How Leo Tolstoy Shaped the Modern Melodrama



How Leo Tolstoy Shaped the Modern Melodrama

By returning to basics in both form and content, Tolstoy's last writings inadvertently nurtured an artistic medium that would take over the world mere moments after his own departure from it. 

In August 1908, a group of cameramen snuck into Yasnaya Polyana with hopes of recording Leo Tolstoy's eightieth birthday celebration. Upon encountering the paparazzi, Tolstoy turned to a friend and said,

"You will see that this little clicking contraption with the revolving handle will make a revolution in our life—in the life of writers. It is a direct attack on the old methods of literary art. We shall have to adapt ourselves to the shadowy screen and to the cold machine. A new form of writing will be necessary. I have thought of that and I can feel what is coming."

According to the journalist and critic Michel Acouturier, Tolstoy was more "closely linked to the history of the cinema" than any other writer of his time. Of the small group of people that spearheaded the Golden Age of Russian literature, only he lived long enough to visit the Great Parisian Theater in Moscow, and though he did not necessarily like what he saw there, he could not deny the medium's exciting potential.

"I rather like it," he continued. "This swift change of scene, this blending of motion and experience—it is much better than heavy, long-drawn-out kind of writing to which we are accustomed. It is closer to life. In life, too, changes and transitions flash by before our eyes, and emotions of the soul are like a hurricane. The cinema has divined the mystery of motion, and that is greatness."

Tolstoy captured on film, at the age of 80.

But Tolstoy did not just passively observe this greatness; he actively took part in creating it. In his old age, the writer was frequently approached by pioneering young filmmakers asking for advice on how to tell their stories. These conversations got him so riled up that he put aside his distaste for technology and publically announce he would attempt to write his very own screenplay.

Since every completed Tolstoy project has typically been accompanied by a million unfinished ones, it should hardly come as a surprise that this hypothetical script never made it onto a page, let alone a screen. But while Tolstoy may have never produced a movie himself, he still managed to influence the way that others did thanks to his prose, specifically Resurrection.

Published in 1900, Tolstoy's third and final novel tells the story of a prince who gets called to the jury that will preside over the fate of a prostitute who killed her client. Upon arriving at the courtroom, the prince recognizes this prostitute as one of his family's former maids whom he raped and impregnated long ago. Overcome by guilt, he vows to protect her from the law – no matter the cost. 

Although the novel faced some minor criticism in Russia with its chapter-by-chapter release, it was well-received abroad, especially in Japan where – for reasons that are not necessarily relevant to this discussion—its narrative served as the inspiration for a startlingly large amount of movies, from silent to sound, and in both black and white as well as color.

The first Japanese adaptation of Resurrection came out as early as 1914. Directed by Hosoyama Kiyomatsu and titled Kachūcha, after the heroine (Katyusha) from Tolstoy's novel, the film was such a success that it spawned two sequels, both of which hit theaters a year later. In the late thirties, Kenji Mizoguchi put his own spin on the tale with the little-known yet critically acclaimed film Straits of Love and Hate.

Kiyomatsu film still
A still from Kiyomatsu's Kachūcha

Like many creatives, Mizoguchi considered himself to be greatly indebted to the teachings of the Russian writer, but his admiration went much deeper, going as far as to propose – if his colleagues are to be believed, at least – that "all melodrama is based on Tolstoy's Resurrection." This is a daring claim, even for someone of Tolstoy's stature, and yet it's far from unsubstantiated.

In his book, Alternative Scriptwriting, film theorist Ken Dancyger defines the modern melodrama as a story about "a powerless person in pursuit of power," or individuals who are at odds with the norms and values of an entire culture. Think a kid thrown into an adult world, a woman trying to find work in a male-dominated industry, and a POC struggling to thrive in a white society.

Resurrection, Tolstoy
Read the book

Despite the fact that the main character of Resurrection is a member of the nobility, he has little agency and next to no allies: his princess-fiancée fails to understand why he wants to help a simple sex worker; his lady-sister scolds him for selling his land and freeing his serfs in the process; and his lawyer-friend discourages him from following the convict to the outskirts of Siberia after her appeal falls through.

Though Tolstoy did not invent the melodrama, he did play an important role in its reconstruction. Before Resurrection came along, the genre was regarded with the same disdain one now reserves for overly sentimental soap operas. Finding a sobering fact in his intoxicating feelings, however, Tolstoy was able to imbue it with a much-needed sense of intellectual urgency and social realism.

"What makes [Resurrection] so dark," wrote George Saunders in his review for NPR, "is its extreme truthfulness. Tolstoy does not flinch at the places that we, as writers and readers, reflexively agree to cloak (…) a man dies of thirst in a crowded town, just feet away from water; women are raped in captivity; men cannibalize other men. Everywhere is poverty and debasement."

In his own time, Tolstoy's final novel made a profound and—it should be noted—very tangible impact on the wider world: its criticisms against organized religion led the Russian Orthodox Church to excommunicate the writer, while the proceeds of the publication were used to finance the emigration of a persecuted Christian sect from Caucasia to Canada. 

And yet, as remarkable as these events were, Tolstoy had foreseen them; they were what motivated him to write this story in the first place. One consequence he could have never predicted was the lasting impact that his Resurrection would have on the future of cinema—a frighteningly powerful conduit of storytelling that would, as the writer suspected—conquer the globe not long after his death.

1927 Resurrection Film Still
A still from a 1927 version of Resurrection, starring Rod LaRoque (as Dmitry) and Dolores Del Rio (as Katyusha).

 

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