Reimagining Dostoevsky for the 21st Century (1): Dostoevsky the Master Builder

In 2021 we mark 200 years since the birth of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky’s works continue to be read, translated, and adapted into a variety of media, demonstrating his enduring popularity and relevance. I recently turned my own hand to adapting Dostoevsky, after a seeing on Twitter a Venn diagram by @fyodor76, putting herself in the overlap between circles representing lovers of Dostoevsky and fans of Lego. Amongst the replies @johnayliff commented “The Minifigs Karamazov”, and an idea was born. Lego’s track record of capturing key story moments from various movie franchises such as Harry Potter and Star Wars in their construction sets seemed suddenly to chime with Dostoevsky’s talent for depicting scenes that spark the imagination. Anyone who has read one of Dostoevsky’s novels will have, fixed in their mind, their vision of the most striking episodes: Raskolnikov bringing the axe down on the unsuspecting Alyona; Rogozhin and Myshkin keeping vigil beside the covered corpse of Nastasya Filippovna; Father Zosima bowing down to the astounded Dmitry Karamazov. Whilst being driven to a large extent by dialogue, Dostoevsky’s novels also have a distinctly scopic quality, generating powerful images of significant moments in the story, expressing ideas that exceed the words in which they are written. This makes his work eminently amenable to visual adaptation.

Thus inspired by @johnayliff’s comment, I began with The Brothers Karamazov. This novel makes use of expressive chapter titles, some of which are quotations of lines of dialogue, and which are often oblique and whimsical. These suggested themselves perfectly for identifying buildable and recognisable scenes and providing the captions. Having worked out which scenes I would build, I then took to thinking about how to make each character distinctive, and representative of their role and traits. Here I was slightly hampered by the Lego available to me: although the amount of Lego acquired by my family over the years was, in all seriousness, a factor in our recent decision to buy a bigger house, I knew my children would not wish me to tamper with their favourite sets. So I was restricted to a collection of non-franchise-related minifigures that mainly comprised soldiers and emergency services workers. Not a great casting pool for 19th century female roles. Fortunately, some characters acquired through a few years of those extravagant Lego advent calendars diversified my selection, and also provided a range of ready-made set props such as fire places, tables and chairs.

Two Lego minifigure women, one with brown hair tied back and lilac dress, one with loose blonde hair and green dress
Katerina and Grushenka

Choosing the right hair and facial expression required careful thought; thus Grushenka’s status as a woman shaped by men’s treatment of her is signalled by her loose hair style and more overtly feminised features, compared with Katerina’s tied-back hair and more neutral expression. Like any screenplay writer worth their salt, I conflated some elements of the story: in the novel, Smerdyakov, for example, is not playing his guitar when he is encountered sitting by the garden gate by Ivan and he comments that it is nice to have a chat with a clever man; but the visual signifier of the frivolous guitar for this crucial conversation adds to the image of Smerdyakov as dismissive of the value of human life.

Ultimately the scale of the novel exceeded my skill and patience, and my episodisation stopped at Dmitry on the threshold of murder (those of you who have not read the novel will have to do so to find out whether he did it or not). But the response on Twitter was very positive, and I was requested to do a follow-up of Crime and Punishment. So the following weekend, back I went to the brick boxes. This time, I resolved to summarise the whole novel, and found it easier than with The Brothers Karamazov. Indeed, as @kevinobriencha1 observed, Crime and Punishment “uniquely marries action and philosophy”. The novel provides a number of important visuals, such as Raskolnikov’s hat that is too eye-catching for a would-be murderer, Sonya’s three windows in her apartment, symbolic of the divine light of the Holy Trinity that infuses her outlook, or the liminal spaces such as thresholds or street junctions where pivotal events happen that could take the action in a number of directions.

Lego minifigure old woman holding package, with grey hair in a bun, angry expression and black dress

Again, I wanted the figures to be emblematic of their characters. For Raskolnikov I chose a head with a rather crazy grin and lines round the eyes, to signify his mental turmoil. For Sonya, I used the same body and hair as the sexually exploited Grushenka, but chose a child’s head to indicate her innocence and purity despite her profession. In the case of Alyona, being short of bodies befitting an elderly widow, I had to breach my injunction to borrow from my children’s beloved franchise sets, and used the body of a Harry Potter Death Eater, but I think that Fyodor Mikhailovich would have found that rather fitting for a moneylender.

Some readers may feel that Lego is too flippant a medium to render such a serious author as Dostoevsky, who grappled with the ‘accursed’ questions of the nature of good and evil, the immortality of the soul and the despair that attends upon self-interest and pride. However, there is subtle, but significant humour in Dostoevsky, that exists alongside the dark philosophical probing, indeed throws it into sharper relief. There is black comedy in Raskolnikov slipping and slithering, panic-stricken, in the blood of his victims as he tries to locate Alyona’s hidden riches, or in the heavily accented soldier wearing an incongruous helmet, telling Svidrigailov “Dis is not de place” as he puts the gun to his head. The humour reminds us not only of the breadth of human nature, so memorably lamented by Dmitry Karamazov, but also of the fictionality of the stories, which paradoxically signal their truth. Dostoevsky believed that only fiction, particularly that which presented its poetic idea as a “whole image”, could fully capture the essence of the human condition. Or, as Emmet Brickowski says in The Lego Movie, “The prophecy is made up. And it’s also true. It’s about all of us.”

The Brothers Karamazov: selected scenes

(Original Twitter thread here)

Lego minfigure old man with long white beard, lying face down in front of Lego minifigure soldier, two other Lego minifigure men watching
Why is such a man alive?
Lego room with four Lego minifigure men holding glasses sitting around a fireplace
Over the brandy
Lego room with two Lego minifigure men sitting at a table holding cups
The brothers get acquainted
Lego room with two Lego minifigure women and one Lego minifigure soldier
Lacerations in the Lego house
Lego minifigure holding a guitar sitting on a wall, Lego minifigure man coming towards him
It’s nice to have a chat with a clever man
Wall of Lego house in background, Lego fence in foreground, Lego minifigure soldier holding a small club sitting on the fence
Dmitri’s delirium

Crime and Punishment: selected scenes

(Original Twitter thread here)

Lego horse drawing a cart overloaded with Lego bricks, with Lego minifigures brandishing a whip and a stick
Raskolnikov’s nightmare
Lego minifigure old lady in a Lego room holding a package, Lego minifigure man holding axe behind her
The murder
Lego room with two Lego skeletons on red tiles representing blood, Lego minifigure man holding axe and sack, two Lego minifigure construction workers outside the door
The decorators try to get into the apartment
Small Lego room crowded with two male and two female Lego minifigures
Raskolnikov is visited by his mother, sister and Razumikhin
Lego policeman sitting with Lego minifigure man in a Lego room
Porfiry interviews Raskolnikov at the police station
Lego minifigure lying on red tiles representing blood, under a Lego horse pulling a carriage, with Lego minifigure man watching
Marmeladov is run down in the street
Lego room with three windows, in which a Lego minifigure girl reads a book to a Lego minifigure man. In an adjacent Lego room a Lego minifigure man listens.e
Sonya reads the Raising of Lazarus to Raskolnikov while Svidrigailov eavesdrops
Lego minifigure woman pointing a gun at Lego minifigure man
Dunya faces Svidrigailov
Lego minifigure man holding gun to his head, and Lego minifigure soldier, by a Lego lamp post
Svidrigailov shoots himself
Lego minifigure man lying face down near a Lego lamp post, watched by a Lego minifigure girl
Raskolnikov prostrates himself in the street
Lego minifigure convict with Lego minifigure girl with Lego snowman in background
Raskolnikov and Sonya in Siberia