I’ve been writing a lot about film adaptations lately, so I was thrilled to stumble onto this very cool series at the Guardian which each week is turning a critical eye on a new famous film adaptation. The latest is on Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1986 version of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
I've never been a big fan of film adaptations of books. If I watch the movie version and then decide to read the book, as is currently the case with American Psycho, I can't help but have an image of the actors in my head. If I read the book and then watch the film, I'm tempted to be that guy who says, "You know, the book is much better."One time when I was interviewing a Hollywood screenwriter who had just published his first book, I asked him if he'd like to see a movie version of his novel someday. Absolutely not, he said, noting that having turned books into screenplays, he knows that by the end of the process one rarely looks like the other.But what bothers me most is when books for children are adapted for the big screen. I'm not talking about projecting Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears a Who! onto a movie screen. That's fine with me. The book already has colorful pictures and isn't considered a novel in the literary sense. Instead, my gripe is with, oh, say, the film version of J.K. Rowling's wildly successful Harry Potter series.As a kid, one of the things I loved about reading was how I could create an image of what the characters looked like based on the author's description. Sure, I suppose some of those books had pictures of characters on the cover, but that's a far cry from seeing Daniel Radcliffe, the actor who plays Harry Potter, on billboards and in commercials for the movies.Admittedly, I also am not a big fan of the Harry Potter books. I read the first installment, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, before seeing the movie, and I had no desire to find out what happened next.I acknowledge the movies probably have spurred thousands of children to read more than they had before, but it's the kind of reading that concerns me. In the end, kids end up reading books about wildly imaginative characters while being denied the pleasure of imagining what those characters look like. That disappoints me.Who knows, maybe most kids can easily separate the Harry Potter books from the films, especially since some of the screen adaptations allow for some creative license. I just hope the movies haven't stifled the literary imagination of young readers.
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It would be difficult to overstate the ambivalence I felt toward the looming release of Bennett Miller's Moneyball, the new movie about Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane. Take whatever it is that’s important to you – knitting, perhaps, or mountain biking – and then imagine waiting for a feature windows10explained film about it. Would you be excited or nervous? Or a mix of both? Or would you simplymoncler black friday salebe dreading how Hollywood would manage to fuck up your passion? I’d wondered what an adaptation of Michael Lewis' Moneyball would be like ever since the film went into development…eight years ago. Would they be able to translate the plot, in so far as there is one, to the screen? Or would Moneyball be based on the book in the same way that Syriana was “inspired by” Robert Baer’s See No Evil, an adaptation in name only (So much so that Syriana was nominated for 300-206 Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars)? By the time of the film’s release, I had overcome enough of my anxiety to be firmly in the excited camp. No matter how bad the movie was, at least I’d get to laugh at idiots like Joe Morgan for two hours, right? Before the screening, when my wife and I were standing 70-494 in the concessions line, she asked me what kind of Windows 10 Professional product Key sale candy I wanted. “Are you kidding?” I said. “We’re about to watch a movie about advanced statistical analysis in baseball. Get whatever you want.” We weren’t, of course, about to watch a movie about sabrmetrics -- the use of advanced statistical analysis to evaluate baseball players and teams -- and how the cash-strapped Oakland A's used it to remain competitive with free-spending teams like the New York Yankees. A part of me knew that going in; such a movie fridaysboutiquewould bore 99.9 percent of the audience and probably infuriate the remaining tenth of a percent. No, the filmmakers ADM-201 had to do something to make a more cinematic story of Lewis’s 2003 book. The question was not would the movie differ from the book, but how. Moneyball is the story of an idea. The thesis of the book is that major 300-208 league baseball teams had long ignored valuable statistical information about their players, relying instead on eye-witness evaluation by seasoned scouts. These scouts used observation and intuition to identify the best players (For example, one scout in the film claims a player is no good because his girlfriend isn't attractive enough. “He’s got an ugly girlfriend. An ugly girlfriend means no confidence.”). As one might expect from such an unscientific method, it produced variable results. One of the players traditional scouting misidentified as a future star was none other than Billy Beane, who fizzled out after a mediocre major league career. All of this led to an inefficient Windows 10 Professional product Key Oem sale market in baseball talent. Some players were radically undervalued, while others earned much more money than they deserved. Operating from a position of financial weakness, Billy Beane and his Oakland A's bucked traditional scouting methods and employed deep statistical analysis to find the undervalued players they could afford. To build a movie out of a book Windows 10 Professional OEM Key about an idea, the filmmakers made several important compromises. First, they decided to narrow the scope of their film to Billy Beane. Interlacing Beane’s backstory with the primary narrative of building a team from the scrap heap of unwanted players was a brilliant choice, as it provided a psychological motivation for his skepticism of traditional baseball scouting. From the very beginning, we see Beane’s doubt come to the fore. “If he’s such a good hitter, how come he doesn’t hit good?” he asks his scouts. “You keep giving me the same 'good face' nonsense like we’re selling jeans here.” He challenges Peter Brand (the stand-in for A's Assistant GM Paul DePodesta, who refused to allow his name to be used in the film): “Would you have drafted me in the first round?” It’s obvious what answer Beane’s hoping for, and when he gets it, an odd couple is created -- the athletic Beane (played by demigod Brad Pitt) and the, well, not-so-athletic Brand (a not-yet-thin Jonah Hill). Beane plays Galileo -- the lone voice of rationality in a world that worships superstition-- and Hill is, I don’t know…Galileo’s assistant? The pairing works because it plays to each actor’s strengths -- Pitt’s arrogance is tempered by his sense of humor and creates a fairly convincing portrait of a man obsessed with being right. Hill, for his part, stammers and blinks his way through awkward scene after awkward scene, his 300-320 comedic timing stealing many of them. Good casting also helps the film eke every ounce of goodness out of the story of Scott Hatteberg, the one-time catcher whose career CISSP appears to be over after a freak nerve injury. Hatteberg, played by loveable oaf Chris Pratt (of Parks and Recreation), sees his career resurrected by Beane and Brand, who value his innate ability to do the single most important thing in baseball -- get on base. Pratt isn’t given much screen-time to work with, but he makes the most of it, giving soul to a character who might have easily been overlooked. The other major compromise the filmmakers settled on is significantly 700-039 less successful. A major reason for Oakland’s success in the early 2000s was their dominant starting pitching. Blessed with “The Big Three” -- Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito -- three of the best pitchers in the game, Oakland was able to count on a solid performance from its starting pitching three out of every five games. For instance, during the 2002 season depicted in the film, the A's got roughly 685 innings of all star-caliber 300-070 pitching from The Big Three alone, including 230 innings from Cy Young-winner and singer-songwriter Barry Zito (The late Cory Lidle was no slouch himself, contributing nearly 200 above-average innings, as well). Without these contributions, no number of walks would’ve mattered. Leaving these players out of the film is a bit like filming the New Testament and never mentioning that Jesus fellow. And yet, the words “Hudson,” “Mulder,” and “Zito” are never uttered in the film. The only pitchers given any screen-time are relievers Chad Bradford and Ricardo Rincon. Bradford, whose bizarre throwing motion was so off-putting it disguised his extraordinary abilities as a relief pitcher, is a central part of Lewis’s book. In the film, he gets a 10 second mention early in the film, and then a condescending scene that plays his religiosity for laughs. It seems that the filmmakers feared the audience might not be able to handle more stats, and so they chose simply to focus on the offensive side of things, and hammer home the mantra of “get on base.” This might very well have been necessary for storytelling’s sake, but it means providing a skewed version of events. Scott Hatteberg had a fine year, especially when judged against his salary, but his 136 games of 116 OPS+ play was hardly the reason Oakland challenged for the pennant in 2002. Ironically, Moneyball may have succumbed to the casual baseball fan’s long-standing bias in favor of offense and position players. More troubling, in my opinion, is the lack of depth with which the film explores the various “moneyball” principles that Beane employs. It’s all well and good to talk about getting on base, but why? Why is it important to get on base? Sure, you score more runs, and yes, you burn out the other team’s pitching staff, but the real reason is that you simply aren’t making outs. As Beane says at one point, “Why bother attacking? There’s no clock in this game.” Outs are the clock in baseball, and if you don’t make them, you can live forever. Likewise, if your pitchers get people out, you don’t much care whether they are throwing 100 miles per hour or using a herky-jerky delivery to do so. The reason Chad Bradford, with his funky underhanded pitching motion, got batters out was because he made the batter hit the ball on the ground. It’s very difficult to hit the ball over the fence when you’re hitting it on the ground (In fact, it’s impossible). But you’d never know that from watching the movie. Moneyball gets at the why of Oakland’s success without ever really examining the how. Of course, from the average moviegoer’s perspective, I don’t think it makes much of a difference. The basic tenets of the sabrmetric philosophy are clearly presented in the film, and while it’s sometimes a bit broad, the movie does a remarkable job of dramatizing the concepts. The sins of the film – such as giving Beane too much credit for his strategy (Other GMs, including Sandy Alderson and even Branch Rickey, the legendary GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals, studied statistics as part of their evaluation methods) --are often those of the book, as well (and I would argue that Pitt’s performance does more to show Beane’s arrogance than Lewis’s somewhat rose-colored portrait does). The major argument against Moneyball has always been that Beane failed to win the World Series (or any other post-season series, for that matter). This is where the film truly shines, in my opinion, as the drama is not so much whether the A's will win the World Series, but whether Beane and Brand’s crazy idea will work. The idea does work, as demonstrated in the chapter of the book called "The Speed of the Idea." This chapter produced my favorite scene in the film. Beane, after a remarkable season, is summoned to Boston to meet with the new owner of the Red Sox, billionaire hedge fund manager John Henry. Henry is enamored with Beane’s strategies and wants to hire him. Oakland has offered Beane a new contract, though, one Beane would be happy to accept. Henry asks Beane why he even bothered to come to the meeting then. “Because you hired Bill James, for one thing,” he replies. James, the patron saint of statistical baseball study, had never had a job in the game before Henry decided to give him one; he was too hated. This gives Henry an excuse to explain to Beane that whenever a new idea threatens the status quo -- whether that’s in government, business, or sports -- those in power fight it tooth and nail. What choice do they have? Their livelihoods are at stake. “Anybody not out there right now remaking their team with your principles is done. They’re dinosaurs,” Henry says. Watching this scene in the theater, I found myself thinking not of baseball, but of another spectacularly inefficient industry that’s close to my heart -- the publishing business. For the past two centuries, publishers have relied primarily on that most ephemeral and unscientific of qualities, editors’ taste, to decide which books to spend their money on and which books to decline. Their results are not much better than the scouts Beane summarily dismisses in Moneyball (Though, presumably, with less chewing tobacco). In a recent Vanity Fair article about the publishing industry, Keith Gessen writes: “If it is the writer’s first book, and she has no sales track, you can come up with similar-seeming books (“comp titles”) and see how many copies those sold. But this is precision masquerading as insight. No two books are the same book, and no two authors are the same author. The fact is: no one has any idea how many copies of a book will sell.” With that in mind, how long will it be before the Billy Beane of the publishing world finds a better way? After all, “We’re not selling jeans here.” Selling jeans or not, if you pay to see a sports movie you expect to see some sweat. It’s telling that the most physical exertion we see is not on the field but in the weight room, as Billy Beane prefers to pump iron in the bowels of the Oakland Coliseum rather than watch his team play. I found myself wondering at one point whether this was much of a sports movie at all. In the end, I decided it must be, since it looked a lot like Friday Night Lights -- tortured close-ups, jittery hand-held camerawork, sports talk radio overlays, silenced crowd shots, and Explosions in the Sky-esque soundtrack. If Hoosiers were remade today (Note to Hollywood: Don’t get any funny ideas.), it would look a lot like this. In the end, Moneyball isn’t Syriana. In fact, it has more in common with another adaptation of recent years -- The Social Network. Both are compelling dramas about recent history that are probably better considered fiction than nonfiction. Still, I must admit that I felt something special while watching Moneyball. True, it didn’t cover everything I wanted it to (There wasn’t, for instance, any mention of Beane’s Ahab-like quest to acquire Mexican on-base machine Erubiel Durazo, and there was apparently no time to work in a vignette about the great challenge trade of Billy Koch for Keith Foulke), but it was still a rare thrill to watch a movie about a subject I cared about and to see it rendered with love and humor. We should all be so lucky.
Tim Burton and Disney have released the first images of Burton's forthcoming (March 2010) take on Lewis Carroll's 19th century children's classic Alice in Wonderland - and they're spectacular. Johnny Depp will play the Mad Hatter, Helena Bonham Carter (also Burton's wife) will play the Red Queen, Anne Hathaway will play the White Queen, and the lovely Mia Wasikowska (Gabriel Byrne's young gymnast patient in HBO's In Treatment) will play Alice.Other casting choices to look forward to: Stephen Fry will play the Cheshire Cat, Timothy Spall (Wormtail in the Harry Potter franchise) will play a bloodhound, the eternally strange Crispin Glover will play The Knave of Hearts, and Alan Rickman (best-known as Snape from the Harry Potter franchise) will play the Caterpillar. The above image is from Wired.com where there are more photos of sets and characters. There are also images from the film in this month's Vanity Fair.
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Last week was a week for festivity and observance. On the second day, I attended a Seder, with 14 pounds of beef brisket. On the fifth day, I saw Noah, with Russell Crowe looking like 14 pounds of brisket in a distressed denim bag. On the sixth day, I wrestled with Robert Alter's Five Books of Moses and ate mini spanakopitas. On the seventh day, I rested; while others feasted on paschal ham, I watched Black Swan in bed with the curtains drawn. And it was good, all of it. I have been looking forward to Noah. I love epics, I love Russell Crowe, and I’m willing to admit that my taste in cinema is basically that of an 11-year-old girl (“Harriet thought the movie was a gas. Zeus was very angry all the time and made a lot of temples fall over every time something displeased him”). I also love weird things, and the very fact that Darren Aronofsky was at the helm of a Biblical epic was sufficiently weird to thrill me. David Denby, patriarch of film critics, called Aronofsky's Black Swan “a luridly beautiful farrago,” and about Noah, forsaking all synonyms, he spake thus: “an epic farrago.” This was reason enough to spend $30 on movie tickets and Sour S'ghetti -- in addition to the above, I also happen to love a good farrago. Epics can be purveyors of wonder and disappointment in proportion with their outlandish budgets, and there’s a mysterious measure -- like something Biblical no longer in use -- of magic that makes one epic pleasing while it maketh the other to blow. This is why I love Gladiator and find Troy, which I managed to see four times in the movie theater, a sandy, sterile flop. I don’t know what I was expecting of Noah, exactly. It wasn’t the corny gold font of the credits ("Ten Commandments," my viewing mates called it) or its robin’s egg sky like unto that of a 1970s nature film. I didn't expect the giant rock angels, like Ents created for The Neverending Story, and I expected even less to be finally moved by them, to feel the agony of trapped light in mangled stone bodies. I didn't expect Russell Crowe to look so old, nor did I expect to cry at the sight of his leonine grey head lavishing kisses on babies cradled by Hermione Granger. And yet all of these things came to pass. Like someone examining the carcass on an abandoned holiday table, Darren Aronofsky is good at finding new meat in seemingly sparse and picked-over stories. Because here’s the thing about the Real Story of Noah: it’s short, boring, and incomprehensible. Everyone is hundreds of years old. Enoch begets Mehujael, who begets Mathusael, who begets Lamech, who begets Jabal and Jubal. And yet, at the same time in some parallel but separate family tree, a different Enoch begets Methuselah, who begets Lamech, who begets Noah. Reading even Robert Alter's wonderful translation, I found these dueling genealogies so maddening that it hardened my heart against Genesis 6:1 to 10:32. It is ever thus for me and the Testaments, old and new. I come from the Christian tradition, in my pallid, heterodox little way, but for me the drama of the stories, the occasionally overwhelmingly beautiful language and imagery of the sacred texts always comes up against, not only the begats, but what James Wood calls “the stony reticence” of Biblical style, where, for example, “Joseph’s response to his brothers works by starving us of information.” I love God's breath on the surface of the waters, but then there are five different Enochs and so many quotas of bricks, so many bales of straw, and nary a good chunk of fulsome exposition about the things that one feels really matter. I'm a "In the beginning was the Word" type; I need Robert Alter, or James Wood, to glean for me the surprising charms of Old Testament mode. And evidently I needed Darren Aronofsky, because, brought up as I was in the Tomie dePaola, cute-animals-on-boats school of Biblical exegesis, I had never really thought about what Noah was asked to do. And so what if he was never asked, as in the film, to smite down babies issued from previously barren wombs? Genesis has miracles! Genesis has people making unreasonable sacrifices at God's behest, or his perceived behest (people still argue about this). Some viewers have been awfully pedantic about the Biblical inaccuracy of Noah, but what's silly is thinking about Noah all on its own. You need the context of Genesis proper, which, as Alter points out in his invaluable introduction to his translation, "has set the terms, not scientifically but symbolically, for much of the way we have thought about human nature and culture ever since." The context of "ever since" doesn't hurt either. For all that you can find Noah's outfits or its rock monsters or its Anthony Hopkins ludicrous, there's really nothing wrong with its message, from my veteran youth grouper perspective -- the gnarliness of the Old Testament is blended with the warm fuzzies of the New. God is unreasonable. Man is unreasonable. Bad things are going to happen. Good things, too. Love one another, as he purports to love you. Moreover, the particulars are necessarily informed by the problems of our day, which have to do with our ravaged environment, and which promise to achieve Biblical proportions. The best stories are ones we’ve heard before, in some form. I also get bogged down around the last third of Swan Lake, another story with somewhat shrouded (if more recent) origins that has received the Aronofsky treatment. I love the music and I love ballet, and yet it’s very long. But where I am lazy, Darren Aronofsky is imaginative; he respects these laconic but meaningful stories enough to think more about them, and he is not deterred by their inconsistencies or their longueurs. At the same time, he is sacrilegious enough to make weird new things out of them, things that work for some and fail for others. Why should Swan Lake carry within itself the possibility of Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman in flagrante, in a dingy bedroom filled with stuffed animals? And yet, for me, it worked. And for me, his take on Noah as a vegan environmentalist, irksome to the most literal- and bloody-minded Christianists, worked. His goofy effects, irksome to some of the heathen viewers, worked. Me, I would have welcomed more, more disco Instagram colors, more stop-motion nature footage, more animals. I love a good farrago, and Darren Aronofsky never phones his in.
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I’ve read Anna Karenina countless times, published articles, and dedicated two chapters in my book Understanding Tolstoy to the novel. So it is particularly exciting for me when an adaptation comes along that allows me to see the novel in a fresh light and even stirs me to tears over moments I thought I knew by heart. That happened to me a number of times while watching Joe Wright’s 2012 adaptation of the work. Which is why I was disappointed when the movie was nominated for Oscars in what amounts to the consolation prize categories, the ones having to do more with the style than the substance of the film: Cinematography, music (original score), costume design, and production design. But then, I’m not surprised. Most criticisms of the movie have focused on the idea that it’s long on style, short on depth. Robert Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times writes, “This is a sumptuous film -- extravagantly staged and photographed, perhaps too much so for its own good.” “Visually stunning, emotionally overwrought, beautifully acted, but not quite right,” claims Betsy Sharky of The Los Angeles Times. And yet, I would argue, that it is precisely by means of its stylistic prowess that Wright’s film captures the deeper truths about Tolstoy’s novel as successfully as any other adaptation I’ve seen. One of the most controversial aspects of the movie is the filming of the whole thing in a dilapidated theater. In making “the radical artistic choice to tell the story as if it were being enacted by players on a stage,” writes Lisa Schwartzbaum of Entertainment Weekly.com, “Wright falls passionately in love with his own fanciful artifices.” Maybe, but he also gets at one of the novel’s central ideas: that this is a spectacle society concerned more about show than substance, with tragic consequences. Two thirds of the way through the novel Anna goes to the opera. By this point, she’s deep into her affair with the juicy cavalry officer Vronsky and has left her husband Karenin, who refuses to give her a divorce, making it impossible for Anna to remarry legitimately. A woman without social standing, Anna is the talk of the town, and, apparently, the main attraction at the opera that night. A woman sitting in the box next to her makes a scene after the woman’s husband exchanges a few polite words with Anna. Here’s what Wright does with that moment: A hush comes over the theater and all eyes turn from the stage to Anna, illuminated by a spotlight as she sits there in her light-colored gown of silk and velvet with a low-cut neck, in her glittering necklace, with expensive lace in her gorgeous, black hair -- and utterly humiliated. That shot says it all: There sits the real diva of the night, the grand dame of Petersburg high society whose titillating story of adultery, self-destruction, and pariahdom those leering theater-goers thoroughly enjoy from behind their lorgnettes. That they, too, may be complicit in Anna’s sad tale is a possibility none of them bothers to consider. But if Wright doesn’t demonize Anna, nor does he glamorize her, as is so often the case with filmmakers and readers alike. When Tolstoy first started working on the novel, he envisioned Anna as a kind of empty tramp, but the more he wrote, the more sympathetic he became to her plight. Still, at no point does he absolve her of moral responsibility for her own decisions, as some readers are too apt to do. Anna is a tragic figure, not merely because she is an emotionally deprived woman in a loveless marriage surrounded by empty hypocrites. She is also a victim of her own her romantic illusions, of making, in Tolstoy’s words, “the eternal error people make in imagining that happiness is the realization of desires.” By giving herself over to the fantasy of complete liberation, Anna becomes a slave to her passions, a star in a tragic story partly of her own design. She is a stark illustration of Tolstoy’s belief that one of the central problems of modern social life isn’t just that we’re all playing roles on a stage, but that those roles often end up playing -- and destroying -- us. Wright (and Stoppard) might have made a safer bet by focusing exclusively on the sexy Anna-Vronsky plot, as other movies have done, but they instinctively understood this to be counter to Tolstoy’s intention. Anna and her tragic story reflect the truth that broken families, ungrounded passions, and human isolation are central to the modern experience. It is against these realities that the autobiographical rural landowner Levin, with his questing spirit and commitment to higher ideals, must fight. He belongs to a minority in his time -- as he would in ours, which is why his story is vitally important today. Levin strives for meaning that neither the social artifice, the reductive scientific world view, the moral relativism, nor the pseudo-religiosity of his era can provide. Dostoevsky called him one of those “Russian people who must have the truth, the truth alone, without the lies we unthinkingly accept.” The director’s choice to film the Levin scenes at his estate in the countryside in a realistic as opposed to a stage setting is actually quite brilliant in communicating the impression Tolstoy gives in the novel that Levin is one of the few characters in his world who is connected to something real and authentic. Then there’s Karenin, whom Wright correctly senses is a lot more like Levin than most readers ever suspect, at least when it comes to his uncompromising belief in ideals and principles. Wright doesn’t reduce him to the mean-spirited, rational machine so many filmmakers have made him out to be. Karenin is a deeply principled man who is simply incapable of accessing or expressing his emotions. But they’re there, all right, and Jude Law makes us feel them. When Karenin is sitting alone at the front of the stage before the dimming flood lights, having just learned that Anna is pregnant with Vronsky’s child, he turns slightly towards his wife (and the viewers) and says, “Tell me what I did to deserve this.” That heartbreaking moment reveals all the depth of his confusion. Like everybody else in Tolstoy’s novel, he has been thrust into a tragic situation beyond his capacity to understand. Do I think this is a perfect movie? No. Keira Knightley is a little too young-looking and too thin for Tolstoy’s voluptuous, 28 year-old Anna. The movie could have made the connection between Anna’s and Levin’s storylines even more explicit, as Tolstoy does when he has the two meet near the end. There are moments here and there where the acting doesn’t quite ring true, as in that scene when Vronsky reacts to the news that Anna is pregnant with his child. And maybe the British tabloids had a point when they wondered why Wright decided to turn the dark-haired Vronsky into a blond. But to criticize is easy. To create is hard. And Wright has shown himself to be every inch the creator, not on the level of Tolstoy, of course, but certainly on the same emotional and philosophical wave length. A literary adaptation, in my view, shouldn’t be an imitation, but an interpretation. And a good interpretation, as any literature teacher or literary critic knows, is one that doesn’t cover a book, but uncovers it. For me, Wright’s film did that. The power of this movie isn’t merely in the fact that the director has willfully re-shaped Tolstoy’s classic according to his own bold, wacky conceit, but that in his very stylistic quirkiness he has actually brought us surprisingly close to the philosophical vision of the original work. For that even the most dedicated Tolstoy aficionados can be grateful. The Academy should have looked a little bit deeper.