Dostoevskys ‘White Nights’ In Film: Comparative Adaptations

Ok, so here we go with the first of the film adaptations. I preface with the obvious caveat of being no professional critic, and it’s all still very much learning-on-the-job as it were. I will look at the literary source material briefly first then, look to practice weaving together some assessments of its translation into the film genre through two different films.

Of the Dostoevsky I have read, ( not enough by any means, the big classics still await ), I always relish the fashion in which he constructs the spirit of his characters upon a proto-Freudian psychological framework, not to mention the ease with which he manages to infuse his Russian neighbourhood with all its idiosynchratic charm.  White Nights, whilst a novella, reveals clear traces of these themes he would later deploy in his grander works. Written in 1849, when Fyodor was in his late 20s, it also contains a romanticism that would not last into his later works.

To provide a brief overview, and with a SPOILER alert at the ready,  we start with the 1st person narrator ( who remains nameless ),  who reveals his life in voluntary solitude, who has both an intimate connection to his environment, and takes comfort in the presence of other people within it, yet speaks to no-one, taking happy refuge in the fantastical realm of his preferred imagination.  One evening he meets a young woman, visibly upset, and emboldened by a masculine duty-bound sense of ‘rescue’, escorts her home to avoid the attention of some ne’er-do-wells. The briefest of acknowledgements by her provokes a melodramatic expression of emotion in him at this real-world contact, and she agrees to see him the following evening.

Over the course of the following 3 nights the tales of both restless souls are exchanged in their nocturnal encounters. The male lead expands further on the boundless beauty within his fantasy-world – for example he has ‘met’ and loved his perfect woman many a time, though of course she doesn’t exist – and his self confessed awkwardness in the real world, whilst on her side she reveals a typical tale of the trapped lady – literally pinned to her blind grandmother, lacking in social excitement, and thus when the ‘new’ lodger comes in proves to be a cultured and attractive slightly elder fellow, she is immediately drawn to him and the prospect of escape. Any romantic escapade is cut short by his announcement he has to go away for a year. They make a pact, that if she is still free in a years time, they will meet up by the canal and marry when he returns.

Fast forward to the present and her waiting for her ‘man’. She confides her woes in the friendship of our narrator, who rather predictably is falling for her. However he looks to help her discover whether this man is in town and if so why he hasn’t been to see her through writing a letter.  His idea of ‘self-sacrifice’ as the friend-helper is more revelatory of Dostoevskys awareness of the psychological ‘duality’ or conflict between the felt and the expressed; it is arguable that our narrator takes a perverse masochistic pleasure in his ‘chosen’ mindset, that in fact energises his spirit in a fashion. As the novella is closing it seems the woman has abandoned her first love, in realisation of her affections for the very present narrator, and communicates that if she will learn to forget her old love she will replace it with one for him, and then the predictable twist arrives as her old lover finally enters the stage, and she then rushes into his arms (not before giving an embrace to the narrator), leaving our nameless male lead to muse that perhaps that one ‘real’ moment of happiness can sustain a lifetime or as FD puts it :

God in heaven!! A whole moment of bliss! Is that not sufficent even for a man’s entire life?…

It’s a brief tale of 55 pages, yet very enjoyable nonetheless. I can’t help but admitting identifying to a a certain extent with the inveterate dreamer, and the cautionary warning against living in the fantasy world! It’s also wonderfully rich with allusions to this unconscious realm that FD is only partially aware of; the text hints at a duality of internal discourse in his expressions of how he interacts with his world, whilst in another scene, takes comfort in the hidden corners from which he can create and control worlds of his own,  risk-free.

Moving onto the film adaptations then, it is interesting to note the different styles adaopted by Luchino Visconti’s Le Notti Bianche a stylised 1957 tale, and Robert Bresson’s 1971 French version ‘ Four Nights of a Dreamer’. Both contain a degree of fidelity to the structure of the plot and contain similar scenes yet they have produced markedly different versions.

Thematically, the consideration of the split-subject of the nameless narrator is, in my view,  critical to Dostoevskys text, yet Visconti’s version discounts it entirely – indeed we view the film entirely through the female lead, and creates an entirely different perspective for the male lead. Indeed, one can’t help but think how very ‘Italian’ this male lead is, the rescuing of the ‘damsel-in-distress’ – for whom melodrama appears to be something of an understatement, and who believes he knows best in terms of the interest of the lovelorn girl. In this version instead of writing the letter to her absent future-fiance, he tears it up, and strongly suggests she learns to move on, and not waste her life upon a man she hardly got to know. By contrast the Robert Bresson version equally evokes a national prejudice of ‘how very 70s French’. Bresson’s minimalism is well applied here to the psychology of the main character, who uses a tape recorder to narrate his experiences and thoughts, and desires for the lead lady ( here called Marthe ), which becomes interpreted as a creative source for his work – he is an artist in 1971 Paris. The emotional split is suggested here as mere essential functionalism.  In a closing scene, he quotes the final lines ( see above ) verbatim from the source text, and plays it back to himself whilst he is painting his canvas.

The Bresson version also quotes more precisely from the novella than Visconti’s, yet only sparingly so. Personally I found the reduction of emotive, yet sprawing, first person narrative to simple glances, and silent actions to be disconcerting. Of course, a mere voice-over of his thoughts would have been too simplistic, but in the portrayal of this character, the lack of dialogue for me ensures he comes across rather more as a disturbing pervert when he spends time staring at women through shop windows and following them in a stalker-like fashion.  It goes beyond a sense of social awkwardness. It impacts further on an implausible encounter on the canal with Marthe, where given the limp nature of his persona, her supposed affection or welcome for his assistance comes across as faintly ludicrous.

In this respect the Italian version succeeds, helped I suspect, by a broader local cultural predilection for dialogue that enables a more immediate rapport with both characters from a viewer-to-character and character-to-character interaction.  When they both meet, again at the canal – one of the constants across all texts – it comes across as genuine. Yet once more there is a difference in the image of the female lead. From reading the book, whilst one reads a naiviety and youthfulness in the lady she still is as at least the equal of the male protagonist.  In this regard Bresson succeeds (I care equally little for both) ,  but Visconti’s lady is ridiculously melodramatic ( Maria Schnell ), and whilst the text does encourage emotional excitement, intrigue and the pain of possible unrequited love, here it comes across as peculiarly over the top – but again, I’m a 21st Century Englishman, not a 1950s Italian – perhaps thats more a reflection changing cinema tastes. However, in spite of this, the development of the relationship of Visconti’s film is far, far more enjoyable than Bresson’s, the latter of which emphatically emphasises the ideas of unease and social awkwardness between the two. Whilst the latter is closer to Dostoevsky’s text, and admits deeper analysis, the more ‘traditional’ coupling of Mario and Natalia in Italy enjoys the sparkle of well crafted chemistry that will always draw the viewer in.

In his adaptation Visconti does to an extent transpose merely the structure of the original, and plays out the romance and social commentary of his own choosing. I’ve already mentioned the total change in the lead male character for example, whilst there are alternative ( yet equally stereotypical ) figures of women involved – after blonde, child-like Natalia pushes Mario away when she realises she’s late for her evening possible rendez-vous, Mario accepts comfort from a dark haired prostitute who has been regularly walking in the background of canal scenes previously.  Going under the bridge, barely lit in the backdrop are shots of the homeless, and he nearly engages in some underworld activity of his own, eventually getting himself into a scrap when the spurned prostitute accuses him of assault through spite. Furthermore there is also the maternal image of the woman, in his housekeeper who yells at him to sort himself out in another sequence.

Bresson though, whilst the film is altogether not as enjoyable as Visconti’s is more faithful to capturing an essence of the original in terms of the psychology of the character, and in twisting it to link it in to suggesting the emotional suffering was fake, or artificial in its functionality for art does frame an interesting re-reading. Just a pity the film is generally unwatchable. It’s not Bresson – his film A Man Escaped is an absolutely fantastic study of a prisoner who gradually plans and executes his plan to escape a prison cell in Lyon – but here, whilst there is a philosophically interesting point to be made, the film itself falls away into needless esotericism.

Right, next up for analysis, Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum. Sneak peak – book is utterly fantastic :p