Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Anna Karenina: A Cinematic Journey on the Silver Screen from 1927 to 2012

  "All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." "Все счастливые семьи похожи друг на друга, каждая несчастная семья несчастна по-своему."1 It is with this quote that Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) began what is considered, by many, to be his most famous novel, Anna Karenina.

   Based upon the number of film adaptations which this novel has undergone, it would appear that this novel is a favorite among filmmakers as well.  The first Pathé version appeared in 19112 (just one year after Tolstoy’s death) and the most recent one made by Joe Wright in 2012. 3 Meanwhile, numerous other versions were produced: two films starring Greta Garbo (1905-1990)4, the silent film Love (1927), and Clarence Brown’s Anna Karenina (1935); two versions starring British actresses, the 1947 version with Vivien Leigh and the television production of 1985 with Jacqueline Bisset ; five Russian adaptations, including two silent films (one by Vladimir Gardin, starring Vera Vasilyevna Kholodnaya in 1914), the filmed performance at the Malyi Theatre, with Alla Tarasova as Anna in 1953, Aleksander Zarkhi’s Anna Karenina (1967), with Tatiana Yevgenyevna Samoilova and the creatively interesting hybrid of 1974: the film ballet with Maya Mikhaylovna Plisetskaya (b. 1924) 5

    In this article I will examine how Anna is presented in these various films by comparing the films of 1935, 1948, 1967, and 2012 in terms of how closely these various plots correspond to one another and to the original text of the novel.   

    When examining the various ways in which Anna Karenina has been interpreted in film it is important to keep in mind the country which the director is from.  In the 1927 and 1935 films, the directors were from the United States. There would have been very little known about life in Russia in the United States in either 1927 or 1935, so these directors were interpreting Anna as an American woman living in Russia.

     It may not have been their intention to interpret her as an American woman, but that was the result of the film.  For example, in the 1935 film, Greta Garbo comes across as a very strong minded, independent woman.  She is driven to despair by her husband who tells their son, Sergei, that his mother is dead and refuses to allow Anna to see him. 
     Fredric March (1897-1975), who played Count Vronsky, was initially a very supportive character, but soon had a great deal of difficulty understanding Anna’s mood swings and became eager to return to his comrades who were on their way to war. 

    It was somewhat surprising, and a bit strange, to hear the chorus “Glory, Glory to you, holy Rus'!” played after Anna’s tragic death in the 1935 film.  What point was the director attempting to make by choosing that song?  Was he attempting to show that life continued on in Russia even though Anna was gone or that Vronsky was beginning his new life without Anna?  Suicide is not understood as a heroic act, especially to an American audience, so this choice of music was certainly not meant to glorify Anna’s suicide as some sort of heroic act for her country.   This chorus was originally presented in the opera, A Life for the Tsar, by Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka (1804-1857) about Ivan Susanin who gave up his own life to save Czar Mikhail Romanov from the Polish Army in 1613.6

       In fact, this music only appears at the end of the 1935 film.  There is no triumphant music at the end of any other film version of “Anna Karenina”.  This can certainly lead one to believe that this music was chosen for a very specific purpose, but I have not been able to locate any information about such a purpose.  Was this music meant to indicate that Anna had given her life for the glory of Russia?   We do not know.  Neither Clarence Brown (1890-1987), the film director nor Herbert Stothart (1885-1949) spoke about why this music was chosen at the end of the film.
     The 1948 film was produced in England and, not surprisingly, Anna and the other characters in the film come across as very British.  Throughout the film, Anna comes across as almost emotionless.  Kieron Moore (1924-2007), who plays Count Vronsky, does not give the impression that he does not love Anna, but neither does he give the audience the impression that she can turn to him for any kind of emotional support. 

    Throughout the film it was very easy to ask the question, “How will the director show us why Anna kills herself?”  Vivien Leigh (1913-1967), who played Anna, came across as a rather logical woman with a “stiff upper lip”.  She showed very little emotion, even when she calls her husband to her bedside and announces that she could die at any moment. 

    However, everything changes after the scene where Anna appears at the opera theater by herself.  Anna sees Count Vronsky sitting with his mother and a young woman in his mother’s theater box.  Anna is being accosted by those around her and Vronsky is nowhere to be found.  Then, as she is preparing to leave, Vronsky shows up.
    Later, Vronsky and Anna leave St. Petersburg and go to Italy.  While in Italy, he receives a telegram from his mother who asks him to return home.  Vronsky is emotionally distant at this point.  Anna has become convinced that Vronsky does not love her and that his mother is trying to arrange a marriage between Vronsky and the young woman from the opera theater.  However, Instead of saying or doing something to assuage Anna’s fears, Vronsky leaves her a very emotionless note that he had returned to St. Petersburg and would be back in two days. 

    At this point, Anna believes that all hope is lost.  She can no longer see her child, her marriage is over, and her lover now loves another woman.  It is all very logical.  She boards a train for St. Petersburg and when the train stops at a certain station, Anna leaves the train to get some air.  She begins to reflect upon her life while standing on the train tracks and we see her get run over by the train.  She does not utter a sound prior to being struck by the train.

    The 1967 film is understood, by many, as the finest film adaptation of Anna Karenina because the film is produced in the Soviet Union and is in Russian. It is quite true that Tatiana Yevgenyevna Samoilova (b. 1934), who plays Anna, is a very different personality than either Garbo or Leigh.   However, does that necessarily mean that her portrayal of Anna was the most accurate according to the novel?   Anna’s character is certainly much more emotional than the character portrayed by Vivien Leigh, but there are times when this character is almost at the point of hysterics in the 1967 film. 

     One of the first things that must be acknowledged is that the film’s primary goal was to shoot the stars, not the novel. This approach inevitably affected the structure of the film. In all of these films, the novel is reduced to the Anna-Vronsky connection. Karenin plays a largely subsidiary role.  It appears that his only purpose is making his wife’s love story romantically doomed.7

     In the 1935 film, Alexei Karenin is played by Basil Rathbone (1892-1967), who later became famous playing Sherlock Holmes in a series of films.  Karenin came across as a very strict man who cared only about public appearances.  He was very heavily influenced by rules of social etiquette and seemed to care very little about Anna’s feelings.  After Anna told him that she loved Vronsky, Karenin not only told Anna that he would never grant her a divorce, but that she was forbidden to ever see their son, Sergei, again.  This was too much for Anna to accept. It was very easy to dislike this character and understand why Anna fell in love with Vronsky.  

   Ralph Richardson, a British actor, played Karenin in the 1947 film and he was likewise more concerned about social etiquette than Anna’s feelings.  This character was not as harsh as Rathbone’s character, but it was also easy to dislike him.  What we often fail to take into consideration is that Karenin had every right to respond the way that he did.  If Vronsky were a female, he would be referred to as a “home wrecker”, but since he is a man this is simply seen as a love story between a dashing military man and a wealthy housewife whose husband does not understand her. 

    In the 1967 film, the character of Karenin is portrayed by Nikolai Gritsenko and this character was also rather unlikeable.  He also refuses to grant Anna a divorce, but when Anna sends him a message that she is dying, Karenin actually forgives Anna and has a rather understanding conversation with Vronsky outside of Anna’s bedroom. 
    This portrayal of Karenin as a rather nasty, angry man is not in keeping with the novel; however, such a film portrayal appears necessary if the director wants the audience to sympathize with the main character.  The fact is that in the novel Karenin does not come across as a difficult man at all.  He does make an issue about the divorce; however, it is important to keep in mind that in Russia in the 1870s, a decree of divorce was only granted by the czar and if the family was wealthy it was done for very specific reasons. 

    That is why during the conversation between Karenin and the lawyer there is so much time spent talking about Karenin having evidence to prove Anna’s infidelity.  Such evidence could be seen as a legitimate reason for divorce, but the other problem was the possibility of public scandal.   The issue of scandal is mentioned in the various film versions, but there is no discussion about the difficulty of obtaining a divorce.8 
     The 1997 film “Anna Karenina” which was produced by Bernard Rose (b. 1960) and stars Sophie Marceau (b. 1966) in the title role, is a very interesting adaption of Tolstoy’s novel.  It was obvious that Rose had borrowed several ideas from the 1948 film with Vivien Leigh, but he also added some new elements which were not present in the earlier films.  For example, the story, in this film, is told by Lev Tolstoy through the character of Constantine Levin. 

     Some of the elements of the earlier films, such as the difficulties between Stepan and Dolly at the beginning of the film, are not present.  It appears that Bernard Rose is quite familiar with classic Russian literature given the fact that he directed at least two other films based upon Tolstoy’s stories, including a film entitled “Kreutzer Sonata”.  
     Sir Georg Solti’s (1912-1997) choice of music also had a profound impact on the film.  Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky’s (1840-1893) Sixth Symphony, which he wrote prior to his own death, the choice of Tatiana’s aria from the opera “Evgeny Onegin”, and the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) helped to tell the story, even without words. 

     After seeing the 1997 film, the 2012 British film by Joe Wright (b. 1972) does not even appear to be based upon the same novel.  It is true that this film won an Academy Award for “Best Costume Design”, but in regard to the story of Anna Karenina it was more of a spoof than a remake of the novel. 
     It is true that Keira Knightley (b. 1985) is a very attractive woman, but this is not Anna Karenina.  Her character is one dimensional.  She seems to almost take delight in making the life of her sainted husband, played by Jude Law (b. 1972), miserable. Aaron-Taylor Johnson (b. 1990), who played Vronsky, actually came across as more of a spoiled rich child than an officer in the Czar’s guard.  He was rather devoted to Anna as the two of them were destroying Anna’s marriage, but he quickly became rather indifferent to her.   This was very obvious in the scene where Anna is confronted by people at the opera theater and Vronsky offers her no support at all. 

    Jude Law’s character came across as a saint.  I began to ask myself, “How could any woman be so stupid as to leave this man for Vronsky?”  Not only was Alexei Karenin not mean-spirited, but at the end of the film he is seen raising the child that Anna and Vronsky had while she was still married to Karenin.  There is no mention of this anywhere in the novel and I am not quite sure why Joe Wright felt the need to add that into the film. 
      I do understand that poetic license comes into play when making a movie, but it is still important that the director remain as faithful as possible to the novel, unless, of course, he begins by stating that the film is “based upon Anna Karenina”, which means that this film will bear only a slight resemblance to the film. 

    The audience for each film is also introduced to the characters of Stepan, Dolly, Kitty, and Constantine Levin.  Stepan and Dolly are there simply as a way of introducing us to Anna since Stepan, Anna’s brother, picks Anna up at the train station in Moscow very early on in the film.   Kitty is introduced to us because she is a rival love interest of Vronsky, but that fades quickly after Vronsky meets Anna. 
     In almost all of the films, except for the 1997 version, Constantine Levin is a rather one dimensional character.  He appears very rarely in the films and the audience has no indication that in the novel he plays a very major role as a personality contrast to Anna.  In fact, Anna Karenina is actually a novel about two major figures, Anna and Levin. The novel does not end with the death of Anna, but each film ends with her dying at the train station, either by falling in front of or being hit by a train.  

    Instead of seeing the contrast between the failed marriage of Karenin and Anna and the loving conversion experience undergone by Constantine Levin, the audience is simply left to believe that Anna was a wealthy misunderstood housewife who had a romantic fling with a dashing young military man, but finally killed herself when she realized what she had actually given up. 

     This overly simplistic explanation of the story of Anna Karenina does a tremendous disservice to both the novel and its author.  It has been said that Anna Karenina may have been an autobiographical novel by Tolstoy.  He had many personal difficulties in his marriage, including being accused by his wife, Sophia, of being a homosexual (even though he fathered thirteen children).9  
     Based upon this view that Tolstoy is like Anna, that means that Sophia is like Karenin.  It should not surprise us that when Tolstoy was dying, the one person that he did not want to see was Sofia.  He died near the train station where he left the train and the one person he did not want to see what his wife. 

     There is also a belief that Tolstoy is similar with Constantine Levin.  Levin is a wealthy man living on an estate outside of the city and works with the serfs living on his land.  This point was made in several versions of the film.   In fact, the 1967 version spent at least five minutes focusing on Levin’s serfs working in the fields. 
     The connection between Tolstoy and Levin was never fully addressed in any of the films; however, the role of Levin is extremely important in the novel.  I understand that the novel is called Anna Karenina, but even the author felt that the story of Kitty and Levin was important enough that he spent a great deal of time exploring this relationship and the positive change that Levin underwent as a result of his relationship with Kitty. 

     As I said earlier, poetic license aside, when working with a classic novel it is important that the film director remain as faithful to the novel as possible.  Stories such as Anna Karenina and other classic novels are timeless and can speak to audiences in various periods of history without having to change the story.  
                                                       End Notes

1. Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy Anna Karenina (NY: International Collectors Library) [trans. by Constance Garnett], p. 4
2. This film, which began the history of the numerous cinematic adaptations of Tolstoy’s works in world cinema, has not survived.

3. “Anna Karenina 2012”  This film won an Academy Award in 2013 for “Best Costume Design”. 

4. She received the Best Actress Award from the New York Film Critics for playing Anna in the 1935 film.

5. In Irina Makoveeva’s “Cinematic Adaptations of Anna Karenina” (Studies in Slavic Culture, University of Pittsburgh, pp. 111-134) In her dissertation, The Modes of Storytelling: A Rhetorical Analysis of Film and Television Adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Beata Jurkowska-Krupa compares the setting, plot, characters, point of view, and use of literary tropes in the 1935 film and the TV version of 1985. She analyzes how the structures of film and television influence the choice of rhetorical devices used in the stories they tell. I disagree with some of her conclusions: for example, the statement that television adaptations follow the narrative devices of the literary texts more closely than do film adaptations. In the case of the Anna Karenina versions, she is misled by her focus on the 1935 film, for a comparison with the Russian version of 1967 could have given opposite results.

7. Irina Makoveeva “Cinematic Adaptations of Anna Karenina” (Studies in Slavic Culture, University of Pittsburgh, p. 118.

8.”Tsarist Russia and the Women’s Movement”

9. “Issues in the Tolstoy Marriage”


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