Dostoevsky’s The Gambler: Modern and loosely based

In the 1974 film The Gambler, James Caan plays a Jewish college professor in New York named Axel Freed with an addiction to risk that causes him to fall into major gambling debt to some heavy-handed loan sharks. In the first classroom scene we see him in Freed waxes poetic about the issues in Dostoevsky’s work.

The film brilliantly weaves the intellectual issues brought up with the tension-filled story of a man desperately trying to come up with $44,000 to pay his bookie back along with his inevitably gambling that money away once he gets it. But beyond that there is little connection with Dostoevsky’s novella and except for the brutal and amazing final scene, not much Dostoevskyan about the film as a whole.

That shouldn’t take away from what an excellent film it is. James Caan’s performance perfectly captures the blend of intellect, boldness and fatality that is Axel Freed. The acting in general is outstanding, with the loan sharks and bookies played by Paul Sorvino, Burt Young (Rocky’s brother-in-law) and Vic Tayback (best-known from the horrible 70s TV series Alice) standing out. The direction by Ostrava-born Karel Reisz (who was saved from the Nazis as one of Winton’s children and went on to direct a classic of the “angry young men” movement of UK film, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) is also first rate, and the way he freezes some of the moments where Axel holds his fate in his hands is especially brilliant.

Yet it wasn’t until Taxi Driver was released two years later that a film really carried Dostoevsky’s themes onto the screen, all the more effectively for having no direct connection to the book its story resembles – Crime and Punishment.

Remaking remakes

So it is ironic that it is Taxi Driver’s Martin Scorsese that wants to remake The Gambler of 1974 with Leonardo di Caprio in the title role. If doing a remake of a modernized adaptation of a book seems strange, it probably is because it is strange. One of the articles I read about the future project – slated for late 2012 or 2014 at the earliest – even made the logical mistake of thinking Scorsese was going to film the Dostoevsky original.

One person not at all happy with Scorsese’s decision is the original screenwriter, James Toback, whose autobiography gave his adaptation its shape. He was all the more incensed that Scorsese plans to use the original film’s producers.

In a furious response to the news Toback has written an article describing the genesis of his screenplay and its journey towards becoming a film, including the gem that he originally wanted to use the then little-known actor Robert DeNiro as Axel Freed. Later leads suggested were Warren Beatty and Robert Redford.

“Axel Freed is a New York Jew,” I said.
“Redford’s a great actor,” Medavoy countered, “he can play anything.”

The Gambler – Hungarian/Romanian style

In the meantime Dostoevsky’s book is getting another modern and loosely-based treatment by Hungarian director Szabolcs Hajdu, director of the award-winning Bibliothèque Pascal. Currently in production (or post-production) the film shows an Eastern European family in Las Vegas, with a cast of Romanian and Hungarian actors. It is supposed to show how a family that loses their dignity in the maelstrom of Las Vegas casinos and what they represent.

Interestingly, the majority of directors who adapted The Gambler have been not only European but, with two Hungarians and a Czech, from Central Europe (not counting any Russian versions). I don’t think this holds for adaptations of Dostoevsky’s other novels, but who knows.

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Categories: Books on Film


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  1. Mike Monson annoys his favorite writers #2: Jake Hinkson | Mike Monson - 09/10/2013

    […] I guess Jake Hinkson is right. All sources I could find revealed that Dostoevsky and his novella The Gambler as well as his own life as a […]

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