Baz Luhrmann was shooting Romeo + Juliet when a crewmember told him about a book that he thought the filmmaker should read.
The 1930s satirical novel features a suave Satan arriving in a city to hold a magic show, time travels back to the Crucifixion, and merges into a magical love story.
“He said to me ‘You know there’s only one person in the world that can make this novel into a film — it’s you’,” Luhrmann tells ABC RN’s The History Listen.
“I was beguiled by [the story], but I thought no, I could never really do it. But the gestalt of it really stuck with me.”
In the years that followed, Luhrmann was approached by fans of the novel over and over again.
“I basically spent, from that moment on, all my time running away from it. It wasn’t like I was pursuing it, it honestly felt like it was pursuing me,” he says.
Twenty years later, Luhrmann has secured the coveted film rights to The Master and Margarita — considered by Russians to be the great Russian novel of the 20th century.
A memorable first encounter with The Master and Margarita is a common experience across the passionate readership of its author, Mikhail Bulgakov.
Mike Tyskin was a teenager in 1960s Moscow when he heard a sensational work of fiction was about to be published in a magazine, almost 30 years after its author had died.
“The librarians were interested in getting schoolboys reading and I heard things. They were saying that something was about to come out. And then they mentioned the name Mikhail Bulgakov.”
Mike’s grandmother worked for a publishing house and was a member of the state-run writers’ union. Her own father had been a minister for the arts when Bulgakov was alive.
“I went to grandma — we were great friends — and asked, “Who is Bulgakov?” he recalls.
“She was deeply communist. She said he was a minor playwright and really quite reactionary — ‘So don’t worry about him’.
“I thought, ‘Well that’s odd’.”
While he wouldn’t get to read the full version until leaving the Soviet Union for Australia, Mike’s impression from his first encounter with the work was clear.
“He is among the best writers to ever exist in Russia.”
Humorously told with a knowing, satirical turn of phrase, The Master and Margarita is set in the 1930s. It was 1973 by the time it was published in novel form, but Russians still found it hilariously spot-on about the absurdities of life under communism.
Readers have been struck by the romance, dazzling imagery and moral questioning of the writing, which whisks them between storylines and two very different settings: Moscow and ancient Jerusalem.
After decades of invisibility, Bulgakov is now regarded as a literary hero and his masterpiece is recognised and claimed by the state.
The communal flat he lived in — and disliked — is now a museum that attracts international pilgrims. Locations in the novel, such as a park bench at Moscow’s Patriarch’s Ponds, are literary landmarks.
A legion of artists from the West claim inspiration from the book, including Patti Smith, the Rolling Stones (whose song Sympathy for the Devil was inspired by it), Salman Rushdie, Marlon James and Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
In 1930 Bulgakov was a banned playwright and author of short stories with no income and at his wit’s end, when he received a fateful phone call from Joseph Stalin.
The author had been writing letters to the authorities seeking to emigrate from the Soviet Union. As the regime became more repressive, his desperation and paranoia increased.
“My fate has been chaotic and terrible,” he wrote to his brother overseas. “Now I am being reduced to silence; for a writer, this is equivalent to death.”
Bulgakov’s writing was at odds with the official socialist realist style, and a torrent of bad press would follow nearly everything he wrote.
“Nasty, uncontrolled bile was sort of poured all over him, a bit like the worst of trolling on Twitter these days,” says Julie Curtis, a professor of Russian literature at Oxford.
Strangely, Stalin himself was a fan of Bulgakov and his night-time phone call, though terrifying to the writer, resulted in a state-sanctioned job that safeguarded Bulgakov’s livelihood but forbid him to publish.
At home in his flat, Bulgakov continued to write about themes that were unacceptable to the state: Christianity, for one.
The novel includes a clear-eyed account of what happened when Jesus of Nazareth met Pontius Pilate, the Roman official who sentenced him to death.
Around it, Bulgakov wove the story of a debonair and witty current-day Satan, who finds amusement in wreaking havoc on the top echelons of Moscow society, especially literary critics.
Among the demons who hang around Satan is a giant pistol-wielding black cat named Behemoth — a reader favourite who nearly always features on the book’s cover.
Bulgakov also put himself in the novel as a character known only as ‘the master’. Like him, the master is writing a manuscript that he tries to burn in his stove, knowing he will never be allowed to publish it.
In the book the manuscript magically survives thanks to the helpful hand of the devil, who’s named Woland.
“Unfortunately I can’t show it to you,” replied the master, “because I burned it in my stove.”
“I’m sorry but I don’t believe you,” said Woland. “You can’t have done. Manuscripts don’t burn.”
This line has taken on a fame of its own, seeming to symbolise the actual story of what happened to Bulgakov’s manuscript.
Bulgakov’s wife, Yelena Shilovskaya, whom the master’s lover Margarita is based on, kept the novel safe throughout the decades after his death at age 48, when its very existence still posed a risk to her.
It was she who finally got it published in the late 1960s.
For so many readers, particularly Russians, the novel has life-changing — and sometimes mystical — associations.
“My father read this book so many times that he could actually speak in quotes from the book. He could quote it almost from any page,” says Muscovite Natalia Ryzhkova.
“Each time you read it you literally find something new. Something you didn’t pay much attention to the previous times.”
“I finished the book as a person with a different mindset,” Alla Toff says as she recalls reading it for the first time in the Soviet Union.
Sydney-based scholar Ksenia Radchenko credits it with her meeting her future husband, and explains a game played with Bulgakov-lovers
“Russians use the book when they have some dream or wish. They just open the book with their eyes closed, pick a line and use it as a prophecy.”
When she was a school student in Moscow in the 1990s, Ksenia’s art class was told to design an ex libris book plate. Ksenia drew the cat Behemoth and signed her name on the picture.
“To my surprise this drawing had to play a very important role in my life. About 10 years later on Facebook, I met a handsome guy who lived in Los Angeles,” she says.
“He said he recognised my name. His mum had been my art teacher in Moscow and she’d brought [my book plate] home because she was fascinated by the book too.”
Australian writer Subhash Jaireth was a student in Moscow in the late ’60s when a typed copy of the banned book, called ‘samizdat’, made it into his hands.
“Someone thought I was reliable enough and passed me on this samizdat copy,” he says.
“I had access to a typewriter and I typed out about ten pages of it and then gave them and the original back to my friend. It might have become another copy of the book. That’s how the copies spread around in the underground public sphere in Moscow.”
Australian Zoe Bremer, who grew up speaking Russian, says the book helped her survive a bleak childhood and “deepened” her life.
“It was a real uniting link between my late husband and me. As soon as we discovered that this is each one’s favourite book, we immediately understood a whole depth about each other. It was one of the contributing factors to my resilience when he died.”
Bulgakov has long been published and celebrated in Russia, but according to Professor Curtis a comparable set of state doctrines is now being used to censor writers, particularly in the theatre.
“Since the abandoning of socialist realism as a doctrine, we are seeing a sort of reinstatement of Soviet-era values in some respect,” she says.
“You simply remove communist ideology and you insert Russian Orthodox religion plus nationalism and you sort of carry on as before, basically.”
One move has been the well-documented restriction of stories depicting gay and lesbian narratives.
“Banning the use of ‘obscenity’, banning what they call non-traditional relationships, being depicted in works of art, certainly for the under 18s … underpins a homophobic approach,” Professor Curtis says.
For Luhrmann, working out how to tell a story so beloved by Russians will inevitably require some departures from the novel.
“This is not something one wants to fall in love with cinematically, because there is no cinematic language that really can contain the incredibly innovative form,” he says.
But like all readers for whom “manuscripts don’t burn”, the magic of The Master and Margarita has gotten under his skin.
“I suddenly realised, it’s the enigma of it. It’s the unprecedented form of it, that suddenly got me really interested into how could I translate that.”
Get more stories that go beyond the news cycle with our weekly newsletter.