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Hamming Up Bulgakov

Ovation
Daniel Radcliffe and Jon Hamm in A Young Doctor’s Notebook

On stage and screen Mikhail Bulgakov has enjoyed a renaissance during recent years. Following Collaborators, the runaway success at the National Theatre in London, there was a sensational production of The Master and Margarita by Complicité, Simon McBurney’s innovative company, which thrilled London audiences earlier this year. Now we have A Young Doctor’s Notebook, a televised adaption of Bulgakov’s stories in A Country Doctor’s Notebook with Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter fame) as the young physician and Jon Hamm (of Mad Men) as his older self, who—in an element added by the television show’s writers—somehow travels back in time to 1917 to take part in the main action of the drama. Bulgakov is becoming better known but not necessarily through his own words.

It’s not hard to see why Bulgakov’s books are so often dramatized. He was himself a dramatist, and adapted his own novel The White Guard (1925) for the stage. His prose is highly visual, full of humorous incidents, theatrical in atmosphere, and frequently surreal—all qualities that lend it to the stage and screen. But not all his books were written in that vein.

A Country Doctor’s Notebook is made up of stories written by Bulgakov for various general readership and medical magazines during the 1920s (and posthumously published as a collection in 1963). Based on his experience as a young doctor in a remote country hospital in Smolensk province in 1917, one year after his graduation from the Medical Department of Kiev University, they are narrated as the reminiscences of an older doctor looking back through the “blizzard” of the revolution to a world of innocence that he has lost. “Clever people have long been aware that happiness is like good health,” the story “Morphine” starts: “when you have it you don’t notice it. But as the years go by, oh, the memories of happiness past!”

The tone is wistful, off-the-cuff, a touch nostalgic, sometimes grim, but not particularly comic or surreal, even if the doctor performs miracles in his operating theatre by saving lives against all odds. But that is just the tone the TV writers strike in their black comedy. Too much is played for laughs. Jokes are made where there are none in the original: the doctor makes fun of the plain looks of a nurse; he is caught looking at pornography; and we see him in a slapstick fight with his older self during an emergency.

The show’s co-writer Alan Connor wrote in The Guardian about his “hope that the riotous Bulgakov, the man who wrote talking dogs and hind-leg-walking cats and The Master and Margarita, would endorse [the series’] spirit…[and] might even have laughed at some of the jokes.” But the point is not whether the Bulgakov who wrote The Master and Margarita in the last years of his life would have approved, but whether the Bulgakov who wrote these stories would have done.

It’s not just the comedy that is played up but the blackness too. In Bulgakov’s “Morphine” the doctor tells the story of a university colleague who succeeds him in his post at the Smolensk country hospital, becomes a morphine addict, and dies leaving him a notebook of his addiction. In the TV series the doctor himself become the morphine addict to reframe the series as a tale of moral degeneration in the revolutionary years. The series starts with the older doctor (Hamm), a hopeless addict, being interrogated by Stalin’s police in 1934 (several years after the stories were written) on suspicion that the people in his notebook might be “counter-revolutionaries.” Hamm then appears in the main action of 1917, and engages with his younger (and much shorter) self (Radcliffe), somehow managing to calm him down in medical emergencies by giving him advice but not to save him from his addiction.

It is not the absurd re-emplotment that really matters here but the distortion of the stories’ spirit and meaning. The addiction theme reaches its climax in the fourth and final episode, which is based on “The Blizzard.” In Bulgakov’s story the doctor is called out in a storm to attend to a woman who is dying from a severe blow to her head. As an act of mercy he injects her with a “yellow liquid” to ease her pain. In the TV version he murders her with two overdoses of morphine—a callous act by a degenerate.

This is an enjoyable series. There are strong performances, especially from Hamm, who is wonderful to watch for the subtle blend of mordant humor and self-loathing on his handsome face. But it is far from a faithful version of A Country Doctor’s Notebook. It is telling that a second series will appear with a new name, A Young Doctor’s Notebook and Other Stories, which will draw from a selection of Bulgakov’s other works.


The second season of A Young Doctor’s Notebook will air on Sky Arts on November 21, and on Ovation in 2014.

Update: Alan Connor was originally described as the producer of A Young Doctor’s Notebook; he is the co-writer.

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