This is part 1 of a 2 part series, in which Emily Parrish will read Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina,’ and then discuss Joe Wright’s adaptation.
I was a voracious reader growing up, but in high school I met my match. Cocky and self-righteous from reading 1984 and The Count of Monte Cristo before most of my peers, I picked Anna Karenina to do my final report on in sophomore English. And regretted my choice immediately. I slogged along half-heartedly, convinced that what I was reading was just a long soap opera with puzzling forays into Russian political theater and way too many names (Stiva? Oblonsky? Stepan Arkadyevitch? all the same person). I gave up three quarters of the way through and phoned in my final essay with the grim confidence that bookish sixteen year olds can muster in a pinch.
But a few months ago, cocky and self-righteous from reading Infinite Jest (how do you know if someone’s read Infinite Jest? don’t worry, they’ll tell you), with six more years of education under my belt and a shiny new e-reader to try out, I picked it up again, synced spontaneously with the release of Joe Wright’s new film adaptation. Wright, best known for films I have little interest in (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) and films I was interested in but opted out of due to reviews (Hanna), imitates the style of period stage plays, going so far as to put most of the film’s action on an actual stage. This is a choice I am eager to see played out, though it might limit the physical scope of the film (not necessarily a problem). Keira Knightly, too young to play a perfect Anna but as close as we could probably get, takes the titular character and gives her the big eyes and tousled hair that are almost as important to her character as her dialogue. The cast is populated by a few equally big names and plenty of smaller ones in (hopefully) big roles. I like that; it looks smart and deliberate. Matthew Macfadyen as Stiva? Love it. Kelly Macdonald as Dolly? Perfect.
Reading Anna again, I was struck more strongly than sixteen-year-old me was by the vast inequalities of early 20th century Russian society; inequalities of sex, age, and class. But those are the obvious shockers. Who in the western world could read it and not be struck by them? Tolstoy himself noted the unfairness within the novel, but accepts them as a product of the age. But I can only assume (from the trailer and from, you know, Hollywood stuff) that the film will choose to brush over instances of messy, complicated, and deeply political classism in favor of those of sexism, which when played out in the realm of the rich and powerful among the rich and powerful is a much more photogenic inequality.
Many of the moments that I’m sure Tolstoy would have considered critical to the novel (read: Levin’s frantic personal crises) will probably be left out in the cold in the adaptation. After all, as sixteen-year-old me knew better than anyone, that book is long; it’s physically impossible to cram the whole story into a couple hours. And this could lead to star-crossed lovers and black-hearted villains, neither of which truly exist within the original material. There is infatuation, and there is spite, and there is a parade of vanity, but there is never the black-and-white division between the adulteress-with-a-heart-of-gold and her malicious-jilted-husband that the trailer is so full of.
The tragedy of Anna Karenina is not, in the end, about Anna herself, but about the shifting of Russian society from the agrarian “old ways” to the brave new post-serfdom world of industrialization. Anna’s Russia, driven inexorably into the arms of a new order that may or may not be right for her, stumbles through the novel with soaring highs of justice and dismal lows of injustice. And though in the end Anna’s fate is plain, the fate of contemporary Russian society was not. I can’t pass judgment on something I haven’t seen, but I’m already steeling myself for two hours of Keira Knightly alternately having sex and crying, which I suppose is what I was hoping for in the spring of 2006. We can only hope that Wright isn’t sixteen at heart.