Friday, September 9, 2011

Book & Movie Comparison: Catherine the Great

Coincidentally, I happened to have two historical fiction books about Catherine the Great on hand when TCM aired a classic movie about her. Thus, I decided to compare all three for what I hope is a fun blog post.

First book: The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak, January 2012 release (ARC from Vine)

The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the GreatWhat it's about: The last half of Empress Elizabeth's reign and then the first bit of Catherine the Great's. Told in first person POV from the viewpoint of a lady spy who originally spies for Elizabeth and later becomes a friend to Catherine. Chronicles Catherine's mistreatment at Elizabeth's hands, the loss of her children either to miscarriage or to the Empress, her affairs with a Sergei and a Polish man and the Orlov brother, her discord with Peter, and her conspiracy to overthrow him.

Catherine on wedding day
Liked: The narrative being from a lady spy. Terrific idea!! I learned so much about Catherine and this novel, unlike some others, portrays her as a woman that readers can relate to, understand, and sympathize with. I also liked reading about Barbara grappling with feelings of guilt. In one part, she has a dream about Madame Kluge, a woman she got exiled from court. She dreams she is in a carriage and offers Madame a ride. Madame says, "I don't want to go where you are going." This particular scene gave me goosebumps, had me wondering, "where is she going?" It gave the book an ominous feel that worked wonderfully considering all that occurs.

Didn't Like: Starts to drone on and on at times. Bit too overly descriptive. Had me hooked from the get go but then began to lose my interest once Barbara marries. During the period she was away from court, the book grew dull as Barbara's life was simply not interesting without the court intrigue or Catherine. Also feel I missed something.. when did Barbara go from loathing her husband to loving him a little? By the time the man left for war, I felt there was something there and I never saw the change. By page 335, I was utterly bored. I feel the book is unnecessarily long for what it contains. It ends with Catherine obtaining power. After this woman became empress, she proceeded to take over the world. Does that not bear mentioning? Throughout this entire novel, unfortunately, she was just a brood mare, a conniving brood mare, but a brood mare.

My star rating: Three. I liked it, but it had some quibbles.

Second, the movie, The Scarlet Empress, 1934

The Scarlet Empress (The Criterion Collection)What it's about: A young and innocent Sophie travels to Russia, is treated like crap by Empress Elizabeth, loses her name and religion, falls in love with Alexei   asap, beds a random guard in the dark of night, and gradually steals her husband's throne.

Liked: 1. The scene in which she stares down Peter's mistress. Ice, ice baby!! 2. And the scene in which she dons a soldier's attire and rushes off on a horse. 3. The bedroom scene in which she gets Alexei all hot and bothered and then... sends him on his way. Serves him right.

The horrid smile
Didn't Like: 1. Alexei.. that actor is butt ugly. I mean, seriously, if my dog looked like him I would shave its butt and make it walk backwards. That ugly. And just who the heck is he? I didn't find him when researching to find out truth from fiction. 2. Peter the III's character was way over exaggerated. That horrid smile was ridiculous. 3. This movie claimed in the beginning that it was based on Catherine's diary. I seriously doubt it. I find the events of this movie to be so preposterous at times, I question its historical accuracy. I know Peter was a nut, but I doubt he just randomly shot at soldiers out his windows. And Catherine did take lovers, but a random guard on night duty? 4. Some scenes were horribly long, the wedding, the dinner, the horses riding through towards the end...
Marlene Dietrich.. a blonde?

I would like to note a major difference here between this movie and the book above: In Winter Palace, Empress Elizabeth is very fond of Catherine in the beginning. In this movie, it's hatred from the get go. Elizabeth treats her like a brood mare. However, once again, everything ends with her obtaining power. :(

My star rating: Two. I didn't like it.

Third, is the book The Rebel Princess by Evelyn Anthony, 1953

It's also titled Imperial Highness.

The Rebel PrincessWhat it's about: Basically the same stuff that I mentioned above in Winter Palace, minus 200 some pages and minus the lady spy narrative. Also, though the major story line is the same, there are minor differences in plot, such as Catherine seeking permission for her second love affair. This one is told in the third person and doesn't go on and on and on. It also skips the six years that Catherine is held in captivity with her husband while Elizabeth awaits an heir. Really, a good idea as that stuff was so boring in the WP. This book also evoked in me some deeper thoughts: You would think that Peter and Catherine would have hit it off as both came from very similar childhoods. Peter was greatly oppressed by Elizabeth and Catherine was beat down emotionally by her mother.  I also noticed that one thing all three of these books/movie combo have in common is: Princess Johanna, Catherine's mother is a mega beeyotch.

Imperial Highness (Romanov Trilogy, #1)What I liked: We get the whole story without the drawn out details. This book does not take an entire paragraph of colorful words to tell me the Empress loves theater or whatever. Catherine is a sympathetic figure in this. The WP had too many characters at times and they were often called by numerous names. I grew very confused. This book is much simpler and easier to follow along.

Imperial Highness (Romanov Trilogy, #1)The passionate scene between Catherine and Orlov consisted of few words, but impacted me greatly: "With shaking hands Catherine tried to loose the ruby necklace which had been pressed into her skin in that wild encounter in the corridor; for a moment she could find no words for the tumult of emotions which possessed her. Accept his protection, live however briefly in the arms of a man who had stormed and taken her with the ruthless abandon of a marauding Cossack..."

Also loved the part where Catherine leads her troops, commands their respect, and dons male attire. It was a powerful scene. I got goosebumps.

What I didn't like: Again, the story ends just after Catherine takes the throne. However, this is the first of a trilogy and thus, I won't hold this minor quibble against the book. The story does continue, I just have to find the now out of print book that is next.

My star rating: Five. Really liked it. And thus, it wins this comparison. Hands down. And I found this one in a little book store in Montana.


  1. I think you made a mistake approaching a Josef von Sternberg film from a "must be factually accurate" viewpoint. His movies aren't about facts, but style, and part of the German style was about exaggeration. (And Sam Jaffe - Peter III - is a ham anyway.) Plus, any early Marlene movie is about Marlene. Maybe you'd like his movies "The Last Command" and "The Docks of New York" better. Though they're not focused around a central female character, so maybe not.

    (And I don't think John Lodge - Alexei - is that bad looking. :P He had a very successful post-Hollywood career, too.)

  2. Great post! I happened to notice the movie that was on as well and recorded it but haven't watched it yet. Might try to watch it this weekend. I really enjoyed Anthony's book as well. I have the other two - they were also each published under two different names and I think I found them reasonably priced used.

  3. Karla, the reason I was expecting some historical accuracy was because with the opening credits, the screen said, "based on Catherine's diary." That's why I said what I did.

    You don't think John is ugly? LOL. My friend and I (who lives in Florida but also watched it) both though for a brief moment that he was Peter. He looked like a mad man. LOL

    Daphne, I would love to know your thoughts on the other two books.

  4. Friend from Florida here. I didn't realize that this was Sam Jaffe's (Peter) first film? I know he is better than that, I have to wonder if that was Sternberg's doing.

    Karla (from GR?), I was worried when I saw Marlene was to play Catherine and then knowing her Svengali was directing, who knew where this would go? Well, now Tara and I know. Yes, the sets, costumes, artful use of black and white were all the Sternberg touches. And the days of delays in shooting caused by the uproar over whether Dietrich should wear a fur hat or not because her rival, Garbo, had just worn one in her newest film, shows one how important fashion was to them.

    I think Alexei was an amalgamation of her first two lovers, Serge Saltykov and Stanisław Poniatowski. The guard, Orloff, was the real Orlov, and they just condensed that down to an instant affair for time restraints. But if they hadn't taken so long on the scenes Tara mentioned maybe they could have explained that better.

    Tara, I thought you would find this interesting, John Lodge, who played Alexei became Governor of Connecticut in the 50's.

  5. Dawn, I didn't know that. That is interesting.. the governor thing.. but you know what? I don't like Dietrich. I really don't. Something about her.. has rubbed me wrong in both movies I've watched with her starring.

  6. I just finished The Winter Palace and liked it better than you did, since I gave it 4 stars. It's the first in a series or trilogy, I believe, which is probably why it doesn't speak of what happens later to Catherine.

    It was really Varvara's story, though, and (SPOILER SPOILER) I was expecting her to be totally betrayed at the end. It seemed Peter's last words to her about a lemon being squeezed and its peel tossed away seemed prophetic.

    Now I'm curious about the film and other books!