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The Faces of Taras Bulba

Convergence and Contrast in Mass Media

By Randy BakerPublished 2 months ago 4 min read
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Taras Bulba is a novella by Nikolai Gogol, set among 17th-century Cossacks on the Ukrainian steppes. The title character is an aging Cossack military commander who chafes under the rule of Polish occupation. His two sons return from their education in Kiev, as the Cossacks plot a revolt against the Poles. Like other tales from the romantic era of literature, the plot includes a forbidden love between one of Taras’s sons and the daughter of the local Polish governor. Intrigue and betrayal ensue, impacting the outcome of events, amidst a broader backdrop of military adventure.

The story of Taras Bulba was first published in an 1835 collection of short stories. In 1842, Gogol rewrote the story into an expanded novella form, which gained popularity in the 20th Century as the source material for various adaptations. It was transformed into an opera (Lysenko, 1913) and also served as inspiration for a symphonic piece by the same name (Janáček, 1918). Taras Bulba has had multiple cinematic renderings, the earliest of which was a silent film (Drankov, 1909).

Probably the two most definitive movie adaptations of Taras Bulba are a 1962 American remake, starring Yul Brynner and a 2009 Russian version, starring Bohdan Stupka. Both of these films remained relatively true to the literary original, with distinct differences, owing not only to their respective technological eras but also to the cultural context of each production and directorial approach.

The plot of Taras Bulba (1962) and Taras Bulba (2009) each begins by following the novella, although increasing liberties are taken in the American version as the storyline progresses. Neither version introduced characters that were alien to the book, but the American version did leave out some characters and minor subplots, which the Russian movie retained. The opening scenes of both movies, especially, seemed to be plucked from the pages of the book. Gogol’s dialogue was closely quoted, or paraphrased, in each version during the reunion of Taras and his sons (pg. 1).

Overall, the 2009 Russian version shadowed the novella more diligently from start to finish. That being the case, the most stark difference in the movies, from a narrative standpoint, is that the American version employs an entirely different ending than the book. By contrast, the ending of the Russian version stays true to the original. Without providing a spoiler for either film, it can be said that the alternate endings create two very different emotional impacts for the viewer.

The special effects in the American version reflect the technological limitations of its age, as well as a dramatic acting style, popular then, but exaggerated by contemporary standards. As a product of the Cold War era, little direct emphasis was placed on the Russian or Ukrainian, cultural contexts of the story. Instead, the emphasis was placed almost entirely on the Cossacks as a unique and independent socio-ethnic entity. At times, the depiction of the Cossacks seemed a bit caricatured, inordinately focusing on a simplistic duality of drunkenness and warfighting. At its heart, though, the American version was a fairly standard spin on an epic tale of love and betrayal.

Unsurprisingly, the Russian adaptation did not flinch from highlighting the Russian character of the Cossacks. Lines such as, “may they all know what brotherhood means on Russian soil”, amidst rousing patriotic speeches, could seem a bit over the top to some American viewers (Bortko 2009). Since the story was originally written by a Ukrainian-Russian and is set in that region, however, even these not-so-subtle hints of nationalism are imbued with a certain authenticity. Overall, Taras Bulba (2009) was the more gritty and realistic portrayal, even when considering the 47-year age gap. Bortko also invested more effort into character development than Thompson did in his American release. Nonetheless, one can imagine a present-day Hollywood production one-upping this Russian remake, but with some notable exceptions, the directing and cinematography were not far removed from what American audiences have come to expect from a movie.

Taras Bulba is the sort of adventure that adapts well from book to film, so it is a predictable enough source for a screenplay. More remarkable, perhaps, is the example of contrast and convergence which these retellings provide. Campbell, Martin and Fabos (2016) explain, “media convergence is the technological merging of content in different mass media (pg. 10). By that measure, for more than 150 years, the tale of Taras Bulba has proven itself an enduring icon of convergence, adapting across a remarkable range of time, distance and media channels.

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References

Campbell, R., Martin, C. R., Fabos, B. (2016). Media Essentials: A Brief Introduction. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, a Macmillan Education imprint.

Bortko, Vladimir. (Director). (2009). Тарас Бульба [Motion picture on YouTube]

Drankov, Alexander. (Director). Тарас Бульба. Accessed October 30, 2017, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V7aEnqIXi-c

Golgol, Nikolai (2016). Taras Bulba. CreateSpace Independent Publishing

Janáček, Leoš. (Composer). (1918) Taras Bulba . Retrieved October 30, 2107, from https://www.allmusic.com/composition/taras-bulba-rhapsody-for-orchestra-jw-6-15 mc0002367126

Lysenko, M. (1913) Taras Bulba, opera for 4 acts. Retrieved October 29, 2017, from http://umka.com/eng/catalogue/opera-and-vocal/m-lysenko-taras-bul-ba-opera-v-4-kh dijakh-2-cds.html

Thompson, J. L. (Director). (1962). Taras Bulba [Motion picture on Amazon]

Analysis
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About the Creator

Randy Baker

Author, poet, essayist.

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Comments (3)

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  • Lana V Lynx2 months ago

    I really liked your critique of the two movies. Bohdan Stupka as Taras Bulba was magnificent, and now I have to find where I can see the American movie.

  • Salomé Saffiri2 months ago

    Hey, Randy! Why did you choose to write about this? As a Ukrainian and a BIG lover of Gogol's novels and novellas, I read your essay with curiosity. Wish I could post here sevar pictures of 1800' illustrated guid to gogols characters. Send me a message on fb, ill share! If I could remark on one thing, it would be Kyiv. Not Kiev. However Gogol himself, wrote in russian language and called it Kiev. Very well written, and I am glad that you mentioned ethnic accents that russians chose to highlight. Well written. Thanks for the read

  • D. J. Reddall2 months ago

    Are the faces bound more and more to converge, or do you expect fission before fusion?

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