Watch a Complete Mini-Series Adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch an 8‑Part Film Adap­ta­tion of Tolstoy’s Anna Karen­i­na Free Online

Watch the Huge­ly-Ambi­tious Sovi­et Film Adap­ta­tion of War and Peace Free Online (1966–67)

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Leo Tol­stoy, and How His Great Nov­els Can Increase Your Emo­tion­al Intel­li­gence

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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