Here are two films based on Anton Chekhov's children's story 'Kashtanka', one made in 1952, the other in 2004. 1952 is a classic short feature film of the period, gorgeous like '101 Dalmatians' and so many other of that time, besotted as everyone was at the time withe use of 'full colour'. 2004 is more Shaun Tan, with scene action graphic and scratch and shadow effects giving heightened sense of Kashtanka's changing moods. 2004 better tells the story through Kashtanka's eyes. That in itself makes it a satisfying account. She finds herself with a new owner who treats her better than the carpenter, but it's still all a matter of survival. This film discloses only at the start and end how it is the son, not the father, who cares most for Kashtanka. The Soviet-era film is much softer on the carpenter's mistreatment of the dog but more emphatic about his ingrained drinking problem. Watching both films leaves me wondering if the story is a bedtime story warning against joining the circus, a parental fear more common in Russia than Australia, methinks, depending on what you mean by circus. 1952 is, not surprisingly, class-conscious despite itself. There is a 19th century nostalgia going on, but it's made clear that good living with the new owner can lead to easy living and a loss of perspective. Bourgeois living versus solid worker living is a graphic fact in 1952, not obvious in 2004. It's doubtful if Chekhov had any such classist intentions, whose interest is in separation and loss. Both films handle the death of the goose with sensitivity, though in 2004 it is not just the owner but Kashtanka who is very upset. The shock of finding out that the profession of the new owner is clown is most powerful in 1952, and little is made of Kashtanka's obscure career perhaps not including a role in the Egyptian Pyramid circus act. The other film seems to assume we know in advance that the new owner is a professional actor, that we are familiar with this critical surprise fact in the story. Subtitles for 1952 were generated by a computer of very little brain, with distracting and unintentionally comic dialogue, whereas 2004 uses the Chekhov sparingly and to the point. Some of 1952's graphic work is just divine, with a desire to please the eye. While 2004, from the start, uses the drawing much more faithfully to tell us what's going on inside Kashtanka. The films tell the story in their own way and, of course, not being conversant in the original, we just don't know which crucial words in the Russian ur-text are being picked up by the filmmakers as cues for their own artistic versions. Chekhov is famously and ruefully ambiguous much of the time.
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