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Anna Sous

Nobel laureate says HBO series has 'completely changed perception' of Chernobyl

Belarus's Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich rolled her eyes when the creators of Chernobyl approached her for permission to use material from her book "Voices From Chernobyl" for the hit HBO miniseries.

"I told my agent, 'Galya, they're going to make another film...' I was far from convinced. The only thing that convinced me, maybe, was the fee," Alexievich explained in a recent interview with RFE/RL's Belarusian Service.

However, the five-part miniseries about the tragic accident at the Ukrainian nuclear power plant has raked in rave reviews from critics and viewers alike, and Alexievich is no exception.

"It really impressed me. It is a very strong film. There is something there in the aesthetics that touches the modern consciousness. There is a dose of fear. There is reasoning. There is beauty. That is something that has always worried me about evil, when it's not out in the open, when so much is confusing."


And she said that her fellow Belarusians, hard hit by the nuclear fallout scattered into the air when Reactor No. 4 exploded on April 26, 1986, have now had their eyes pried open to the real scale of the tragedy, Alexievich said.

"We are now witnessing a new phenomenon that Belarusians, who suffered greatly and thought they knew a lot about the tragedy, have completely changed their perception about Chernobyl and are interpreting this tragedy in a whole new way. The authors accomplished this, even though they are from a completely different world — not from Belarus, not from our region," she explained.

Alexievich said the film has especially struck a chord with young Belarusians.

"It's no accident that a lot of young people have watched this film. They say that they watch it together in clubs and discuss it. They are different. For them, questions about the environment, especially in the West, it is through that lens that they understand life."

Alexievich also praised the selection of Johan Renck as director.

"The director is a Swede by nationality. And in the Swedish consciousness there is a deep awareness of the environment," she said.

Meanwhile, Alexievich's book has, in turn, received high praise from Craig Mazin, the writer and producer of Chernobyl, who tweeted on June 13, 2019: "I drew historical fact and scientific information from many sources, but Ms. Alexievich's "Voices From Chernoby"l was where I always turned to find beauty and sorrow."

From the vintage Soviet furniture and trash bins to the period clothing, Chernobyl has been praised for staying incredibly accurate to detail, even using real dialogue, much of it recorded in Alexievich's oral history of the disaster, "Voices From Chernobyl."

"There is a lot of my text in the reactions of the people. For example, when people stand on the bridge and admire the fire. Those are the first impressions following the accident. The world's, as well. The director even admitted that all of this was created from the book. I have a contract with them and author's rights of ownership," Alexievich explained.

Some have suggested that the character of Ulana Khomyuk, a Belarusian nuclear physicist bent on uncovering the truth behind the disaster, is based on Alexievich, although Chernobyl's creators have said the figure is inspired by a composite of scientists involved in the disaster. Alexievich isn't convinced the character is based on her either.

"I don't think they wrote Khomyuk with me in mind. [Eimuntas] Nekrosis (the late Lithuanian theater director) before his death put on a play based on [my] The Boys In Zinc. I was supposedly the main figure, but she was absolutely not like me."

Alexievich says having a female protagonist like Khomyuk simply made sense, juxtaposing her against Valery Legasov, who was instrumental in the cleanup after the disaster.

"In the film, there is a need for a leading figure, a woman — maybe because they took from my view of life, this sense of femininity, the world of the woman. For me, this is very important. In all my books there are many women heroes, not only in the work The Unwomanly Face Of War. This relationship with the living. A woman is extremely capable of detecting the connection of things. Therefore, it was probably necessary to have a woman, not only Legasov. If there had been two men, there would be no story. They introduced a woman and with a man and a woman you get two perspectives. It is very interesting."

Asked about some of the inaccuracies in the series that critics have seized on, Alexievich is dismissive.

"First of all, it is a feature film, and the author is entitled to his interpretation and understanding of things. But they say, 'This minister was fat, old, and now he's young.' Or the opposite. Or the windows weren't like that. If you want to think like that, then if we look at the famous film Battleship Potemkin by Eisenstein, where the baby carriage flies down the steps, then some sailor named Zhalyaznyak would say that that type of revolution never happened. God forbid if the truth about Chernobyl or the gulag system had been in the hands of such people."

Alexievich noted even Russian media were full of praise for the series, at least at first.

"In the beginning, Russian media was very positive about the series and then probably there was some yelling in the Kremlin and they suddenly became very patriotic. Then there was news they are launching their own series about Chernobyl, about how 'our' agents pursue some American spy at the power plant. My God, when I read all this I thought that 30 years have passed and has really nothing changed in the consciousness?"

Despite those initial doubts, Alexievich is convinced that HBO has created a classic with a strong message that she feels needs to be heard.

"Most importantly, I would like that people watch it and think about the type of world we've entered with such dangers. And there are more and more. Artificial intelligence, robots. It's a whole new world."

This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Follow @RFERL on Twitter.