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.
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.
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.”