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Archive for May 20th, 2014

unbearable

By Dean Treadway

Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being arrived in 1984 when the author, then and now based in France, was approaching his 10-year anniversary in exile from Czechoslovakia, his homeland. In Eastern Europe, his books–often baldly critical of the Communist regime that had taken over his country in 1968–had routinely been banned from publication, and Kundera himself was in fact stripped of his Czech citizenship in 1979 (he has since insisted on being considered a novelist of French origin). The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the last of his works to have an overtly political bent, was a fin de siècle which followed in a non-linear fashion the lives of five European citizens: Tomas, a 50-ish brain surgeon and womanizer; Sabina, the strong-willed artist with whom he has a iron-clad erotic connection; Tereza, the meek yet floridly emotional photographer who captures his heart (even perhaps against his will); Franz, the Swiss professor who naively falls for Sabina upon her escape to Geneva following the Prague Spring of 1968; and Simon, Tomas’ estranged son from a previous marriage.

When producer Saul Zaentz–who had won two Oscars producing films by Czech émigré Milos Forman–settled upon Kundera’s novel as his follow-up to the immensely successful Amadeus, he opted not with Forman’s services at the helm, but instead with Philip Kaufman, who was perhaps still reeling from the box-office drubbing that greeted his adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. One wonders why Zaentz settled on Kaufman rather than Forman, who certainly would have been able to lend more Eastern European authenticity to this adaptation. However, given that Kaufman had already successfully transferred Wolfe’s “unfilmable” book to screen and that Kundera’s work was similarly afflicted with such a label, Zaentz’s decision made sense. Furthermore, the hiring of master screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière as Kaufman’s co-screenwriter was another encouraging stroke. Carrière had already built an unparalleled career working with some of the world’s finest directors (Luis Bunuel, chief amongst them) on pieces focusing in on the delicate, often dark romantic dance between men and women, so he was perfect for this assignment. The screenwriters first jettisoned the novel’s non-linear structure in order to center in on the real story at its core: the love triangle between Tomas, Sabina and Tereza. They made Tomas a much younger character and, in doing so, eliminated the need for Simon, Tomas’ son. And, most wisely, they reduced the amount of political commentary, except as it related to the physical and emotional actions of the three lovers. (more…)

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