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.