(Eugene) Onegin and Adaptation
“Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package!” – The Smiths, “Paint a Vulgar Picture”
Onegin (1999) is British-American co-production starring Ralph Fiennes as the titular Onegin, with his sister directing and his brother composing the score. Normally, any kind of nepotism like that would be an easy tip-off to questionable work. However, this film largely succeeds. The biggest flaw is that Liv Tyler’s acting is wooden the first half of the film. By the second half, her character expresses more emotional range and Tyler’s portrayal livens up more, though her portrayal will likely disappoint viewers, especially those unfamiliar with Pushkin’s novel. But as an adaptation of Eugene Onegin, the film does stay faithful to novel in terms of plot. Because the film is a very solid adaptation, marking and evaluating every similarity and difference from the novel doesn’t make for interesting evaluation; instead, this paper will focus on how the filmmakers used the audiovisual medium to the story’s fullest advantage. Aside from faithfulness to the plot, great production design and some solid acting, this film succeeds as an adaptation in that is utilizes the strengths of the film medium effectively to illustrate the main themes of Romanticism, westernization, and fate and societal expectations of the novel itself.
The film achieves the novel’s same critique of Romanticism primarily through Lensky’s introduction. The scene is a perfect parody of the Romantic hero, as Onegin first meets him as he is (badly) singing Schubert in the middle of the woods. Lensky is over the top in his deep embrace of the natural world around him, the first shots of him in visual imitation of the famous Romantic painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich. It’s clear here how the film utilizes the strengths of its visuals, working around its lack of narration to best use the film medium to its advantage and parody Romanticism. Whereas the novel’s narrator was whimsical and directly critiqued Romanticism, the film does this the most in this scene, following the novel’s tradition of parodying romanticism well.
Regarding narration, Pushkin’s novel has a very distinct narrator, especially in the first section of the book. In the film, however, there is no narrator, so that commentative edge is lost. Dropping the narrator isn’t unheard of for a film adaptation, however, and the film functions well enough without the commentary. The narration is a key part of the original text, so those cautious about fidelity will be a bit disappointed there. The change doesn’t bother me, and was probably for the best, but purists may be annoyed at the narrator’s exclusion.
While it drops the narration, Onegin does follow the novel in that it embraces Romanticism as well. As the appreciation of nature being a major current of Romanticism, Lensky not only embraces the natural world around him, but the film does as well, often using the natural environments to reflect the emotional state of the characters. Both docks scenes in the film for example reflect the characters. In the first dock scene, the water is calm and the atmosphere is pleasant, reflecting and heightening the sensuous feeling created when Onegin and Tatyana’s eyes meet. It also helps that water is the universal symbol for sex, and Onegin has a glass bottle serving as a phallic symbol near him as he lies on the dock sensuously. Contrast this with the water in the second dock scene, where Lensky and Onegin decide to duel. The scene starts with plenty of fog surrounding the characters, perhaps hinting that Lensky’s decision lacks good judgment. After Lensky becomes resolute in his decision to duel, the next shot shows that the waters have become quite choppy, illustrating tension between the two. Throughout the film, the natural environment reflects emotions and heightens them, sometimes even implying commentary upon the characters themselves.
However, the film also embraces its Romantic roots through other various film techniques and motifs as well, such as the use of lighting, mirrors, and clothing. Many shots throughout the film utilize stark contrasting shadows, particularly on Onegin’s face to further illustrate his role as a Byronic hero and suggest duplicity. Mirrors are another prominent motif throughout the film, often either reflecting Onegin or Tatyana, suggesting a questioning of their identities in terms of their fate and societal expectations, both being main themes of the novel. Clothing is another motif illustrating these themes. Aside from Lensky’s and Onegin’s typical Romantic outfits, this motif is prominently used with Tatyana’s dresses. Throughout the film her various dresses reflect her character development and further the theme of fate, such as when Tatyana stains her white dress with ink after he finishes writing her letter to him; afterwards her clothing gradually gets darker, until finally she dresses in black after Lensky’s death. All these visual aspects of the film work together to convey the same theme of fate and societal expectations and create a faithful adaptation of the novel.
Another theme Onegin comments on is the theme of Westernization also somewhat present in the novel. Although there are some instances of commentary in the novel where Pushkin directly hints at Westernization (such as how he “must translate . . .the letter from Tatyana’s hand . . .”) and his choice of writing in Russian elevating the language, it isn’t nearly as prominent as it is in Onegin, where various film techniques such as set design, sound design, and characterization illustrate the theme. In Tatyana’s home for example, before Onegin first sees her, he sits next to what looks like a bust of Marie Antoinette. Music is an even stronger example of encroaching Westernization, where in St. Petersburg the underscoring sounds like classical European music, whereas in the countryside Lensky and his fiancée sing a peasant song, various people dance the mazurka, and “Western” music isn’t heard. The theme of westernization in best illustrated by the Frenchman friend of Tatyana’s family, who insists that “Russia has but the façade of civilized society,” emphasizing the country’s need of French literature. Whereas the set and sound design are implicit illustrates of the struggle of westernization, the French character is an explicit illustration of this dynamic. This theme is important because it illustrates Russia in an identity crisis, something particularly reflected in Russian literature. Though Pushkin’s novel doesn’t feature Westernization as prominently as other works such as Fathers and Sons, it’s plausible to suspect that the filmmakers intended to connect Russia’s identity crisis to the Onegin’s and Tatyana’s crises, all three essentially boiling down to the same question of conformity. With each identity crisis commenting upon the other, the film works excellently as an adaptation in not only meeting to exceeding the efforts of the original novel in terms of approaching westernization.
Besides its fidelity to the plot itself, the film deftly conveys the theme of fate and societal expectations through different visual motifs and film techniques. There are visual and verbal parallels throughout the film to create a sense of fatalism and foreshadowing. Onegin’s first meeting with Lensky is an excellent example of this, where his first interaction with him is shooting a gun above his head, later saying in the scene that he “could shout [him].” Later in the first dock scene, Lensky tries to convince Onegin to skip rocks with him, Tatyana observing from a distance; in the last dock scene, rocks mark the distance between the duelists, Tatyana also watching from afar. Onegin’s last scene with Lensky is with a gun, fulfilling the prophecy of sorts he foretold before. Beside the visual and verbal parallels, the theme of societal expectations is best illustrated some of the elaborate set pieces of the film. When Tatyana meets her grandmother who is arranging her marriage, she sits in a very large, ornate, and intimidating four-post bed, visually representing societal pressure to conform to expectations and reflecting her own grandmother’s beliefs. With the many motifs and techniques supporting the theme of fate and societal expectation, Onegin functions well as an adaptation to Pushkin’s novel, save for its treatment of narration.
With the themes of Romanticism, westernization, and fate and societal expectations, Onegin delivers as a faithful adaptation of Pushkin’s original novel, as well as a good film in of itself. And visually, the film is quite an entertaining spectacle both in the beauty of the set design and natural environments, but also in the intricate motifs layered throughout the film as well. Perhaps what Onegin most contributes is a good illustration of what a good adaptation should be in recognizing the differences between medium. Each has its strengths and limitations, and to truly succeed in utilizing a medium, one must know both to succeed in crafting good works of art.
Onegin, directed by Martha Fiennes. 1999; New York, NY: Samuel Goldwyn Films, 2000. DVD.
Pushkin, Alexander. Eugene Onegin. Translated by Charles Johnston. New York: Penguin, 2003.
Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin, trans. Charles Johnston (New York: Penguin, 2003), 70.
Onegin, directed by Martha Fiennes (1999; New York, NY; Samuel Goldwyn Films, 2000), DVD.