Screen Adaptations of Uncle Vanja: A Bazinian Approach

As a playwright, Anton Čexov yields only to Shakespeare in popularity among film makers. However, only those who succeeded in cultivating a delicate balance between the cinematic, potentially already present in Čexov, and the theatrical, succeeded in adapting Čexov to the screen. The purpose of this paper is to examine the conditions under which cinema has most successfully approached Čexov. This inquiry will serve as a first step to a more extensive study of Čexov’s playwriting through the prism of cinema. Specifically, I will look at two screen adaptations of Uncle Vanja: A. Mixalkov-Končalovskij’s Uncle Vanja and Louis Malle’s Vanja on 42nd Street.

A set of categories derived from the scattered writings of French film theoretician André Bazin provides a relevant point of departure for this analysis. “What makes it possible to believe that the cinema exists to discover or create a new set of dramatic facts,” writes Bazin, “is its capacity to transform theatrical situations that otherwise would never have reached their maturity.” Čexov’s plays, which demanded a reform of the entire theatrical system, contain a plethora of potentially cinematic situations unfit for the stage. This constitutes the complexity of their texts. Bazin maintains that “a play whether classic or modern is unassailably protected by its text.” Behind Bazin’s insistence on loyalty to the text lies his idea of the theatrical reality as an entity, separate from the dramatic reality. For Bazin, the written text of a play achieves a synthesis of both. Bazin’s brand of realism requires loyalty to the raw material and its specific reality. He offers the following model of reconciliation between cinema and theater: cinema should not pretend to make us forget the conventions of the theater. Films Uncle Vanya and Vanya on 42nd Street retain a kind of theatricality, the former through interiorized setting, the latter by being literally a filmed performance of the play. At the same time, both films extensively resort to the cinematic bridging of the gap between theater and cinema in a way more bold than Bazin imagined. The success of both films has very much to do with the poetics of Čexov.