Anna Karenina And The Faithless Adaptation

Many, many years ago Leo Tolstoy and I were drinking buddies.  We drifted apart once he stopped shaving and started getting all sanctimonious about what, precisely, constituted ‘art’ and blathering on about that old fraud Schopenhauer.  We were out on the town one night with a couple of fragrant, lissom creatures, and as usual the girls were far more interested in me than him.  For a Russian, he wasn’t much good at holding his drink, which just goes to show that one must always guard against lazy stereotyping.

Anyroads, Tolly quickly contrived to become simultaneously sulky and boorish and wouldn’t shut up about Jesus, and after I suggested the four of us retire to my chalet for a dip in the hot tub, he and I came to blows.  One too many schnapps, one too many utterances of the word ‘bourgeois’ and as Bogart might have put it, this was the end of a beautiful friendship.

Well you know what they say about the dead: they can’t sue you for defamation.

The year of our Lord 2012 saw the 45,000,000th adaptation of Anna Karenina, starring Keira Knightley in the much-coveted eponymous role as the one-time train aficionado.  This is the third in the unofficial Keira Does Literature trilogy directed by Joe Wright, rounding off a run that included (alright, consisted of) Pride And Prejudice and Atonement.

For those of you who like your entertainment middlebrow, watch Anna Karenina.  It’s easier than the book and afterwards you can always pretend you’ve read it.

Rumour has it that 949 pages in, Wright and writer Sir Tom Stoppard learned of stricter-than-anticipated budgetary constraints, turned to one another and said “screw it, none of our locations look like Russia anyway, let’s just set it in a theatre and call it art. Put the kettle on, I’m gasping.”

There is no evidence of which one of them made the tea.

Anna Karenina is commonly categorised as a work of realist fiction.  The moral, albeit admittedly ambiguous, seems to be that our Anna is a warning.  She rightly attracts the opprobrium of society for flouting its rules.  She’s a bad egg for her selfish aims and, spoiler alert, bad eggs in these types of books typically don’t live happily ever after.  See also: Humpty Dumpty.

Or Madame Bovary for an actual comparison.

But Tolstoy was a cunning sod, as well as a sanctimonious old dear. So it could be that ‘society’ is the bad guy (it consists of snobby, bourgeois types who know nothing of proper beard maintenance), with Karenina wilting under its glare like a flower in an oven.

There’s also a lot of politics in the novel – Russia of the 19th century underwent tremendous upheaval with the ending of serfdom and Tolstoy uses adultery to explore the clash between the old feudal conservatism and the new liberal values then sweeping Western Europe.  He also critiqued family values.  For a religious chappy, it’s interesting to note that the affair angle focuses more on society’s condemnation than the Church’s.  The most overtly religious characters are the most obviously repulsive characters.

Basically, Tolstoy took aim at pretty much everything.

But the film isn’t concerned with much of the above, so you didn’t know that.  Among the many criticisms is the fact that so much of the story was jettisoned, including almost an entire plot and most of the context.  And as for what remains, that the film seems to rely on a tacit understanding that its audience is familiar with the source material, with the result that it’s opaque for the noob.

The sophisticate, on the other hand, will find it superficial, focusing on pretty lighting effects and fashion shoot framing and letting the plot go hang.   Nice costume design though, and Keira’s good in it.  Also, who knew Jude Law ain’t just a pretty face?

Tolstoy would’ve absolutely hated it, of course.

As John Lennon once said, ‘bullshit’ is French for Avant Garde.  You’ll appreciate what I did there.  Of course, this version isn’t anything like as abstract as all that old avant garde stuff, but it’s certainly not a straight, realist take so we’ll have to call that a win, rather than a poorly shoehorned gag that doesn’t make much sense (ie just like the movie, badum tish).  One loses the opportunity to use the word verisimilitude, but maybe that’s for the best.

It’s not even a typical costume drama. 

And I, for one, am grateful.  Does the film work? Not entirely.  Is it a faithful adaptation?  Not even slightly.  Do you need to know the story beforehand?  Possibly.  It certainly works better as a companion piece.

But what some of the critics seemed to miss was this:  what was the value in another straight adaptation?  The last version came out in 1997.  Before that, 1985.  And given that this isn’t a straight adaptation, why judge it as one?

The film sides more or less unambiguously with Anna, which actually isn’t an unreasonable interpretation of the book (despite what some might say).  Such is part of the value of great literature, after all.

And as for Tolstoy hating it – he was a more stylistically innovative writer than he’s sometimes given credit for.  Likewise, he wrote a novel that sought to document his society, in a similar way that Tom Wolfe aimed at with Bonfire of The Vanities.  A film that prefers to capture the society we live in today (often prurient and intrusive) is, in my opinion, far more faithful to the spirit of Karenina than simply grinding out yet another staid period piece to give the target demographic what it wants.

A faithless adaptation, then, but far more importantly, a good one.

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7 thoughts on “Anna Karenina And The Faithless Adaptation

  1. I want to like Joe Wright because I do appreciate the idea of modernizing classic literature, but I didn’t care for Anna Karenina (I should point out I also didn’t like Pride and Prejudice, but I did like Atonement). However, it was very pretty and I was thrilled that the Kitty/Levin storyline was included. So not all bad, though the Vronsky casting was interesting.

    (Whatever was gained from the exclusion of the always pretentious verisimilitude was lost by the inclusion of opprobrium and prurient within 800 words of each other.)

    1. (Yeah I know – it felt good, but then I’ve always liked wallowing in the language like a pig in filth)

      I was taught that if I have nothing nice to say then I should say nothing at all. Very rarely, I try to live up to that, which is why I will say nothing about Aaron Taylor-Johnson.

      I quite liked Pride and Prejudice – that bit in the rain when they scrap and they look like they want to rip off each other’s clothes and work out their differences the old fashioned way…gets me every time.

      1. Green Lantern might be the second worst movie I’ve ever seen (after Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter), I’d have to think about that. Ebert was great. When I was little, one of my favorite TV shows was Siskel & Ebert & the Movies. I watched it every Saturday morning. I was so crushed when he hated Armageddon (which I loved because I was 12 and Ben Affleck was in it).

      2. Really? 2nd worst?

        Tough call:

        Daredevil, Pearl Harbour, Sum of All Fears…

        And there are films that don’t star Affleck too:

        Batman and Robin, Battlefield: Earth, How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, most of Sandra Bullock’s movie choices…

      3. It’s only up there because I saw it recently (right after Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, coincidentally).

        I’d forgotten how terrible Sum of All Fears was (though I went to see it in theaters, of course), really, I’ve sort of forgotten it entirely. If you’re going to make fun of Affleck, you have to include Gigli. Any movie with Jennifer Lopez might also qualify, including What to Expect When You’re Expecting, which I haven’t even seen. Batman and Robin holds the title of worst sequel ever.

        I, sort of in a nostalgic I want to be Jennifer Garner kind of way, like Daredevil (and I like the comic too).

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