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The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Between the Book and the Movie

in Current Issue/Reviews

By Patricija Fašalek

If you try and search Milan Kundera in relation to America in Google, the same paragraph repeats itself in different articles. What originates in writings of New York Times and seems to be widely agreed upon: “In the 1980’s, Milan Kundera has done for his native Czechoslovakia what Gabriel Garcia Marquez did for Latin America in the 1960’s and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did for Russia in the 1970’s. He has brought Eastern Europe to the attention of the Western reading public, and he has done so with insights that are universal in their appeal.” Most American newspapers praise the author’s writing and are deeply intrigued by his approach to story-telling in his novels. However, since his book The Unbearable Lightness of Being was published in English, his appeal to US readers led to what could be described as a natural consequence of consecutive events: they decided to adapt his book into a movie.

Some Czechs, however, do not appear to be Kundera fans. Every time I talk about him with Czechs, the responses I get are far from the praise you hear in other countries. The reasons given for their resentment are very similar, usually based on the sentiment that Kundera dislikes the Czech Republic.

Milan Kundera was born on April 1, 1929 in Brno, today’s Czech Republic and former Czechoslovakia. He studied literature and aesthetics at Charles University in Prague, but after two semesters he transferred to film direction and script writing at the Academy of Performing Arts. Some people may be surprised to learn that Kundera joined the ruling Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1948 but got expelled quite quickly because of his “anti-party activities”. He gave it another try in 1956 and managed to get expelled again in 1970. Nine years later he was deprived of Czechoslovakian citizenship and became a French citizen in 1981. In 1982, Kundera completed The Unbearable Lightness of Being – a novel that made him an internationally famous author.

Yet his biography does not offer much of an explanation for the resentment Czechs feel. The problem arises mostly because of Kundera’s personal demands – including not wanting his books to be translated into Czech. The author explains his struggle with translations of his work in general, as expressed in an interview in The Christian Science Monitor: “My biggest problem has to do with the translations of my books: I find them very, very unsatisfying. It gives me much work. In the end I have little control. People today seem to not mind whether I meant one thing or another, as long as the translation is finished in time and the book published in time.”

Kundera has only given a handful of interviews due to his insistence on personal privacy. All of them speak about his work in philosophical terms, never touching upon his personal life or politics other than in ideological terms. Therefore, what Kundera thinks of his native land can only be rendered from reading his work – and his work can be interpreted in many different ways.

Now the question arises, if Kundera sees the translation of his work into other languages as problematic, wouldn’t he be inclined to prohibit the adaptation of his work to another medium as well? The answers to what Kundera really thought about the movie The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Kaufman 1988), how he participated in its creation and how he reacted after seeing the release of the movie varies greatly depending on who you ask. As Colette Lindroth wrote in Mirrors of the Mind: Kaufman Conquers Kundera (229): “Kundera savagely criticizes what he calls rewriting, by which he means any adaptation from one genre to another, including transcriptions of novels to film: ‘Death to all who dare rewrite what has been written! Impale them and roast them over a slow fire! Castrate them and cut off their ears!'” (5). The Telegraph’s journalist Duncan White noted:

[f]ame, though, did not become him. Kundera’s philosophy of literature drew heavily on Flaubert’s ideas about the effacement of the author, and in the aftermath of The Unbearable Lightness of Being Kundera felt he had taken an ‘overdose of [himself]’. He stopped giving interviews and withdrew from public life. He took increasing control of the way his books were produced and circulated. Kundera banned any further film adaptations of his work, having disliked the way The Unbearable Lightness of Being had been adapted by Philip Kaufman in 1988. These days, he refuses to let his novels be published as e-books.”

In his essay “The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Film Adaptation Seen From a Different Perspective”, Cattrysse argues that the film is in the first place an “American production for an American public” not only because the film is produced and directed by Americans, but its financial and other production data (film’s budget was $17,000,000) also “indicate that the first intention of the filmmakers was to produce a classical, narrative Hollywood movie”. Keeping this in mind, it should also be noted that films released nationally and globally to make profit tend to avoid political controversies and its creators try to be very cautious in order not to offend any groups they consider influential. Furthermore, the content of the movie and its style should aim to appeal to a mass audience that would bring back the money they invested into making the film. Not that this movie completely followed these rules, especially when it came to sexual behaviour portrayed and displayed on the screen.

If Kundera’s story begins with heaviness of Nietzsche’s philosophy, the movie first introduces its opposite, the lightness. The book incorporates philosophy and psychoanalysis; it uses them as a narrator’s tool to explain the psyche of the characters and their actions as well as heaviness and lightness of relationships, love and sex. The second page of Kundera’s novel introduces the reader to one of the prevalent themes of the book:

If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross. It is a terrifying prospect. In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make. That is why Nietzsche called the idea of eternal return the heaviest of burdens (das schwerste Gewicht). If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all their splendid lightness. But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?”

After contemplating the positive and negative sides of both extremes, the narrator moves on to the introduction of the lead character:

“I have been thinking about Tomas for many years. But only in the light of these reflections did I see him clearly. I saw him standing at the window of his flat and looking across the courtyard at the opposite walls, not knowing what to do. He had first met Tereza about three weeks earlier in a small Czech town. They had spent scarcely an hour together. She had accompanied him to the station and waited with him until he boarded the train. Ten days later she paid him a visit.”

The movie takes away the narrator and uses sex scenes and the nature of Tomas’ profession for establishing main attributes of his character – which have more to do with perception of masculinity within patriarchal structure than interpretation of the book’s character. As it is argued in the book Sex Sells!: Media’s Journey from Repression to Obsession (107), the main reason for inclusion of sexual scenes in Hollywood pictures in 80’s lies within its desire to entertain the audience and establish distinctive cultural values which its political ideology promotes: “Mixed in with the seductive dialogue and the titillating disrobing, however, was a highly disturbing theme. For at the same time that former B-movie actor Ronald Reagan was setting the nation’s political agenda, motion pictures were promoting male dominance.” That being said, in this article I do not argue that Kundera’s work gives justice to women and their role in society nor do I claim that the actions of heroes in his book are completely misinterpreted when put on the big screen. Kundera’s work in general gives away his obsession with sexuality; J. O’Brien even wrote a book called Milan Kundera and Feminist Criticism where he examines writer’s (mis)representation of women. The book takes an interesting turn in the second chapter, though, where O’Brien uses different approach, a feminist-deconstructivist one, to prove that female characters tend to possess “better” qualities than male characters – qualities usually given to men.

What may be most disturbing is not what is being shown but how, and in what context, the makers of the film arranged the scenes from the book and the different meanings they prescribed them by taking away the narrator’s psychological and philosophical explanation that gave the characters’ actions depth and meaning. However, this was not the first time Americans decided to take philosophy away from Kundera’s writing. Leaning on his “personal recollection: The New Yorker published the first three parts of The Unbearable Lightness of Being – but they eliminated the passages on Nietzsche’s eternal return! Yet, in my eyes, what I say about Nietzsche’s eternal return has nothing to do with a philosophic discourse; it is a continuity of paradoxes that are no less novelistic (that is to say, they answer no less to the essence of what the novel is) than a description of the action of a dialogue.”

While some scenes could be redeeming if taken into the account the symbolic virtue of visual representations, for example showing full nudity of female bodies only in relation to Tereza who struggled with the uniformity of naked bodies the most, the act of placing sunglasses on Tomas’s face as he is surrounded by naked women in her dreams seemed to ridicule the meaning of the dreams (not that one could tell the meaning if they haven’t read the book). Taking away the explanation of their psyche is like taking away almost all the heaviness of the book, making it into a sexual, entertaining film. The effect was described well by Streitmatter, who quoted Vogue magazine and its reflection on Hollywood in 1980s: “In contemporary movies, every location has the potential to be an exotic boudoir” (109). He goes on and claims that “the motion picture industry was selling sexual fantasy, not sexual reality” (114), which is exactly what the movie did: if Kundera was trying to depict the reality of dealing with sexuality and various meanings that it carries for people, the movie shows the fantasy of “macho man” Tomas, “promiscuous mistress” Sabina and “pure, child-like” Tereza having sex on numerous occasions at diverse settings.

Yet, it is more of a characteristic of European films to have full frontal nudity included. European dramas have always been less conservative when it comes to nudity, and that is not the only thing that Kaufman “borrowed” from European cinema. He explained for The Guardian: “I was really inspired by European films. I loved American movies but round the time I lived in Europe in the early Sixties you had the new wave. So I went back inspired by Godard and Truffaut.” There are also several elements included in the film which could be associated with Italian neorealism, such as following the lives of people without influencing the life of the main character, causing the twist of events, or conflict that has to be resolved; although Sabina appears at the beginning as a possible threat to the relationship of Tomas and Tereza, she – as in the book – does not interfere in the way expected from classical narrative. At a certain point, she detaches from their love story and forms a story of her own.

In addition, the actual archive footage of Soviet tanks entering the city was provided for the movie by Jan Nemec, who was filming a documentary about Prague at the time of invasion.  The plan was also to make the film in Yugoslavia, but the Army did not want to offend the Russians so they finally decided to shoot it in Lyon, France.

Content aside, the atmosphere that the movie creates with a help of long shots, colours, costumes, light, and music radiates the undertone of the book with all its melancholic heaviness and breezy lightness. Kundera’s love story is the story of love between people caught in the era of the communist regime. His vivid storytelling takes us through the struggles of persecution, surveillance, censorship, horrors and degradations of tyranny that the characters as well as the author himself encountered and which all of them drew out (at least for certain amount of time) of their home country. There is a lot of talk about politics in the book and less talk but more shots that portray the consequences of Soviet invasion in the movie, yet the story sticks to its original narrative: no matter the amount of what could be described as anti-communist writing, the audience follows the people living their lives, dealing with personal and job issues, while the regime stays in the background – visible and invisible foundation, influencing their lifestyle and choices, yet not embedded as the main focus of their daily existence.  

Once again, a great peculiarity of art must be stressed – its potential to leave the interpretation open to the audience. Although Kaufman stated in this interview that he wanted to begin in a comedic way to include an association with Czechoslovak films made in 60’s, like Loves of a Blond by Miloš Forman, and to embrace the lightness which was one part of Prague Spring, it seems that the movie incorporated the lightness of casual affairs that can be in fact associated with capitalist politics. Lisa Bahr concluded that “the film adaptation of the novel omits a good chunk of the political narrative”, however, I would disagree to a certain extent and would like to summarise the words of Paul Verhaeghe as explained in his book Identiteit : if we don’t see the great story we are following, that is because it has settled well within and around us, and we do not notice the “religion” of our time any more: and that is one of capitalism.

“What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?” the narrator asks us at the beginning of the book, after stating all the pros and cons of each. Kundera marks all political extremes with the word “kitsch”; he believes, or at least that is what he wrote in the book, that they do not “rest so much on rational attitudes as on fantasies, images, words, and archetypes that come together to make up this or that political kitsch. Since opinions vary, there are various kitsches: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Communist, Fascist, democratic, feminist, European, American, national, international”.

Thirty years after the formation of Czechoslovakia in 1918, the country was ruled by the communist party, belonging to the Eastern block during the Cold war, yet both countries continue to influence each other.

“Whenever [Sabina] told [Franz] about herself and her friends from home, Franz heard the words prison, persecution, enemy tanks, emigration, pamphlets, banned books, banned exhibitions, and felt a curious mixture of envy and nostalgia /…/ The dictatorship of proletariat or democracy? Rejection of the consumer society or demands for increased productivity? The guillotine or an end to the death penalty? It is all beside the point. What makes a leftist a leftist is not this or that theory but his ability to integrate any theory into the kitsch called Grand March.”

The Iron Curtain fell and the regimes, with all their differences, are now set on similar grounds. What The Unbearable Lightness of Being is all about when it comes to its political stands is its desire to unmask the extremes and to reveal the nature of complexity of one’s beliefs.


Sources:

Colette Lindroth, Caldwell College. Literature-Film Quarterly. Mirrors of the Mind + The ‘Unbearable Lightness of Being’ – Kaufman Conquers Kundera. Salisbury State Univ.  1991, p148

O’Brien, J. Milan Kundera and Feminist Criticism Dangerous Intersection. Palgrave Macmillan. 1995.

Streitmatter, Rodger. Sex Sells!: Media’s Journey from Repression to Obsession. Westview Press. 2004, p103-114.

Verhaeghe, Paul. Identiteta. Ciceron. 2016


Patricija Fašalek holds a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and will soon have her Master’s in Cultural Studies at the University of Ljubljana. She likes taking long walks with her dog while listening to jazz, 60’s rock, or Cigarettes after Sex on her very old and unpredictable mp3 player. When she gets home, she enjoys classical music in the background while reading, or watching old European movies…with chocolate in her bed…while dreaming about summer and the sea.

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