Culturally (Re)Contextualizing an Icon: Visual Presentations of Ilíf and Petrovís Ostap Bender

Anne Fisher, University of Michigan

The trickster character is a liminal figure whose picaresque wanderings (through moral, physical, and/or generic landscapes) force readers into encounters with sometimes uncomfortable ideas. In the case of Ilíf and Petrovís con man Ostap Bender, the readers who felt most uncomfortable with the text were official (the Bender novels, first published in 1928 and 1931, were treated with suspicion or condescension in reviews, and were heavily censured in 1948, with publication reinstated in 1956 only through the literary patronage of Konstantin Simonov) and professional (with a few notable exceptions, the novels were not taken seriously as literature until the mid-eighties). Among non-official, non-professional readers, however Ė that is, among the public at large, the mass reader Ė Ostapís behavior, attitude, and most of all his words enjoyed enormous and unambiguous popularity.

It stands to reason, then, that Ostapís incredibly appealing verbality would sooner or later be tested live, on stage or on screen. In fact, his adventures have been filmed three times (in 1968, 1971, and 1976, with a fourth twelve-series television film set to come out in December of 2003), presented (in whole or in part) in radio dramatizations, performed as a puppet show and a ballet, and, of course, seen on the stage. The two overarching lines of question involved in a study of these visual adaptations must be the problem of the relationship of the adaptations to the source text (centripedal, or focused on the evolution of the text) and the problem of the relationship of the adaptations to the contemporary cultural environment (centrifugal, or focused on the evolution of the context).

I am interested by the clear tendency in film representations of Ostap towards increasingly self-referential irony. If the first film adaptation in 1968 attempts to maintain absolute stylistic and contentual veracity towards the original literary text, by the third adaptation of 1976 the object of the visual text has expanded significantly. In this third film the text incorporates modes of music as different as bardic, rockíníroll, and the musical; special effects; visual references to the popular Kukryniksy illustrations to the novels; and changes to some of the charactersí lines. In a text as fetishized as the Bender novels, all these changes indicate conscious decisions to add another, self-referential layer of irony and play onto a text that is in its original form already densely packed with these elements.

The goal of the paper is not simply to trace the ways in which each filmís semiosphere is artificially expanded to be broader and richer (and therefore more rife with narrative possibility) than the previous oneís. Instead, I want to investigate the changes in attitude that these (con)textual manipulations reveal. What do the differing constructions of these three Ostaps, produced within a relatively short time frame, tell us about contemporary society? What do they reveal about how this society wished to view itself?