“Stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.” – Leo Tolstoy
The writings of Leo Tolstoy are brilliant and varied. He was able to expertly write traditional novels (Anna Karenina) as well as shorter works that took harrowing looks at crime and death such as The Forged Coupon and The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Some of his best writing across these works of varying genres concerned the theme of ephemeral epiphanies — how they can feel brilliant and life-changing in the moment you experience them, and how if they come true at all, they only do so after a long time.
It is fitting then that part of the legacy of this versatile artist is a series of films that are all radically different in style but deal with this same theme. For example, director Joe Wright’s adaptation of Anna Karenina (2012) features beautifully bright colors and is famous for its theatrical storytelling devices. These devices, including theatrical sets that certain actors change during some shots, make you feel like the world of the 19th-century Russian aristocracy was fake and unsatisfying. Part of the message of the novel version of Anna Karenina, as well as this film, is that the world of the Russian countryside is more real than its urban equivalent. The filmmakers convey this epiphany in a single thrilling shot in which the down-to-earth Levin leaves a theatrical set for the real locations of the Russian countryside.
In contrast to the visually decadent Anna Karenina is L’argent (1983), which has a more muted color palette. This French film is based on The Forged Coupon, a lesser known Tolstoy story about the string of crimes that result from a young man using a forged banknote. It is the last film directed by the legendary French filmmaker Robert Bresson, who famously sought to purge any and every influence of theater from his films. This resulted in films such as L’argent, which are deeply cinematic in their use of film grammar and chilly in their performers’ restrained style of acting.
It is also worth noting that The Forged Coupon featured a two-part structure. The first part shows a young man committing a crime with a forged banknote; the second part shows his redemption. Bresson omitted the second part in his adaptation of the story, but dealt with the theme of an “ephemeral epiphany” in his own way. The character of Yvon, who has dealt with tragedy throughout the film, is given a potential shot at redemption through a relationship with a young woman. Instead of getting a Tolstoyan epiphany about the grandness of human kindness, Yvon kills her and her family. It’s a bleak punchline and a biting rebuke to the idea of redemption.
There are many film adaptations of Tolstoy’s works, including numerous versions of his famous novels War and Peace (including an Oscar-winning version that is over 8 hours) and Anna Karenina. But one of the best, if not the best, is Ikiru (1952), Akira Kurosawa’s loose adaptation of Tolstoy’s late novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
Ikiru and The Death of Ivan Ilyich are both about minor bureaucrats who reckon with terminal illness. But whereas The Death of Ivan Ilyich is most concerned with death, Ikiru is more concerned with life. Kurosawa’s film asks a single central question which is consuming the protagonist Kenji Watanbe: what do we do with our time on Earth, especially when that time is at its most limited?
Kurosawa uses a fascinating cinematic style to explore various answers to this question. He leaps around in time — the first shot informs us of Watanabe’s cancer before he knows he has it — and uses a two-part structure so brilliant that I won’t spoil it. He uses unexpected angles and tracking shots throughout that lead to some of the best black-and-white cinematography in Kurosawa’s career.
One of the greatest sequences deals with Watanabe’s epiphany that there is a way to live meaningfully before he dies. Kurosawa uses effective cutting between simple medium shots and close-ups as Watanabe finally realizes that there is a way to make his last days on Earth matter. These shots and editing also emphasize actor Takashi Shimura’s masterful expressions as his face fills up with surprise and joy. It’s a moving depiction of an epiphany that proves to be more permanent than the others we have seen.
There have been many adaptations of Tolstoy’s writings for other art forms. But it is fascinating that these films, which were made in different decades and countries, mostly deal with the same theme in different ways. Most of them offer an essentially Tolstoyan exhortation: our moments of clarity may be brief, but we should use the truths that we learn from them to make our lives better. Watching these films may even inspire similar epiphanies in you.
On May 18, experience an Oscar-winning Tolstoy adaptation with IU Cinema’s screening of Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace. This screening is part of the Beyond Epic series. There will be a 45-minute intermission approximately four hours into the screening for a meal break. Food-truck service will be available outside of IU Cinema from 4:00–4:45 pm.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.