Sunday, 30 June 2013

"Anna Karenina" on the screen

This article is pretty much what I think and want to say about the latest adaptation by Joe Wright: 

"Anna Karenina: Read the Book, Skip the Movie"

For the holidays, buy someone you care about deeply Tolstoy's novel, Anna Karenina. Don't settle for silver or bronze - or modern dross - when you can give the purest gold. But do not go to Anna Karenina, the current movie, thinking you will get a two- hour essence of the novel. Joe Wright's film, while perhaps interesting in its own terms, is a perversion of one of the world's great books.
Once you have started the novel, you will be completely transported into a complex world that will enthrall, inspire, and awe you and ultimately break your heart. At the center is one of the great heroines of literature. You will fall in love with Anna as she leaves a cold marriage with a well-to-do Russian bureaucrat (Alexei Karenin) for a passionate affair with a young military officer (Count Vronsky), which evolves into pregnancy, societal recrimination, separation from the son she had with Karenin, moments of ecstasy with Vronsky, and then a slow spiral into guilt, insecurity, jealousy, and, ultimately, death. Surrounding the love triangle are the two contrasting marriages of Anna's brother, Stiva, and his wife, Dolly, and Dolly's sister Kitty and the landowner Levin. They are mirrors within mirrors, creating a sequential and dynamic series of vivid comparisons and reflections.
Anna Karenina is on lists of the top ten novels of all time (get the new Viking translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky). Ask anyone who has read it, and it will be among his or her favorite novels, if not at the top of the list. The reasons are many. But at the core is Tolstoy's genius at creating a universal world we are allowed to enter: of engaging people in a vivid but highly structured society who reflect the emotions, thoughts, motives, unconscious drives, conflicting actions, mistakes, happiness and sadness that is as close as we will ever come in literature to the totality of the human comedy (marriage) and the human tragedy (death). Shakespeare is Tolstoyean.
Anna Karenina, the film, ostensibly follows the arc of the novel, and the screenplay by Tom Stoppard includes many of the main characters and main scenes. But it is all slick surface. The film is a kaleidscope of arresting visuals - most set in a faux theater to give the film an operatic feel, some using real landscapes, all set to an original score. The set pieces are stunning, exemplified by an opening scene at a ball where Vronsky acts with indifference to Kitty, who has come with high expectations of a relationship and engages in a waltz of seduction with Anna. But the remarkable visual, often surreal, images obscure the essence of the novel: the humanity of character. Most remarkable is that Keira Knightly's Anna is superficial, selfish, and, hard as this is to achieve, unsympathetic. Vronsky is a pretty boy lacking in dashing and dangerous masculinity. And all the other characters who are in the great novel here have no depth, no development. They are literally cartoonish, made to utter but a few lines to move along the fast-paced tableaux. (The unpretentious Levin of the countryside, often seen as Tolstoy's alter-ego, is a scythe-swinging shadow of a real character.)
The one exception, oddly enough, is Karenin, played with a stoic complexity by Jude Law. He alone is allowed to change during the film, and he alone elicits sympathy, because he is not just an image but, as both the cause and victim of Anna's transformation has some semblance of real personhood. One of Stoppard's earliest plays was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), which told Hamlet from the point of view of two minor courtiers. It is almost as if Stoppard is returning to that technique: looking primarily at Anna from a completely different angle - the cold husband whose lack of love drives the central dramatic action of the novel. The film could have been titled Alexei Karenin, not Anna Karenina.
What kind of Anna is it, then, which is largely images and surfaces, with little humanity, and where, in the little humanity that exists, Karenin is more sympathetic than Anna?
The film does raise the age-old argument about why and how novels can be - should be - translated into film. The modern debate begins with George Bluestone's provocative 1957 book, Novels Into Film, reissued by Johns Hopkins University Press 2003. A.O. Scott's review in The New York Times damns more literal adaptations of novels like Wright's earlier Pride and Prejudice, with Knightly taking a wonderful turn as Elizabeth Bennet. He praises this Anna, the ninth film version: "It is risky and ambitious enough to count as an act of artistic hubris, and confident enough to triumph on its own slightly - wonderfully - crazy terms. Pious Tolstoyans may knit their brows about the stylistic liberties..."
I knit my brow not because of stylist liberties but because the film is so grossly divorced from the novel. For those who have never read Anna, Wright's movie could be viewed as an interesting piece of film-making, with striking visuals and dramatic rhythms. Symbolism replacing story. Even on its own terms, however, I found it to be directorial solipsism - look at me and all the film techniques I have employed - and tedious and empty. But for those who have read Anna, at least for me, the film is quite horrible, destroying, not just missing, the essence of a wonderful work of literature. For example, we can reflect endlessly on the contrast between Anna and Kitty. We love Anna for her passion and her pain and her understandable if doomed yearning for vibrancy in her life, while we admire Kitty for her strength and steadfastness and her old-fashioned virtue.
Of course, films of novels cannot faithfully replicate the whole work. Nor do they have to be slavish Cliff Notes. But they can, in the unique way of movies and in a variety of possible styles, convey the essence of the novel and its characters. Otherwise why bother? This movie is far more about Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard than about Tolstoy's masterpiece. Often, films of novels inspire people to go read the original work. Not here. My holiday advice: buy the novel as a true gift for those you love. And skip the movie.


My thoughts: 

After watching the 1997 version last night, I again had a look at the 1935, 1948, 1967 and 2012 versions, which I had watched before reading the novel.
I should begin by saying that Tolstoy's novel, having the 3rd person narrator and a clear, structured plot with several characters, actions, events and some dialogues, is not unfilmable. Yet, making a good adaptation is not easy. There are 2 main problems:
1st, "Anna Karenina" is the kind of the novel that if you know the story and look at its size before reading it, you wonder why such a simple story's made into such a thick book and only after reading do you realise that nothing can be removed and the book can't be thinner unless written by somebody else (yet in that case it might not have been 1 of the greatest novels of all time any more). The complexity of each character's mind often gets lost when the story's brought to the big screen. Take Kitty for example. All the film adaptations give the wrong, misleading impression that at the beginning Kitty has a crush on Vronsky and no feeling for Levin, therefore she rejects Levin and later accepts his 2nd proposal when Vronsky has fallen in love with Anna and hurt her, as though she accepts Levin merely to get married. Worse, in the 1997 version, Kitty seems to be repelled by Levin. Only when reading Tolstoy's novel can one see that Kitty, having feelings for both, wavers between Vronsky and Levin and rejects Levin in a moment of uncertainty and confusion with some illusion partly encouraged by her own mother, one can also see why she prefers Vronsky at that moment.
More difficult is the case of Anna. The filmmaker's task is, at the beginning, let us see why she, a wife and a mother, falls in love with Vronsky (and why he with her) and has an affair in spite of public opinion, and afterwards, let us understand why Anna suffers and makes Vronsky feel suffocated, understand what poisons and destroys their relationship and what eventually leads to her fatal decision. The 1st part is rather simple and whether or not convincing is dependent on the casting. The 2nd part is difficult, extremely difficult. While Tolstoy digs deep into the characters' minds and emotions, and lets the misery develop slowly and gradually over a rather long period of time, the films usually must compress it into a couple of arguing scenes and the result can be abruptness and lack of development. This is what I find in most adaptations. In the 1935 version, we see Anna and Vronsky happily in love and the next moment Vronsky joins the army (this is only 1 of the numerous changes in this adaptation) and they argue so furiously that Vronsky doesn't even say goodbye and wave to Anna at the last moment, and in the next scene Anna kills herself, nobody understands why. In the 1997 version, Anna seems a bit sad, then all of a sudden she goes crazy and cries and yells at Vronsky, and I'm afraid that, seeing her death, after some very weak, ineffective scenes, people who have not read the novel are very unlikely to sympathise with her and feel sorry for her. The 1967 film, made by Russians, following the novel closely, is the version most successful in the 2nd part, but not in the 1st.
2nd, it's the casting.
Basil Rathbone in the the 1935 film is the best Karenin, next is Ralph Richardson in the 1948 film. The latest actor Jude Law is totally wrong for the role, partly because he's too good-looking, partly because he doesn't look like a stiff, hard, duty-bound, seemingly emotionless man as Karenin is supposed to be, and, as the article above has said, he appears more sympathetic. James Fox looks OK in the 1997 film until he impulsively, forcefully kisses Sophie Marceau and says "I love you!", which is something a person like Karenin could never do or even think of doing.
Vasili Lanovoy in the 1967 looks totally wrong for the role of Vronsky. It's not convincing that a woman is willing to give up (almost) everything for him. Aaron Taylor-Johnson in photos does look good in the latest version, but he's a disappointment on the screen, mostly because he acts as though thinking he's in a comedy.
The most difficult part is, understandably, Anna. And so far, I haven't seen a perfect Anna Karenina. The Russian actress Tatyana Samojlova in the 1967 film has a moustache and lacks beauty and sensuality to portray Anna. One should not forget that Vronsky loves her at 1st sight and, right at that instant when their eyes meet, he forgets Kitty and everyone else and afterwards pursues her, has an affair with her, challenges the public. Even Levin finds himself attracted to her despite his principles and prejudices. Tatyana also looks too dull and calm to portray the passionate, emotional and unstable Anna.
Both Vivien Leigh in the 1948 film and Keira Knightley in the 2012 film don't have the right type of body for Anna. Tolstoy describes Anna's shoulders several times, she's supposed to be voluptuous. It's not random that Tolstoy lets Kitty wear white and pink and Anna wear black at the ball, it's a way of stressing the contrast between them and thus explain what draws Vronsky to Anna: while Kitty is a young girl, pretty, pure, innocent, Anna is older, very beautiful, attractive, sensual, experienced, graceful and elegant. Vivien Leigh, though I admire her much as an actress, looks too young and tiny for this role, especially when standing next to Sally Ann Howes (who plays Kitty), and while she does a pretty good job in the last 45 minutes, at the beginning she now and then has that mischievous quality and slightly quick way of speaking that are not appropriate for the role of Anna Karenina. Keira Knightley is only skin and bones, like Russian critics have said, she's too bony, and her Anna looks too sure of herself, not conflicted as described by Tolstoy. Besides, though her acting does improve, Keira Knightley continues playing herself as in previous films- her facial expressions and all the things she does with her mouth and jaw are painful to watch.
The person who has the most appropriate body type for Anna Karenina, up till now, is Sophie Marceau in the 1997 version. That is most manifest in the ball scene. The film fails, however, and fades into oblivion, due to lots of reasons, 1 of which is that Sophie Marceau's portrayal is flat and colourless.
Even the most acclaimed Anna isn't perfect. Greta Garbo, in the 1935 film, overacts. Though it's understandable, considering the time period as well as the fact that Greta Garbo used to be a silent film actress, her theatrical acting, voice and hand movements are still a bit distracting. Watching her the 2nd time I'm no longer bothered very much by her theatrical acting as the 1st time, I nevertheless think she's wrong for Anna, because Greto Garbo looks too strong and imposing and lacks an air of fragility and vulnerability needed to portray Anna.
In short, there are hundreds of other ways an "Anna Karenina" film may fail, yet I do not wish to go into detail why I'm dissatisfied with each adaptation and why none of them is perfect. All I've written is merely to point out the difficulties in adapting Tolstoy's novel, and to explain why I don't think there should be any more "Anna Karenina". Read the book. Skip the movies. 


  1. I saw both the Greta Garbo & Vivienne Leigh versions years ago, and don't remember them too well. I haven't seen any of the others. There was a BBC version from around 1977/8, which featured Nicola Pagett & Eric Porter as Anna & Karenina, and an actor called Stuart Wilson as Vronsky. They all looked their parts, and the dramatisation, spread across several one hour episodes, was doggedly faithful; but it was plodding. More than that I can't remember. I didn't know the novel too well at the time, having read it only once, and I haven't seen the series since.

    From what you say, the latest version seems like a fantasia based on the novel rather than an adaptation. Which is fair enough, I guess. So much of the impact of the novel comes from Tolstoy's depictions of what is going on in the characters' minds that any dramatisation, in which we are restricted only to what the characters say & do, is almost inevitably bound to be a failure. Also, Tolstoy's art by its nature is expansive, and a filmed version must be necessarily compress.

    Well - we'll always ave the book, won't we?

    1. To be fair, there's 1 thing in the latest version that I do like- the fact that most of the action is set on a theatre stage. It's a bold, crazy decision on Joe Wright's part, not to everyone's liking, especially if you prefer realistic films to highly stylised ones.
      But that, 1stly, makes the 2012 version different from the previous adaptations and, 2ndly, symbolises the small, confined world of the aristocrats, in which the members only act, only play their roles (note: many of Levin's scenes are set in outdoor locations).
      I love the idea.
      The sad part is that Joe Wright prioritises style over substance. And the actors are totally wrong. Except, I like Alicia Vikander- she and only she is Kitty.

    2. Also, as you haven't seen the 1997 film, this is a clip from it:
      My favourite version of the ball scene.
      (I really, really wanted to like this adaptation, but...)

  2. Thanks for the write-up, by the way. I agree with you that it is virtually impossible for any film to communicate the immense psychological complexities of the novel. The latter part where Anna sinks irrecoverably into depression is not really cinematic material: a film cannot get into the minds of the characters the way a novel can. And when the novelist is Tolstoy - the film-maker might as well give up! :-)

    1. No, it's not possible for any film to communicate the psychological complexities of the novel. But usually I don't expect it, film is a different form and has a different language. And "Anna Karenina", compared to many other books, is not exactly unfilmable.
      Which is why I'm surprised none of the adaptations I've watched is satisfactory. I don't see myself as having very high expectations (or do I?)- just disappointed, and tired, so I don't see the need for another one (though I have a feeling that in about 5 years, at most 10 years, there will be another "Anna Karenina").
      I guess you know about the new "Madame Bovary" film?