Why a New Adaptation of ‘The Master and Margarita’ is Setting Russian Society Aflame

Cameron Manley at Literary Hub: One of the most celebrated lines from Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita emerges from the lips of the devil himself. “Manuscripts don’t burn,” Woland, the mysterious Professor of Black Magic, tells the eponymous Master. The declaration echoes throughout the narrative: try as the Soviet authorities might, they cannot ban, repress, or destroy the Master’s art, because the unyielding ideas within have taken on a life of their own.

Onscreen Rendition of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Iconic Novel The Master and Margarita

Bulgakov’s work was highly controversial at the time for its allegorical anti-Soviet rhetoric. Much like his protagonist, the author, out of despair for the suffocating climate of Stalinist repression, consigned the initial draft of his manuscript to the flames. The subsequent treatment of the novel by authorities—censored to the point of butchery—has long been viewed as a prime example of the Bulgakov’s central point.

Michael Lockshin’s new screen adaptation of Bulgakov’s opus appears to be heading down a similar path. Despite surging to the top of Russia’s domestic box office just days after its release in January, it has raised the ire of pro-Kremlin bloggers who resent the director’s stance against the country’s war in Ukraine, as well as the story’s core message.

The Master and Margarita has consistently resisted screen adaptation: Yuri Kara’s 1994 film (which was not released in cinemas until 2011) and Vladimir Bortko’s 2005 miniseries for Russian television were both poorly received. The prominent Russian film critic Anton Dolin went as far as to call the book “cursed,” given how previous adaptations had consistently failed to live up to the brilliance of the original text.

Lockshin’s Russo-American background, however, has led him to approach the book from a unique angle. Unlike other Russian directors, who have feared taking too many liberties when adapting the novel for the silver screen, Lockshin demonstrates remarkable creativity. He successfully combines a deep understanding of the original text and author with Hollywood-style storytelling techniques, and condenses the immensity of the novel into a succinct and compelling narrative that also remains faithful to the original’s key themes.

One of the most significant departures from Bulgakov’s text is the timing of the Master’s appearance. In the book, the Master, a disillusioned writer rejected by Soviet critics, emerges only in the latter half, with the early narrative revolving around the chaotic exploits of demons in Moscow. In Lockshin’s adaptation, the love affair between Margarita Nikolaevna, the discontented wife of a Soviet official, and the Master becomes the central focus. The intimacy of this entanglement is beautifully conveyed by Yuliya Snigir and Evgenii Tsyganov, whose real-life partnership only amplifies the on-screen chemistry.

The film is rich with poignant nods to the present day. Scenes depicting patriotic parades steeped in Soviet propaganda evoke strong parallels to Kremlin’s contemporary Red Square marches.

A pivotal scene in the early moments of the film, absent from the original text, occurs during the trial of the Master’s play. In Lockshin’s interpretation, the subplot concerning Pontius Pilate’s trial of Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus of Nazareth) is depicted as a play authored by the Master. The play’s editor, Berlioz, cowardly disavows its author, while the Soviet critic Latunsky condemns it for its anti-Soviet and religious themes, ultimately leading to it being withdrawn from production.

Lockshin’s ingenuity is on full display in his careful tracking of the rivalry between critic and author. The film’s opening scene, for example, is a flashforward in which Margarita, the Master’s muse, lathered in a magical cream that turns her invisible and allows her to fly across Moscow, ransacks Latunsky’s apartment. The rationale behind this choice of opening becomes discernible only later when we discover that the various strands of the film (the escapades involving Woland and his entourage, as well as those of Margarita) are intricately interwoven products of the Master’s imagination.

Thus, the Master assumes a dual role in the story: both as a character within the narrative and as the creative force shaping the plot. When Margarita raids Latunsky’s apartment, then, it is the imaginative spirit of the repressed author triumphing over the corrupt and institutionalised Soviet critic.

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