Anna Karenina is a novel that, to my mind, admits of no comparison, and the recent feature film could not boast of being nearly as impactful or masterful as its source material. In this review, I’d like to talk a little about both the book and the movie, which premiered in 2012 and features Keira Knightley, Jude Law, and Domhnall Gleeson (among others).
To proceed justly, I’ll start with the novel, written by Tolstoy and published in 1877. In my previous review of War and Peace, I reflected on the tendency of literary masterpieces to appear intimidating and even unapproachable when viewed from a distance. And yet War and Peace is a spellbinding and engrossing work which could hardly be called inaccessible if length is not considered an impediment. Anna Karenina is also deserving of all its renown, and is also very accessible. However, it differs greatly from War and Peace. While the latter is more epic in style with its historical sweep over the Napoleonic wars, Anna Karenina is a novel focused primarily on relationships and individuals; on love.
Anna Karenina is my favourite novel of all time, and I confess myself excited and a little overwhelmed when I think of what I could possibly say to give it the esteem and recommendation I feel it deserves. Perhaps I will be more successful in establishing its value by pointing out the places where the film falls short of the same standard, than by describing the book by itself. However, I will come to that comparison later. To me, Anna Karenina is such a triumph because Tolstoy is so very insightful when it comes to his characters. I have never encountered characters for whom I have felt so deeply, or into whose emotional centres I have been so convincingly pulled. Each character is very much alive and not only breathing but feeling: brimming with hope, desire, fear and love. The nature of love and how very necessary the giving and receiving of it is to the human person is explored through the framework of courtship, marriage and affairs. Tolstoy avoids condemning characters as villains, and instead is able to craft an imperfect and even reprehensible being who is at the same time profoundly sympathetic and capable of good.
My favourite line from the novel, spoken from one character to another in an expression not of romantic love but of friendship, is the following: “I’ve always loved you, and when you love someone, you love the whole person, as they are, and not as you’d like them to be.” Every time I read or remember this line, it strikes a chord within me, and all of Tolstoy’s work is replete with this kind of insight, which makes it an often thrilling, often heartbreaking, yet always luminous experience to read. In looking more closely at the novel, I have tried to figure out just what it is that makes Tolstoy’s characters so vivid. I think one of the keys to his great success is the way in which he provides significant details. A character might appear for the first time halfway through the novel and only factor in importance in a chapter or two, but a well-placed and evocative descriptor in connection to that character makes them easily memorable, whether they enter the story again or not. Even now, a fair bit removed from having finished the book, when I think of particular characters, I can remember a phrase or a particular piece of information that was always linked to that character, such as the fact that they always crack their knuckles, or smile condescendingly.
The 2012 film is only the latest in a long list of adaptations of Tolstoy’s novel, and while enjoyable and certainly not lacking in glamour as a period piece portrayal, I think it ultimately fails to capture the essence of the book. I feel like this is a frequent criticism of book-to-movie adaptations, and lest I myself be criticized on these grounds, I would like to add that I am not necessarily particular about movies being exactly aligned with the book which inspired them. I think that the form of the artwork must contribute in a significant way to the content. A book is not the same thing as a movie, and so if both aspire to be similarly good, they must do so in different ways; they must use those particularities that make their own medium different. This is why, for example, I loved seeing the Jersey Boys Broadway musical, but was not impressed by the feature film. The movie, in my opinion, tried to do the same things as the musical in the same way, but watching on a big screen is an entirely different experience from seeing live theatre. In contrast, this is also one of the reasons why I love both the book “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” and the movie of the same name. I plan to write about “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” in a future review, so I will just say that the book and movie differ greatly and yet are brilliant in how they explore and test the limitations of their own respective forms.
The film adaptation of Anna Karenina is highly stylized and full of sparkling detail. But to me, this felt like too much of what would have been a good thing had it been more tempered. It is simply too busy, and part of this is due to the mode of transition the movie uses. The whole thing is set up like a play being performed on a stage, and sets constantly rise and drop and fall and shift so that the film runs like one continuous scene at the theatre. Yet this wasn’t very effective as a film, and it wasn’t very effective in portraying the key contrast I believe to be at work in Tolstoy’s novel. Anna Karenina explores the conflict between restrictions imposed by fashionable society, and the passionate nature of the human soul. Are passion and true love regulated, or stifled and destroyed by a conventional society? It is an ongoing war between the exterior and interior, and a desperate search to determine whether the two can coexist.
This struggle and all the emotional resonance therein is lost in the shuffle of the film. The exterior dazzle of society is there in full force, but it is there at the expense of the passion within. The soul slips out unnoticed in the highly choreographed scenes of the film. It feels too slick and rehearsed, whipping from moment to moment without giving the audience enough time for the significance of that moment to sink in. The movie is certainly beautiful to look at, but I would say that this effort is characterized more by an absence at its centre than by its adherences to and deviations from the plot. As a result, I would wholeheartedly recommend the novel, but would suggest that, if you are interested in watching the movie, you wait at least until you have experienced the resplendent beauty of Tolstoy’s prose before turning to a portrayal of his story.