The Year of the Anna Kareninas

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On the last day of 2012, I finished reading Anna Karenina, which some say is Tolstoy’s greatest work. Hmmm, maybe . . . It was a terrifically good read! The inspiration for reading the novel was the newest and most audacious movie adaptation of the book.

Watching the promotional trailer over and over again at the Cedar Lee before the film opened there, I had a serious approach/avoidance conflict about the film. Would my dislike for Keira Knightley overcome my deep admiration for Tom Stoppard, the screenwriter? The reviews were mixed, but that’s never kept me from seeing a movie that interested me.

The tipping point in my decision to see “Anna Karenina,” was the opening sentence in A. O. Scott’s review of the movie in The New York Times—a play on the novel’s famous opening line.

Tolstoy: “All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

A. O. Scott: “Bad literary adaptations are all alike, but every successful literary adaptation succeeds in its own way.”

He goes on to write “The good ones succeed through hubris, through the arrogant assumption that a great novel is not a sacred artifact but rather a lump of interesting material to be shaped according to the filmmaker’s will.” There’s food for thought.

Interviews with Tom Stoppard and director Joe Wright on NPR further strengthened my decision to see the movie, read the book, and request from Netflix and the library available earlier versions.

After Stoppard submitted his screenplay, he recalled in the NPR interview, Wright came to him with the idea of setting the film in a theater to symbolize the artifice of the social world in which the characters exist. Stoppard was dubious at first, but Wright’s enthusiasm and persuasiveness won the day. This level of society (spelled with a capital “S” in the translation I read) was always “on stage” observing others and being observed by them. It made good sense to me.

We saw the new movie last month and loved it—the over-the-top theatricality, the lush costumes, the rapid pace that kept the story moving along. It didn’t matter that the acting is mediocre, at best, because this version is not about the quality of the actors’ acting, but about the acting of the characters they portray. And as I began reading the novel, the Wright version seemed pretty faithful to the original material.

Terrence Rafferty, also writing in The New York Times, suggested that all adaptations are unfaithful and that “. . . every movie adaptation of ‘Anna Karenina’ is unfaithful in its own way.” Compressing an 800-page novel into a two-hour movie necessitates omitting large chunks. But after finishing the book, and seeing the movie a second time, it seemed to me that this “Anna Karenina” contained most of the really important scenes from the book.

Here’s what some of the others did.

The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) lists no fewer than 27 adaptations of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. There are films (silent and otherwise), made-for-TV movies, mini-series, filmed stage performances, and even one version with a happy ending (though I can’t remember which one that was). Well known playwrights have tried their hand at adapting the story, among them Jean Anouih ( “Antigone” and “The Lark”—the play I saw on Broadway when I was 14, and which made me want to be Julie Harris when I grew up).

Based on what was available, we chose the versions featuring Greta Garbo and Frederic March (1935); Vivien Leigh and Ralph Richardson (1948); Claire Bloom and Sean Connery (1961); and a Russian version (1967) that we’re still waiting for.

We watched the Garbo-March movie first, and my husband was smitten—totally gaga. She was a gorgeous Anna, to be sure, but that famous look—seductive and vulnerable at the same time—overused here, and much the same in some of her other films, made for a performance without nuance. For me, March never was an appealing leading man and his appearance here was no exception. The movie opens with a boisterous drinking game in which Vronsky literally drinks his companions under the table—a scene that does not appear anywhere in the book. The terminally cute Freddie Bartholomew plays the son Anna abandons, and there is no mention of the child she has with Vronsky..

Next up was the Leigh-Richardson film—the best of the early adaptations we saw. Vivien Leigh is lively, coquettish, sexy, and, yes, vulnerable. Ralph Richardson is Karenin—cold, haughty and sarcastic. He was so brilliant as Karenin, he played the very same character, this time called Dr. Austin Sloper, the following year in “The Heiress.” (This adaptation of Henry James’s Washington Square is one of my top five movies of all time.)

The Bloom-Connery version was a made-for-TV movie in 1961. Filmed on small, cramped TV sets, the movie has a claustrophobic feel. The best I can say for this one is that Sean Connery was a pretty creditable Vronsky. Bloom, however, was lusterless.

Both the Bloom and Garbo versions failed to mention the child Anna has with Vronsky, which is a pretty significant detail in the changing attitudes of Anna, Karenin, and Vronsky; and only the current version hints at her addiction to morphine.

While some of the earlier versions ignore Levin entirely, his story in the book occupies at least as many pages as Anna’s. If we’re to go by the book that bears her name, it’s not only a love story, it’s also about Levin’s search for something to believe in.

Going back to A. O. Scott’s comment about hubris, good adaptations succeeding on their own terms, and the lack of sacredness of great literary works, I’m there! Joe Wright took a big chance; I admire that. As painters interpret ordinary images in their own and often mind-blowing ways, Wright has placed a famous story in a totally new context. In the end, this version is probably closer to the book in spirit than any of the others we’ve seen.

Still haven’t received the Russian version, but stay tuned. Meanwhile, have you seen Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln?” Hmmm . . . who else has played Abraham Lincoln?

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