You’re Not at All the Way I Pictured You, Devochka

Film Poster for I just finished reading The Winter Queen by Boris Akuninnot a cozy, but a historical mystery (which is just as good in my opinion) set in nineteenth-century Russia. It’s the first in a series of a dozen or so mysteries featuring the young police investigator Erast Petrovich Fandorin, five of which have been translated into English. In Russia, The Winter Queen was published as Azazel, an Old Testament name that arguably is more relevant to the story, yet not quite as catchy on movie posters. And there will be posters. The Winter Queen is slated to be made into an international motion picture.

Akunin—or rather Georgian writer/editor/translator Grigory Chkhartishvili,who writes as Akunin—is indisputably the biggest crime writer in Russia today. Scoff if you like, but consider that being the biggest crime writer in Sweden (Henning Mankell notwithstanding) has worked out fine for that Stieg Larsson fellow, and compared to Sweden there are nearly four times as many new books—and nearly triple the dollar volume in book sales—coming from Russia each year. (Yes, I looked it up.)

On the cozier side, Akunin has a mystery trilogy featuring Sister Pelagia, a Russian Orthodox nun, as well as a handful of books about Nicholas Fandorin, grandson of the aforementioned Erast. Whatever else you need to know about him, you can find in this Times Online article.

The Winter Queen is filled with the usual bewildering polysyllabic names (and their infinite diminutives) that populate Russian novels. It also displays the peculiar counterbalances of glamour and squalor and of psychological gamesmanship and humor that Russian-born novelists from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Gary Shteyngart do so well. I liked it, and I’ll be back for more.

The Winter Queen was published in Russia in 1998, and the Russian film version was released in 2002. The American edition came out in 2003, yet the international film version, now scheduled for 2012 release, has suffered fits and starts. Paul Verhoeven, who inflicted Basic Instinct and Showgirls on the world, was supposed to direct, but he pulled out a year or two ago, to be replaced by Russian director Fyodor Bondarchuk.

Dan Stevens and Anton Yelchin
Dan Stevens (top) and Anton Yelchin
If the original film poster is to be believed, Fandorin was supposed to be played by Dan Stevens, now known to all and sundry as Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey. Seems Stevens dropped out somewhere along the way. He was replaced by Anton Yelchin, who is younger (by a bit) and more Russian (by a lot).

The only constant throughout has been the female lead—Amalia Kazimirovna Bezhetskaya to be played by Milla Jovovich.  Now, here’s the thing . . .

Milla Jovovich
Well, they got the capriciously curving lips part right.

Milla Jovovich is gorgeous. She was born in Kiev when it was part of the Soviet Union. Her mother is Russian, she speaks Russian, she’s made movies in Russian and, frankly, after seeing what she’s capable of in the Resident Evil series, I wouldn’t want to mess with her. But this is the description of her character as Akunin envisioned her: “ . . . those languid night-black eyes, that Egyptian oval face, those capriciously curving lips . . . ” Does that sound like Milla to you?

Casting is a slippery proposition.

Take any girl Johnny Depp ever dated, dye her hair black, pierce something and you have your Lisbeth Salander aka “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” And Mikael Blomkvist? What does he look like? (Yes, yes . . . apparently he looks like Daniel Craig.) Nevertheless, the point is, Stieg Larsson left the casting options pretty wide open.

But when a character is clearly defined in the novel, and you’ve spent numerous hours envisioning her in just that way, isn’t it shocking to learn that the casting director had another idea entirely? Scarlett Johansson as Salander? I think not.

Certain actors and actresses become the roles they play, to the extent that we can’t imagine anyone other than, say, David Suchet portraying Hercule Poirot.

Basil Rathbone was Sherlock Holmes for generations of moviegoers, just as Clark Gable will forever be Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind. But what if Basil Rathbone had been cast as Rhett? If Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies is to be believed (and I always believe Robert Osborne) Basil was the man Margaret Mitchell envisioned for the role.

Which means . . . maybe the author isn’t always right.

Milla Jovovich as Bezhetskaya. Can’t wait.


Leslie Gilbert Elman blogs intermittently at My Life in Laundry. She’s written two trivia books and has a few unpublished fiction manuscripts in the closet to keep the skeletons company.

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