Last week, I caught the last showing of The Death of Stalin—a satire I’ve been wanting to see since I saw the reviews. I liked it so much that I bought the graphic novel the movie was based on immediately after I got home (and before I spent two hours on Wikipedia finding out what really happened). I hardly ever go to movies, so seeing the movie and reading the book gave me the rare opportunity to compare the two.
The film The Death of Stalin is one of the most brutally funny things I’ve ever seen. I laughed a lot as the characters—the members of the central committee and various members of the Soviet public—race around in the power vacuum after the death of Joseph Stalin. Stalin had created such a sense of terrified obedience to his will that the characters have to turn constant mental somersaults to avoid being considered a traitor (and consequently shot or sent to the gulag). The movie constantly flirts with going to far. For some viewers, I’m sure it does go too far in making jokes about how easy it was to die for no reason in the Soviet Union. And yet, the actors do such a great job at overplaying their characters just enough that the whole thing has a tone of frantic farce. I really, really enjoyed it.
The original graphic novel, by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, I did not enjoy. Perhaps it was because I had just seen and liked the movie so much, that I wasn’t ready for the more historically accurate sinister atmosphere. This version of the story shows the central committee in all their dubious and paranoid glory. In the film version, the scurrying these men do makes it easier to forget the monstrosity of their actions. There is no forgetting in the book version. It is very clear that all of these men have committed crimes against the people they claim to be working for.
One is not better than the other, although there’s a version I absolutely prefer. After all, there’s more than one right way to tell a story. From a critical standpoint, it’s fascinating to see how much tone can affect the way a reader perceives a story and how it’s little things that create that tone. In both versions of The Death of Stalin, it’s characterization that has the biggest impact on the tone. The actors in the film version deliberately chew the scenery and use their incredibly mobile faces to express panic and scheming. The faces in the book version are cruel, hard, and much less expressive. They look like monsters and it’s impossible to empathize with them at all. (Not that they deserve it. They are monsters.) Empathy made it possible for me to watch the characters scurry around in the film while I was just waiting for those characters to receive some kind of just punishment.
The two versions of the story offer very different experiences. For readers who want a manic farce, I would recommend the film. For readers who want historical accuracy (if in brief), I would recommend the graphic novel.