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9 Film adaptations of classic Russian literature (Netflix / Prime Video)

There is something cool about being able to say that you have read Dostoevsky, but anyone who has actually tried to read Dostoevsky, or other Russian literature of a similar vintage, will know that it is hard work! So, get your Russian literature credentials by watching these 9 film adaptations of some of the Russian classics.

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (1878) – Anna Karenina (2012)

Both Dostoevsky and Nabokov, two other authors that you will find on this list, say that this book is flawless and the best book ever written. Big call, but it must be pretty good. While the plot is about a married woman who has an affair, the story is so much more. It dives into ideas of fate, chance and powerlessness. The book has been made into movies 14 times, but probably the most watchable for modern audiences is the 2012 version starring Keira Knightley as the titular character.

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The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1880) – The Brothers Karamazov (1958)

The last novel written by the famous author, it was meant to be the first part of a series, but he died only a few months after this was published. Like many Russian novels of the time, it is also a philosophical treatise, this one of the existence of god, free will and morality. It does this through the story of the head of the Karamazov family trying to choose an heir from among his sons. It stars the incredible Yul Brynner and a very young William Shatner, which are two further reasons to watch.

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The Double, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1846) – The Double (2014)

The classic novel is about a Russian government clerk, Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin, who slowly goes mad and believes that he keeps meeting someone who looks exactly like him, but behaves in a way completely opposite to how he would. We can see some of the inspiration for Fight Club in this story. The movie version stars Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska, and is transported to America where our protagonist is a computer programmer.

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Dr Zhivago, Boris Pasternak (1957) – Dr Zhivago (1965)

This book had to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union by an Italian spy in order to be published in the Western world – that already makes it a tantalizing read. People at the time thought so too and it remained a best seller for 26 weeks. The author later won the Nobel Prize for literature for his poetry, but it was clearly for this work, but under a cloak as the work was considered anti-Soviet. The British movie casts Alex Guinness (yes, Obi-Wan) as the KGB agent and Julie Christie as his love interest. Some people do complain that the love story trivializes the broader story about the Russian revolution.

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Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (1955) – Lolita (1962)

It is a little questionable whether this one should be on the list as the Russian author originally wrote the book in English, and only translated it into Russian years later, but it is still considered an important part of Russian literary history. It deals with a 31-year-old literary professors obsession with his 12-year-old stepdaughter, with whom he starts a sexual relationship. Stanley Kubrick made the book into a film in 1962 starring James Mason, Sue Lyon and Shelley Winters.

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The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (1967) – The Master and Margarita (1994)

While this novel was written sometime in the 1930s, it was only published almost 40 years later when the author’s widow found the manuscript. It was critically acclaimed, so it is a wonder why the author was sitting on it. It has a typically Russian complex storyline, Master is a writer working on a manuscript about Jesus and Pontius Pilate, while simultaneously being harassed by Russian surveillance. As he slowly goes mad, his assistant Margarita tries to help him with supernatural powers. Yuriy Kara made the book into a move in 1994 starring Anastasiya Vertinskaya and Viktor Rakov.

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The Queen of Spades, Aleksander Pushkin (1834) – The Queen of Spades (1982)

This supernatural short story also inspired an opera by Tchaikovsky (1890), so that already piques our interest. The story is about gambling, though it seems that our protagonist doesn’t partake. The movie made by Thorold Dickinson draws on content from both the book and the opera, resulting in a brand new interpretation. Starring Viktor Proskurin and Alla Demidova.

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The Seagull, Anton Chekhov (1896) – The Seagull (1968)

This Chekhov novel feels a little bit like Dickens with its cast of characters. We have a fading actress, her writer lover, her ailing brother, her lovestruck son, the object of his affection, and the objects of hers. Their lives interweave, and no one ends up with the happiness that they are chasing. Sydney Lumet made the story into a film in 1968 with James Mason and Vanessa Redgrave. Though the film is much darker than the original, which broke up the gloom with Russian humor.

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War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (1869) – War and Peace (1956)

This book gives the Bible a run for its money in terms of length, so a movie version is definitely needed. Though feel worse for the author, who apparently rewrote the whole thing seven times (is that what George R.R. Martin is doing???). It describes the French invasion of Russia and dives into the influence that it had on Russian aristocratic society. The first movie adaptation of the book was done by King Vidor and stars Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda and is highly watchable despite its length (208 minutes).

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