Not long after publishing his most beloved novel Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy gave away his wealth, renounced his aristocratic privileges, and embraced the life of a peasant. His extreme experiment in Christian anarchism notwithstanding, however, Tolstoy was fascinated by new technology and allowed himself to be photographed and filmed near the end of his life. On one occasion, he supposedly confessed a love of the cinema to his visitors and told them he was thinking of writing “a play for the screen” on a “bloody theme.”
“All the same,” argues Rosamund Bartlett at the OUP blog, Tolstoy “would probably have taken a dim view of the twenty odd screen adaptations of Anna Karenina.” The author died the year before the first filmed adaptation of his work, a silent French/Russian adaptation of Anna Karenina made in 1911. Five more would follow before Greta Garbo stepped into the role for a loose 1927 adaptation titled Love, then again a 1935 film version directed by Clarence Brown, with Fredric March as Vronsky and Garbo as the “most famous and critically-acclaimed of all the Annas Karenina,” Dan Sheehan writes at LitHub.
Garbo’s version is often considered the pinnacle of Tolstoy film adaptations — largely because of Garbo. Or as Graham Greene wrote then, “it is Greta Garbo’s personality which ‘makes’ this film, which fills the mold of the neat respectful adaptation with some kind of sense of the greatness of the novel.” The problem of adaptations — of great novels in general, and of Tolstoy’s in particular — is that they must reduce too much complexity, cut out too many characters and vital subplots, and boil down the wider themes of the book to focus almost solely on the tragic romance at its center.
Maybe this is what Tolstoy meant when he allegedly called the camera (“the little clicking contraption with the revolving handle”) a “direct attack on the old methods of literary art.” Novels were not meant to be films. They’re too loose and expansive. “We shall have to adapt ourselves to the shadowy screen and to the cold machine,” Tolstoy presciently noted, aware that film required an entirely different conception of narrative art. Adaptations of Anna continue to proliferate nonetheless in the 21st century, from Joe Wright’s 2012 adaptation with Kiera Knightley to, most recently, Netflix’s first Russian original drama series with Svetlana Khodchenkova as the title character.
Tolstoy scholars largely echo what I suspect Tolstoy himself might have thought of filmed versions of his novel. As Carol Apollonio put it in a recent online discussion, “If you want Anna Karenina, read it again (and again). If you want something else, then read or watch that, but don’t assume it has a lot to do with Tolstoy.” That said, we bring you yet another adaptation of Anna Karenina, just above, a mini-series from 2013 starring Vittoria Puccini, Santiago Cabrera, Benjamin Sadler, and Max von Thun. Its setting and costuming are period-correct, but does it meet the exacting literary standard of the original? Of course not.
Film versions of novels can’t approximate literature. But a good adaptation of Anna Karenina, whether set in 19th-century Russia, 21st-century Australia, or entirely — as in Joe Wright’s 2012 film — on a stage, can convey “the emotional tragedy of Anna’s story,” Apollonio writes. Adaptations shouldn’t just illustrate their sources faithfully, nor should they take so much license that the source becomes irrelevant. They are always tied in some way to the original, and thus in every cinematic Anna is a little bit of Tolstoy. But you’ll have to read, or reread, the novel to see how much of it the series above captures, and how much it frustratingly leaves out.