'Metro 2033' Author on Book's 10-Year Long Journey to the Screen

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"I grew up seeing Russian images or Russian characters in movies all the time, but they were always cliched," says Dmitry Glukhovsky.

Writer Dmitry Glukhovsky discusses adapting his wildly popular dystopian novel in "the right way…. in Russian."

Dmitry Glukhovsky’s life story reads like a Hollywood Cinderella tale, seasoned with a strong dose of Russian fatalism. He was 10 when the Berlin Wall fell, 12 when the Soviet Union collapsed. At 18, he published his first novel, Metro 2033, a post-apocalyptic dystopia inspired by the chaos of 1990s Russia and set in Moscow’s subway system, where the last survivors of a global nuclear holocaust retreat to rebuild society. Sadly, they choose to repeat the mistakes of the past, re-creating factions of neo-Nazis and communists, alongside the Dark Ones, a new race of mutants, burned black by the atomic blasts (a metaphor for Russia’s growing fear of darkskinned immigrants).

Glukhovsky put the manuscript on his website, where more than 2 million Russians read it. That led to a book deal and, when it was published in 2005, Metro 2033 became a success, with more than 5 million copies sold. Sequels followed and, in 2010, a video game adaptation of the book — which Glukhovsky helped develop — became a surprise indie hit. Hollywood came calling; the book was optioned and eventually landed at MGM, with Breaking Bad producer Mark Johnson attached. And then … nothing. After failed attempts to transpose his story from Moscow to Washington, D.C., the rights to Metro 2033 finally reverted to Glukhovsky. This year, he signed a deal with Russian producers Valeriy Fedorovich and Evgeniy Nikishov and Moscow-based Premier Studios to adapt Metro 2033, with corporate giant Gazprom Media financing. Shooting starts in Moscow next summer, and Central Partnership has the project at AFM for presales.

Glukhovsky spoke to THR about 10 years mired in development and why he’s finally ready to make Metro 2033 "the right way … in Russian."

What went wrong with the Hollywood adaptation of Metro 2033?

Well, the rights bounced around a bit before landing at MGM, and the producer, Mark Johnson, was very experienced and a very nice guy. But basically MGM assigned a writer that did not have much perspective on the story. They wanted to reset the story in Washington, D.C. In my story, the metro stations under Moscow become independent, self-sustaining governments, kind of city-states, and they invent or reuse the ideologies from the past. So there are Nazis and communists, and they’re basically fighting again, in an endless circuit, the old, ideological wars of the 20th century. But you can’t really imagine communists in D.C. or Nazis in D.C. It’s the story of how humanity endlessly repeats the old mistakes and can’t learn from the past. It’s the historically proven dilemma that we are facing right now. Donald Trump is cosplaying America in the '50s. Putin is cosplaying the Soviet Union in the '80s. Both are cosplaying the Cold War. The far right nationalists in Europe are cosplaying the “old good days” of Europe, where nationalist and racist rhetoric was OK.

Did you consider setting the American adaptation in Russia?

That seemed to be quite risky too because American films about Russia are full of cliches and stereotypes. The American film industry has a solid fixed image of what Russia is, what it looks like. The HBO series Chernobyl is actually the first example of an American or European production set in Russia that depicts the place and the people with precision and accuracy and without caricature. But at the time, there was no precedent for this.

You’re making the movie now with Russian partners. Why didn’t you take that route in the beginning?

When Metro 2033 came out, there was no film company in Russia with the resources necessary to tell this story. No one had the budget or production capabilities. They didn’t have the scale and the ambition to do justice to the franchise.

Why is it important to get an authentic Russian feel for the film?

We’ve seen a lot of American vision of this post-nuclear holocaust thing. But, you know, there’s going to be two parties in this nuclear war. We’ve never seen the other side, the Russians, what it would look like here. I think it’s interesting because the audiences for films are becoming more global. Even American movies are now made for a global audience — some 70 percent of the box office is outside America. You know, we have had a century when the world mainly watched American movies. Maybe we’re about to start a time when America starts watching global movies.

Interview edited for length and clarity. 

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Nov. 9 daily issue at the American Film Market.