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Chekhov on screen: 6 unmissable film adaptations

Chekhov on screen: 6 unmissable film adaptations

17 January 2022

Anton Chekhov, one of Russia’s most famous and influential writers, was born on this day 162 years ago. His work spanned travelogues and short stories, but the author is most celebrated for his profound plays, exploring the tormented inner lives of ordinary characters.

Today, Chekhov’s plays are still staged at theatres all over the world — but how do his works translate to the screen? The Calvert Journal has picked six international and Russian-language adaptations that provide a new perspective on Chekhov’s output — perfect for literary fans who want to see one of the greatest playwrights in a new light.

Winter Sleep (2014)

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan

The winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep, is largely based on Chekhov’s short story The Wife (1892). Set amidst the stunning but austere mountainous landscapes of Turkish Cappadocia, the film is a slow-paced, meditative exploration of the relationships within a marriage, and within a community. Aydın is a wealthy actor turned hotel owner and landlord; his much younger wife, Nihal, does charity work for local schools. But their privileged existence is very different from the lives of their tenants, and the couple’s different attitudes to class soon become a source of conflict. Fittingly, Nuri Bilge Ceylan co-wrote the script with his wife, photographer and filmmaker Ebru Ceylan.

Chekhov’s Motifs (2002)

Director: Kira Muratova

This 2002 film by legendary Ukrainian director Kira Muratova brings together two of Chekhov’s works: his short story Difficult People (1886) and his one-act play Tatyana Repina (1889), which was penned as a humorous response to a play of the same name by the writer’s friend, Aleksei Suvorin. Both literary sources are perfect for Muratova, who loved to explore and exaggerate the problems of miscommunication. Difficult People follows an oppressive father who has stifled his family into silence and submission, while Tatyana Repina is a chaotic cacophony of voices, taking place in the midst of a raucous wedding ceremony. Muratova’s signature absurdist style interweaves both plots and turns them into a tragicomic farce, playing with people’s painful inability to connect with each other.

Vanya on 42nd Street (1994)

Director: Louis Malle

Written by Andre Gregory and directed by Louis Malle (otherwise known for 80s comedy-drama My Dinner with Andre), this film is arguably the most famous variation on Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya outside Russia. Starring Wallace Shawn and Julianne Moore, Vanya on 42nd Street is, strictly speaking, not an adaptation per se, but a documentation of Gregory’s production of the play. Malle opens the film on the streets of New York and follows the actors into the crumbling building of the New Amsterdam Theatre. The pre-rehearsal chat flows into the actual dialogue from the play seamlessly: there are no costumes, no props except for coffee cups, water glasses, and a table. The film is both a brilliant interpretation of Uncle Vanya and an ode to theatre — and Chekhov, most likely, would have approved.

An Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano (1977)

Director: Nikita Mikhalkov

Nikita Mikhalkov’s An Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano draws heavily on Chekhov’s works — especially his early play Platonov, which was written when Chekhov was just 18, and published posthumously in 1923. A summer day at a country estate promises idleness and entertainment to its guests — but tension starts to build when frustrated schoolteacher Platonov suddenly meets his former lover. The film boasts an all-star cast that features Antonina Shuranova, Aleksandr Kalyagin, Oleg Tabakov, and Mikhalkov himself, all of whom brilliantly transfer Chekhov’s perfect balance of humour and despair onto the big screen.

Love and Fear (1988)

Director: Margarethe von Trotta

The making of Love and Fear, a loose adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters (1900), was a truly international affair: the production was funded by Italy, France, and Germany, while the cast and crew came from all over Europe. Starring Fanny Ardant, Greta Scacchi, and Valeria Golino as the titular sisters, the film does not shy away from adding considerable changes to the plot. Director Margarethe von Trotta brings the characters to 80s Italy and re-shuffles their relationships. At the same time, she stays firmly focused on the core of the play: the sisters’ bond, their different fates, and their conflict with the sister-in-law who tries to take control of the family. A lesser-known Chekhov adaptation, the film offers a fresh take on the well-known story through the eyes of a woman.

Bear (1938)

Director: Isidor Annensky

Isidor Annensky’s filmography is full of Chekhov adaptations but his student film Bear remains one of its highlights. Based on the eponymous one-act comedy (1888), the film tells the story of an unlikely romance between bear-like landlord Smirnov and the inconsolable widow Popova, whose late husband owed Smirnov money. When Smirnov visits Popova, she tells him that she is not yet able to pay the debt — but Smirnov simply refuses to leave. His antics spark comic moments, a challenge to a duel, and, finally, to a spark of love. Almost a century later, Annensky’s playful comedy still holds up.

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