The Death of Stalin Book vs Movie

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**Warning: Spoilers for both book and movie!**

The Death of Stalin by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin (2012)

The Death of Stalin directed by Armando Iannucci (2017)

This is actually a comic book/graphic novel! Which is the first time on here covering a comic book. It might also be my first time reading in comic book in general. I know I started the Watchmen graphic novel after seeing the movie in 2008, but I don’t recall if I finished it. It is a unique way to tell a story, however, I think I prefer books better. Though this was a very quick read, so there’s that.

Synopsis

Joseph Stalin dies, and the members of the board conspire to be the one that replaces him. It is loosely based on the truth, and the beginning of the book states, “Disclaimer: Though inspired by real events, this book is nonetheless a work of fiction: artistic license has been used to construct a story from historical evidence that was at best patchy, at times partial, and often contradictory. Having said this, the authors would like to make clear that their imaginations were scarcely stretched in the creation of this story, since it would have been impossible for them to come up with anything half as insane as the real events surrounding the death of Stalin.”

Thought on Book

The comic was entertaining and informative, but as I said, I probably would have found the story more interesting had it been written as a book. It was also hard to follow at times, keeping track of all the men. Beria and Khrushchev were easy to ID, because they are the main two. But at times it just felt like a lot to keep track of.

Movie

This movie stars many British actors, as well as a few Americans. Director Armando Iannucci wanted everyone to use their normal accents, rather than speak in Russian accents. In part, because he felt them speaking in Russian accents would be distracting to the audience, but he also didn’t want the use of a fake accent to impair their improvisations.

The movie was released to some critical acclaim but was banned in Russia. They felt it was an insult to their history and a descendent of Stalin said it was in-human to joke about someone’s death. Seriously though? When it comes to people like Stalin or Hitler, they’re fair game to joke about as much as people want.

The movie had kind of a Mad Mad Wold vibe. A group of selfish people, all racing to “win”, and forming alliances, and blackmailing each other to get what they want. But all done in a ridiculous, hilarious way.

Acting

Simon Russell Beale is Lavrenti Beria and does a great job playing this horrible person.

Jeffrey Tambor was cast as Georgy Malenkov, who seems to be the dimwitted man who was technically in line to secede Stalin.

Steve Buscemi plays Nikita Khrushchev and is hilarious. The funniest scenes that come to mind all involved Buscemi.

Michael Palin is Vyacheslav Molotov and is excellent. He was part of Monty Python and it was cool seeing him in this role when he is older.

Andrea Riseborough plays Svetlana, who is Stalin’s daughter. She is also perfectly cast and is wonderful here.

Rupert Friend does a great job as Vasily, Stalin’s out of control son.

Jason Isaacs plays Field Marshall Zhukov and is one of the most memorable roles from this movie because he is just such an in your face, over the top character.

Paddy Considine is in the brief role of Andreyev, the guy in charge at the radio station. He isn’t in much, but he is great when he is on screen. He is also the reason I picked this to be me next topic because he was also in Child 44 where he plays a far different role.

Olga Kurylenko plays the pianist Maria, who refuses to play for Stalin, and sneaks the note to him. Kurylenko is the only member of the cast who is actually from the Soviet! She was born in Soviet Ukraine but now lives in France.

Vasily

In the movie, we see Vasily when he is helping train a new hockey team, due to the original team dying in a plane crash. This crash did happen in real life; however, it had been three years prior, in 1950.

In the comic, they find him when he is drinking and hanging out with his military buddies and his actor and actress people. They are watching a film from when they were flying planes apparently, and one guy was especially drunk and crashed into a crowd of people. Both scenes show how little he cares of the lives of others.

At the end of the movie, Khrushchev tells Svetlana, Vasily’s sister, to go to Vienna and that they will look after Vasily. In the comic book, it shows them putting Vasily in a mental institution.

Maria’s note

Maria was bribed by the people at the radio station with 20,000 rubles to play. In her note to Stalin, she says she will donate this to her church and that she prays God will forgive Stalin his sins.

In the movie, she says nothing of donating her money, but just that she thinks he is a horrible person basically.

There seems to be mixed information on this whole occurrence. It is said that the thing with the radio station needing them to replay their concert, in order to record it for Stalin did happen, but it had been years prior to his death. In one version it is said that the second conductor they got (after the first fainted) was too drunk, so they had to find a third. In another version, it says Maria is the one they had to call on and bring her in to play because the original pianist couldn’t or wouldn’t. It also seems unclear if the pianist ever wrote the note for Stalin.

The movie has the added drama of Maria and Khrushchev being acquaintances of sorts, because she taught his niece to play piano. They then have Beria blackmail them both because he knows about her note. In the book this doesn’t happen.

Beria

In the movie, it has Beria being killed the day after the funeral. The comic book shows what happened in real life, which is that it took three months till they were able to go through with their plan and have Beria usurped and killed.

In the movie, Beria is definitely made out to be the villain and seems like a worse person than anyone else. I doubt any of the others were any better though in reality. Khrushchev says in the movie that he will bury Beria, metaphorically speaking, which I’m guessing means he will tarnish Beria’s name in history. From what I have searched, it seems there are various accounts claiming Beria to truly be as terrible as the movie portrays. I’m just saying it’s not like any of the others were good people. The movie needs the Hollywood style villain to be overpowered though, so they kind of made everyone seem like better people than Beria.

Molotov and Polina

The story with Polina Molotov is the same in book and movie. However, in real life, she hadn’t been sentenced to death but sentenced to heard labor. Stalin told Molotov to divorce her after she was sent away, which he did.

Molotov did seem to be a loyal Stalin-ist as shown and it seems he never said anything against Stalin even though Stalin knowingly had an innocent Polina arrested. He had also lost favor with Stalin before his death, and Stalin even spot ill of him in a speech. Yet Molotov remained a staunch supporter.

Beria returned Polina to Molotov after Stalin’s death, they remarried and stayed married till her death in 1970. Beria thought that bringing Polina back would guarantee Molotov’s support, but Molotov knew Beria was manipulating him. So he instead sides with Khruschev.

In both we also see the story of the guy Svetlana was with, Alexi and that he was taken away. The book goes more into this, showing the Stalin had him arrested and killed because he was an actor and Stalin thought Alexi was far too attractive to truly be interested in someone plain like Svetlana. He claimed Alexia must have been with her just as a way to get to know Stalin and so he had him killed.

Speaking of which, it is estimated that under the Stalin regime, 40 million people were killed.

Svetlana

And speaking of Svetlana, in the movie she plays a much bigger role than she did in the comic book. Once scene from the comic book that isn’t in the movie, they have her arrive for the funeral, and she is told it is just the rehearsal. She is angry that they had her come in to “rehearse” her grief for her father and runs out. She is no longer going to be there for the funeral, but they need one of his children looking sympathetic. They are stuck with Vasily, who as the movie shows, gathers journalists and tells them his father was killed and goes on about the American conspiracy.

The death of Stalin

The comic book shows that when Stalin was discovered in his office, he was on his carpet, snoring. They assumed he was still passed out from all the drinking he had done the night before and carried him to his bed. Though by this time he was actually in a coma.

In the movie, as soon as he is found they know something is wrong. They carry him to his bed and from there elect to call a doctor.

In real life, they had sent all the “good doctors” to the Gulag or to prison because they were accused of conspiring to assassinate the Soviet leaders. So, they got whatever doctors they could, but Stalin died, nonetheless.

I don’t know if his autopsy took place in the garage as both book and movie show.

Field Marshall Zhukov

A favorite character from the movie is Jason Isaac’s portrayal of Zhukov. In the comic book, he is there but is not as big a role as in the movie. In real life, he was just a marshal, not a field marshal.

He also really did have a ridiculous number of medals on his chest, even more so than shown in the movie. He played important roles in the Russian civil war as well as World War 2. After the war, because of Zhukov’s success and notoriety, Stalin saw him as a threat and “stripped him of his positions and relegated him to military commands of little strategic significance.” As shown, he was in favor of Khrushchev and in 1955 was made defense minister. In 1957 though he was once again stripped of power and from then until his death in the 70’s was never in any major position.

Khrushchev

In the end of the book and movie, Khrushchev gains power. We aren’t shown this, but when he was in power, he began a “De-Stalinization” which were reforms which “…consisted of changing or removing key institutions that helped Stalin hold power: The cult of personality that surrounded him and the Stalinist political system, both of which had been created by Stalin.”  

Khrushchev remained in office for 11 years. As the movie says in the end, he is replaced by Leonid Brezhnev.

Book or Movie

The comic book seemed to have comedic undertones, though maybe I just felt that way since I knew the movie was a comedy. However, the movie takes a great premise laid out in the comic book and turns it into something more.

The scenes involving Beria and his treatment of women was disgusting, and apparently historically accurate. There is also the killing of the people coming to the funeral which is also one of the serious scenes. Though this didn’t happen quite as the movie shows. During the funeral 109 people were trampled to death, but not shot.

This movie has its serious moments, but it is a dark comedy because for the most part, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. I can’t say I was laughing throughout the whole movie, but it was definitely entertaining, and I enjoyed the ridiculousness of it all. So, the movie wins on this one! It strays from the truth, but as the director said, “I’m not saying it’s a documentary. It is a fiction, but it’s a fiction inspired by the truth of what it must have felt like at the time. My aim is for the audience to feel the sort of low-level anxiety that people must have when they just went about their daily lives at the time.”

So, as always with “true stories” don’t believe it all, but you will enjoy it nonetheless! Hard to beat a cast like this.

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