Sunday, February 22, 2015

Kristen Ghodsee's "The Left Side of History"

Kristen Ghodsee is Professor of Gender and Women's Studies at Bowdoin College and a former Guggenheim Fellow. She is the author of several books and over two dozen articles, including The Red Riviera: Gender, Tourism and Postsocialism on the Black Sea and Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe: Gender, Ethnicity and the Transformation of Islam in Postsocialist Bulgaria, which won the 2010 Barbara Heldt Book Prize, the 2011 John D. Bell Book Prize, the 2011 Harvard Davis Center Book Prize, and the 2011 William Douglass Prize for Best Book in Europeanist Anthropology.

Here she dreamcasts an adaptation of her latest book, The Left Side of History: World War II and the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism in Eastern Europe:
The Left Side of History has all of the ingredients for a big screen World War II political thriller. But it would be an unconventional film since all of the protagonists are left-wing guerillas fighting against the Nazi-allied Bulgarian monarchy in the Balkan theater of the War. The actors would have to work hard to challenge the pervasive cultural stereotypes of communists as deluded revolutionaries. The book revolves around two sets of leftist dreamers: one British and one Bulgarian.

On the British side, the hero is Major Frank Thompson, a British Special Operations Executive officer who parachuted deep behind enemy lines in January 1944 to organize and support the Bulgarian partisans. Frank Thompson was a young idealist who joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1938 at the urging of his Oxford classmate, the writer Iris Murdoch. He enlisted to fight against the Axis powers two days before the official British declaration of war, and spent 1939-1943 in North Africa, the Middle East, and Italy before his final mission in the Balkans. Frank Thompson was the older brother of the famous labor historian, E.P. Thompson, and the Winchester schoolmate of the mathematician Freeman Dyson, both who also fought in WWII (E.P. Thompson in Italy and Dyson at British Bomber Command in London). I’d feel compelled to cast British actors, and I’d want some Himalayan acting talent.

My first thought for the role of Major Frank Thompson was Benedict Cumberbatch, but as Frank Thompson smoked a pipe I think it would be impossible for audiences to look at Cumberbatch with a pipe in his mouth and not think “Sherlock.” So my second choice is Tom Hiddleston because Frank Thompson was also a poet and a polyglot (he spoke nine languages), and I think Hiddleston could play the perfect sensitive action hero. David Tenant could play Frank’s younger brother, Edward Palmer Thompson, and Eddie Redmayne would be a perfect young Freeman Dyson. Kate Winslet could reprise her role as young Iris Murdoch.

On the Bulgarian side is a family of partisans. The story revolves around Elena Lagadinova, who became the youngest female partisan at the age of 14. Her three older brothers (Kostadin, Assen, and Boris Lagadinov) were fighting in the mountains from 1941, and she was already risking her life to help them when she was 11. Finding a good child actor to play the role of an idealistic girl communist guerilla would present a challenge, but perhaps Isabelle Allen (who played the young Cosette in Les Miserables) could handle the role. For her older brothers, I could not resist the possibility of casting the real-life-brothers acting trio of Liam, Chris, and Luke Hemsworth. Liam would play Kostadin, the eldest brother, and Luke would play Boris, the youngest. Chris Hemsworth would shine in the role of Assen, the hot-tempered middle brother who was ambushed and decapitated by the Bulgarian gendarmerie in the summer of 1944.

The book also contains scenes from the present day based on interviews that I conducted with the now octogenarian Elena Lagadinova. I’m not sure that the film version of the book would include these scenes, but if they did Dame Judi Dench would make an excellent older Elena.

As far as directors go, Oliver Stone is my first choice. He’s the only director I trust to accurately convey the book’s central message: that those who fought on the left side of history were not all unthinking Marxist zealots. They were motivated by the dream that a more just and equitable world would emerge from the ashes of World War II.
Learn more about The Left Side of History at the Duke University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue