The movie is better than the Tolstoy story Film: Sergei Bodrov's Oscar nominee 'Prisoner of the Mountains,' based on Tolstoy's early story 'Prisoner of the Caucasus,' develops characters and plot better and shows war as the tragedy it is.

February 16, 1997|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

It's infrequent enough that you can say the movie is better than the book, but it's a positive rarity when you can say it of a book not by John Grisham or Michael Crichton, but by Leo Tolstoy.

Yet such feels like an absolute truth: Sergei Bodrov's "Prisoner of the Mountains," which opens Friday at the Charles and has just been nominated for an Academy Award, is in every way superior to the mid-19th-century text on which it is based, "The Prisoner of the Caucasus" by the then young cavalry officer who would later become one of the world's great novelists.

Is this a fair statement? Probably not. "Prisoner of the Caucasus," after all, really isn't a book: It's a short story of less than 20 pages (I read it in the Penguin edition, lamely translated by Ronald Wilks), one of the first things the young count did when he returned from his own military adventures in that land and took up the writer's trade.

It recounts the adventures of one Zhilin, described only as "an officer serving in the Caucasus" and possessing no age, no rank, no memory, no background, no reality -- just "an officer serving in the Caucasus." The Caucasus is that troublesome scut of Muslim-inhabited mountains southeast of Moscow between the Caspian and Black seas, which has been at war with Russia in all its political guises for about 200 years. Tolstoy called these tough, resilient people Tartars; today, just as tough and resilient, they're called Chechens.

Headed home on leave, the otherwise uninteresting Zhilin is captured by them. Held in a mountain village remote from civilization, he commits totally to the survivor's mind-set and resolves, no matter what, to get out alive. He tries anything: befriending his captor's daughter, becoming the village Mr. Fix-It, making goo-goo eyes at his captor's daughter, even trying to become your friendly neighborhood medic. Twice he escapes, once he's recaptured. Eventually, he makes it out. Tolstoy's climactic statement: "He ran to the [friendly] Cossacks who surrounded him and asked him where he had come from. But Zhilin was too excited to answer and could only weep and mutter, 'Comrades, comrades!' "

The story is about as basic as they come, not helped a bit by Wilks' translation into highly cliched English ("That night Zhilin did not sleep a wink.") But it's clear also that in the original Russian, the piece had little subtext. It's an exercise in pure narrative, almost a young writer's finger exercise in which he's merely trying to master the most elemental of storytelling skills, trying to create a believable sequence of events, before moving on to other techniques. It proceeds at a steady -- boring, actually -- pace, neither speeding up for some robust action sequences nor slowing down for deeper moments when the characters might otherwise encounter some elemental realities. None of the relationships has any texture or passion and traces any emotional arc. It's a story written almost without artifice, its very simplicity and matter-of-factness its chief attraction.

"The original story was very pro-Russian," Bodrov says, "and I tried to make it more universal."

Grace notes

But in an odd way, that's not true. It's not a work of propaganda that demonizes the enemy as subhuman. In fact, since the point of view is largely Zhilin's grim professional military mind-set -- unused to random observations or excessive emotion, much less sentimentality -- it's filled with what might be called professional grace notes. He respects the Tartars as military operators, as hardy, tough and cunning. He even goes to a great deal of trouble, in so small a compass, to evoke their culture, some of their language and to see them as individuals, which, after all, is the underlying humanistic theme of the story.

But the story, as a 19th-century Russian document, never questions the right of the larger country to dominate the smaller one. (How could it? The idea that imperialism was unjust wouldn't be invented for another 20 years and wouldn't become widespread for another century.) It simply takes as morally correct the right of the Russians to commandeer the ethnic entity of the Caucasus and remold it to czarist ends. It never occurs to Tolstoy that such a thing should be judged, that another moral interpretation was even possible.

"I read this story first when I was 8," says Bodrov, "and I never forgot it. It's really a child's story, very simple, like a parable. I have always wanted to make a movie of it. When the Chechen war came up, it was a great opportunity."

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