic beauty of Technicolor as an expressive weapon in itself. In this fashion, Brooks achieves a visual concept of Dostoyevsky that’s perhaps more effective than his fine but subtly watered-down screenplay. The Brothers Karamazov is a mixed cinematic blessing, but finally an honourably solid, occasionally stirring one.