A Lost Opportunity

Once again The Luzhin Defense – this time it’s about the film based on Vladimir Nabokov’s novel.

There are thousands of movies based on books; some of them are great artworks in their own right; many are quite ok; and a very big number is simply disappointing. Unfortunately, the feature film The Luzhin Defense (UK/France 2000; Director: Marleen Gorris; Screenplay: Peter Berry; Actors: John Turturro, Emily Watson, Stuart Wilson et al.) belongs to the last category in my opinion.

That the short and fat Luzhin of the novel is played by the haggard John Turturro: granted, because he is a good actor. That the story was transposed from Berlin to an Italian hotel: granted, because it means the film focuses even more on chess than the novel. That the role of Valentinov is expanded in the film compared to the novel: granted, because this ambigous character creates additional interest. That the main female character has now a name: granted, because her having no first name works well in the book but wouldn’t work in a movie.

With other decisions of the film crew I am not at all d’accord. To introduce a major character (Jean de Stassard) that is not in the book and that doesn’t fit at all in this story makes me like this film already much less. 

But the worst are the two major chess scenes in the film that make a real disaster of this attempt to visualize Nabokov’s book.

In the semifinale of the tournament in which Luzhin participates in the movie he seems to be in a hopeless position. But thanks to a hidden brilliant combination he can defeat his opponent and qualify for the final game against his main rival Turati. And here, in showing this supposedly brilliant combination – which is based on a real tournament game Dr. Vidmar-Dr.Euwe, Karlsbad 1929 – the movie lost me completely:

vidmar-euwe

This is the real position in the historical game in which Vidmar is threatened to be checkmated in the next move. But he found a spectacular rescue and played in cold blood 1.Re8+ Bf8 (1.-Kh7 is answered by 2.Qd3+ and black loses its Rook on c2), and now 2.Rxf8+! Kxf8 3.Nf5+

vidmar-euwe2

In the real game, Euwe resigned here already. 3.-Ke8 is followed by 4.Qe7#, and 3.-Kg8 is answered of course by 4.Qf8+!! Kxf8 (4.-Kh7 5.Qg7# doesn’t help) 5.Rd8# – really a brilliant end and a clever choice for the movie.

However, someone in the film crew placed the black rook on c1 and not on c2, and since Luzhin’s opponent plays until the end, we see – under frenetic applause from the tournament kibitzers in the movie the following key position on screen:

vidmar-euwe3

The Film-Luzhin plays exactly like Vidmar, but the last move is illegal with the black rook on c1! To make things worse, in the movie position White is not threatened at all by mate on h2 and the simple 1.Rxc1 wins in the most trivial way.

For anyone familiar with the rules of the game, this scene is ruining the whole movie. As if this was not enough the film provides us with a kitschy and completely unrealistic ending that is not only violating the content and spirit of Nabokov’s book but that would make even each B-movie screenwriter in Hollywood look like a great artist.

A lost opportunity. 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or 
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