Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Lev Tolstoy Goes to Hollywood

   Few people have had the impact on Russian literature that Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) has had.  His novels and short stories have been translated into numerous languages and people from various cultures are familiar with these stories.  Three of his stories including Anna Karenina, one of the greatest novels ever written, The Kreutzer Sonata, and Two Hussars were even made into American films.  These three films were all produced by British producer Bernard Rose (b. 1960). His adaptation of Anna Karenina was certainly not the only one produced for an English speaking audience, but it was certainly one of the best adaptations. 
    In this article I will look at these three films, namely “Anna Karenina” (1997), “The Kreutzer Sonata” (2008), and “Two Jacks” (2011).  I will examine these three films in order to see how faithful they are to the novels themselves and how well they correspond with one another. 
    The 1997 film “Anna Karenina” which 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.  However, some of the elements of the earlier films about this novel, such as the difficulties between Stepan and Dolly at the beginning of the film, are not present. 
    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. For some reason, Sir George did not list this film among the films he is credited with serving as music director for.1  
    Eleven years later, Bernard Rose decided to produce a modern film version of The Kreutzer Sonata. This novella is believed, by some, to be Tolstoy’s argument in favor of sexual abstinence and against marriage.2 It also deals with the question of whether or not true love is possible.3  
     This film was a very interesting 21st century “American” approach to a 19th century Russian novella.  Set in Los Angeles, California, this film remains quite faithful to the story line of the novel; however, it can be seen as extremely pornographic, especially if one of the original themes of Tolstoy’s novella was the virtue of sexual abstinence.4  
     I have no objection to nudity in a film if it is used for artistic reasons, such as to enhance the storyline; however in this film the constant nudity almost became the storyline. 
     It is unfortunate that modern American films must contain graphic nudity, excessive killings, and/or massive explosions; otherwise they will not do well at the box office.  Some people will argue this is not true and point to the 2012 film version of “Anna Karenina” as an example. However, that film won an Academy Award for “Best Costume Design”, not for “Best Picture”.  Hollywood markets films in the same way cigarettes are marketed according to the late great Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986) 5 What Tarkovsky said in the 1980s is even more true today.
     The third film is “Two Jacks” a 2011 film based upon an 1856 short story entitled Two Hussars by Tolstoy.  There was also a 1984 Soviet film entitled “Two Hussars” which was also based upon this short story.7  In the original story the reader is meant to understand that the son is not only a different generation than his father, but that this later generation has actually become worse.  This insight was made quite clear in Bernard Rose’s 2011 film; however, it was not as clear in the 1984 Soviet film. 
      In the 1984 film the father and son were both played by the same actor (with an implied time lapse in the film) and it was difficult to understand why the son was less likeable than the father.  However, this was more obvious in the 2011 film. 
      Danny Huston (b. 1962) plays “Jack, Sr.” and his nephew Jack Huston (b. 1982) plays “Jack, Jr.” and it is somewhat easy to see why Jack, Sr. was a much more likeable character than Jack, Jr.  The movie begins with the audience being introduced to Jack, Sr. at the airport and the film ends with Jack, Jr. at the same airport (in the same terminal) twenty years later. 
    This was the third time that Rose included Danny Huston in one of his films. In addition to playing Jack, Sr. in this film, Huston also played Stepan, Anna Karenina’s brother, in the 1997 film and he played the main character in “The Kreutzer Sonata”.  It would appear that Bernard Rose is quite impressed with Danny Huston’s acting ability. 
     Each of these films remained quite faithful to the novel or short story they were based upon.  These three stories explore very important issues which are still as relevant today as they were when they were written in the 19th century. With the current divorce rate at over 50%, many young people ask themselves if true love is really possible. 
    In Ezekiel 18 it is written, “The father eats green grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”  What the prophet Ezekiel is saying that the actions of the parents have a direct impact on their children.  Another phrase we often heard used is “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”.  Based upon “Two Jacks”, both the quote by the Prophet Ezekiel and the apple are still quite true.  Lev Tolstoy was a deeply religious man and he may very well have had the Bible quote from Ezekiel 18 in mind when he wrote Two Hussars.
      Bernard Rose showed us that the same personalities which could be found in Anna Karenina, The Kreutzer Sonata, and Two Hussars are still very much alive today.   This is a hallmark of classic literature and it is wonderful that this producer was able to introduce these stories by Lev Tolstoy to an audience who may have been familiar with only Anna Karenina and War and Peace.    
                                                          End Notes

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

2)    The Kreutzer Sonata”  

4)    “The Kreutzer Sonata (2008 film)”  
5)    Andrei Tarkovsky: A Poet in the Cinema (1983) (47:55)
6)    “Two Hussars”

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