The Idiot (1951)
Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of one of his favorite novels is also one of his most problematic works. The director reportedly poured all of his efforts into his postwar Japan retelling of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, resulting in a four-and-a-half-hour film — lengthy even for Kurosawa. But after a single test screening before its 1951 Japanese release, the film’s studio, Shochiku, hastily edited The Idiot down to 166 minutes. The remaining footage is lost, and while the film’s script points to where cuts have been made, knowing what kind of film Kurosawa originally had in mind doesn’t make up for the film we’re left with.
In the film, Kameda (Masayuki Mori) returns home to the far north island of Hokkaido as a war criminal, recently released from a prisoner-of-war camp and suffering from epileptic seizures. But the seizures aren’t what makes him the Idiot; rather, it’s his incredible honesty and Christ-like compassion that put him at odds with the society to which he returns, especially with his friend Denkichi (Toshiro Mifune) and the strange love triangle he enters into with the worldly Taeko Nasu (impressively played by Setsuko Hara) and more innocent Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga).
Perhaps out of reverence for Dostoevsky’s novel, Kurosawa was incredibly literal in his adaptation, as the film’s original length would indicate. This makes the studio’s editing even more lamentable — in a film that originally omitted nearly nothing from Dostoevsky’s novel and maintained such consistent pacing, the onscreen text and voiceovers that speed us through the action are especially jarring.
Even without studio interference, however, it’s doubtful that The Idiot would have been as artistically successful as Kurosawa’s better-known films, precisely because of his faithfulness to the novel’s story. Kurosawa’s choice to relocate the story from 19th century Russia to his contemporary postwar Japan is the biggest liberty he takes. Otherwise, scenes are generally filmed as they appear in the novel.
Yet Dostoevsky’s brilliance isn’t in descriptions of scenes or even dialogue; it’s the intense internal monologues of his characters and his own narrative voice that propel his novels. It’s understandably difficult to translate either of these into image, especially in a “literal” adaptation. In Kurosawa’s film, however, they’re conspicuously absent, as if the artistic liberties the director would have to take to approximate them would be too great. Maybe the film’s reliance on extreme close-ups of its actors’ faces is meant to convey what’s going on inside their heads, but the resulting effect is a persistent dreamlike slowness instead of Dostoevsky’s vibrant streams of thought.
Paradoxically, Kurosawa’s literalness has resulted in an adaptation that feels unfaithful in spirit to the original, and is more memorable for its own idiosyncratic style, dreamlike and sometimes nourish, than as an adaptation of great work.
Kurosawa might have benefited from the kind of creative irreverence that his contemporary, Argentine author and critic Jorge Luis Borges, demonstrated in his own adaptations. Borges was a prolific translator, but not a faithful one, even going so far as to change the plot in stories by one of his most beloved authors, G.K. Chesterton. Borges simply believed that translations weren’t simply copies of a superior original, but their own unique works. Surely the translation from text to film deserves the same bravado. — Benjamin Pearson