Monday, March 4, 2013

Sympathy for the Devil

As the story goes, Marianne Faithfull gave Mick a copy of The Master and Margarita, inspiring him to pen the lyrics to the classic song, which first appeared on the album, Beggars Banquet.  Pretty amazing when you consider the book only first appeared in print in 1967.  It was translated into English by Michael Glenny the same year (still the best translation). The album came out the following year.  Godard recorded a film of the Stones trying out the song in the studio, which was released in 1970.

The novel has a long history.  Bulgakov wrote it between 1928 and 1940 when he was assistant director at the Moscow Art Theater (MAT).  The story derives its most compelling scenes from the stage, which is probably why it has been so hard to make into film.  There have been several attempts over the years, each more infuriating than the one before.

Bortko's TV mini-series was the last attempt, which met with luke-warm response.  He literally recreated the novel chapter for chapter on the small screen. The only problem was that it had no life.  He was faithful to a fault, more worried about offending the public than he was in recreating the spirit of the novel, as he so wonderfully did in The Heart of the Dog from several years before.

Andrzej Wajda did a version that focused exclusively on the Biblical scenes from the novel in Pilate and Others (1972) which won him an honorary Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2006.

Several other directors had been interested in the novel over the years.  Probably the most tantalizing prospect was that of Roman Polanski shooting a film version.  It is often mentioned in articles, but I haven't been able to find any details outside of a quote from Mia Taylor's article on the filming of the novel, in which Polanski claims Warner Brothers was interested at one point.  Polanski apparently had prepared a script, according to Andras Hamori.  But, it still needed work to read Hamori's remarks.  I assume this was in the late 80s.

Elem Klimov was given the green light to make a large budget film after the stunning success of Come and See, but apparently it was too much for him to consider at the time and he took a pass.  Tarkovsky had previously shown interest, but it was Yuri Kara who finally got a shot at it in 1994, completing a film that suffered brutal cuts before getting a very limited release in 1994 and was subsequently shelved.  In 2011, a director's cut surfaced that filled in many of the gaping plot holes, but it didn't fair well at the box office.  It had too much of an old school look.  It seemed that a younger audience was looking for something more along the lines of modern supernatural films like Bekmambetov's Day Watch.

I saw a theatrical production in Vilnius some years ago, which I thought was very good.  Oskar KorÅ¡unovas went to the heart of the novel and presented a spectacle that I thought was very much in the spirit of Bulgakov.  There have been many other theatrical productions, including this recent one by Simon McBurney, but can't say whether it is worth watching or not.

So, here we are nearly 50 years after the samizdat copy was released in 1967, and very quickly made the rounds all over the world, as if Woland himself had sent the book on its wild journey.  Yet, there is still no definitive film version of the novel.  Maybe there never will be, but it is hard for me to imagine someone else won't be interested in it in the years to come.

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