This TV-series of 10 episodes, broadcast at the end of 2005 on the Russian Telekanal Rossiia, scored unprecedented ratings.
It was the second attempt of director Vladimir Bortko to film Bulgakov's masterpiece. In 2000 he had already been solicited by the Kino-Most film studio, associated with the competing channel NTV, but at the last moment the company did not succeed to come to an agreement with Sergei Shilovsky, grandson of Bulgakov's third wife, and owner of the copyrights. This time, with Rossiia, it worked. And it did not pass unnoticed.
This TV-epopee of more than 8 hours was heavily criticized, or at least regarded with much skepticism, before it was shown on screen. Sometimes it was sincere and well-grounded concern about the authenticity, but sometimes it seemed as if the Bulgakov die-hards behaved like modern Latunsky's by reproaching a movie they hadn't seen yet with sacrilege. Or maybe it was because of the gigantic publicity campaign that was launched to promote the series, and that could give reasons to fear an ambitious, but superficial Hollywood-ish production. But fortunately it wasn't the case.
In contrast with the earlier screen adaptation of Aleksandar Petrovic in 1972, director Vladimire Bortko (° Moscow, 1946) followed the book meticulously. If you have 10 times 52 minutes available for it, it is of course, easier than when you're supposed to deliver a 90 minutes movie picture. The setting of a TV-series appeared to be an ideal format to elaborate the complicated, multidimensional work with many different characters. Bortko had already shown his talent with his TV-adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Idiot in 2003. Besides, he already filmed another novel of Bulgakov before: "Heart of a Dog", in 1988. He followed the dialogues almost word for word because, so he said, Bulgakov wrote the novel almost like a screenplay.
Ik was skeptical too when I saw the DVD at дом книги (Dom Knigi or "House of Books") in Moscow. But curiosity was stronger than skepticism and, frankly speaking, I was pleasantly surprised from the first images. Woland's meeting with Ivan and Berlioz, and the first confrontation of Pilate and Yeshua Ha-Notsri are not only beautifully portrayed and well performed, but in addition they matched remarkably well with the images that I had in mind when I first read the book.
The three layers of the novel are reflected more than well, with a well manipulated alternation of colour and black-and-white. The actors are casted accurately and they play the characters faithfully to the novel's intentions that even the most convinced skeptics shut their mouths, despite the huge success on December 29, 2005 more than 80 million people were watching.
Must I find demerits? Well... maybe the depiction of Behemoth then. With the existing technologies it could have been done better, but after all I can only conclude that, even though it is "only" TV, this series doesn't disenchant and its main merit is probably the the fact that Bulgakov now found a much bigger audience than he ever could have had with his books.