The Idiot (2003) is a masterfully created Russian TV series based on the eponymous novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky. It proved to be wildly popular in Russia, garnering an average of 10 million viewers for each episode. And, what’s more, the series became a symbol of Russian pride.
Russian TV for the decade following the fall of the Soviet Union was defined by low quality Russian crime shows and foreign-made Telenovelas. The Idiot was anything but that. With its relatively high budget ($200-300k per episode), involvement of esteemed actors, and focus on Russian culture, The Idiot helped bring to pass a new period of higher quality Russian TV. Still, for any viewer today, the series is an inescapably superb work of art that is well worth the effort to watch.
The show’s script is very close to the original novel’s text and brilliantly brings Dostoevsky to screen life. As such, it’s just one of a string of successful reboots of Russian classics by creator and director Vladimir Bortko – from Heart of the Dog (1988) to The Master and Margarita (2005).
Half-sane Prince Lev Myshkin (Evgeny Mironov) returns to glamorous St. Petersburg after a long time of treatment in a Swiss psychiatric clinic. Back in Russia, he becomes intertwined with a set that is bewitched by the beautiful “fallen woman,” Nastasya Filippovna (Lydia Velezheva). Every man wants to marry her, including Myshkin.
However, the passions that Nastasya inflames in others only cause trouble and tragedy. Marriage proposals are flung about, agreed to, and then cancelled multiple times. Would-be lovers lose their minds. And, finally, Nastasya herself dies at the hands of a jealous lover, causing Myshkin to once again fall into insanity.
All in all, The Idiot has a terrific plot and this TV series is by far and away the greatest screenplay adaption of it.
If you want to read the book, I recommend the version translated by Richard Pevear.
If you’d like to watch a shorter Russian film version, take a look at The Idiot (1958), which features the prolific Yuriy Yakovlev as Myshkin. Otherwise, there are many other impressive movie adaptions of The Idiot made by Italian, Japanese, French, Indian, and Estonian directors.