The 1st Edition of the Modern Library Giant of Anna Karenina (1935).

Anna Karenina  (Анна Каренина)

  • Author:  Leo Tolstoy  (1828  –  1910)
  • Rank:  #16
  • Published:  1877
  • Publisher:  The Russian Messenger
  • Pages:  838
  • First Line:  “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
  • Last Line:  “I’ll get angry in the same way with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I’ll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and then regret it, Ill fail in the same way to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray – but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!”
  • ML Edition:  #37  (four dust jackets – 1930, 1931, 1942, 1966), Giant #23  (three dust jackets – 1935, 1963, 1966), tan cover, gold hardcover, Modern Library Classics
  • Film:  many, including 1935 (***), 1948 (***), 1967 (***), 1997 (**) and 2012  (****)
  • First Read:  Summer, 2000

The Novel: ” ‘The central theme of Anna Karenina,’ he said, ‘is that a rural life of moral simplicity, despite its monotony, is the preferable personal narrative to a daring life of impulsive passion, which only leads to tragedy.’ ”  Lemony Snicket – A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Slippery Slope

Is this the greatest love story of them all?  In a sense, I suppose I must answer yes, for, unless you count Gatsby or Ulysses as love stories (and I don’t), then there is no novel left on the list above this one that is a love story.  So there we go.  But, on the other hand, perhaps not.  Because is love really the story here?  Or perhaps love is the story here, but not the love story that casual observers (and certainly not those who have only encountered the book through its film adaptations) were expecting to find.  For, do we really want to say that this is the story of love between Anna and Count Vronsky?  Could it perhaps be the story of love between Kitty and Leven?  Or the love of Leven for Kitty that eventually grows, through fondness, into love from Kitty?  Because aren’t they the real story haunting the edges of the novel, the reason that it has never been made into a truly satisfactory film (until now)?  Certainly Lemony would think so.  And I’m inclined to agree with him.

If you were to ask a layperson what they thought of the book, they would probably know the first line, or some close approximation and they would know that Anna has an affair, and unless they were my best friend, would know that Anna dies at the end, throwing herself under a train (echoing a moment from early in the book).  Now, I can certainly expand.  In the basic plot, we have two couples, who are connected through their siblings and through broken hearts.  It is the middle family, the Oblonskys, that set the plot in motion.  The husband is the brother of Anna, who is coming to Moscow to help bring about a peace in the marital relations (her brother has been straying with the governess).  The wife is the older sister of Kitty, Princess Katya (I write that because I love the sound of it).  Kitty is being wooed by two men – the stern, solid, practical Levin, who is no one’s idea of a catch, least alone Kitty’s mother, and Vronsky, the dashing Count who is a prominent military man.

It is in the affairs of these characters, in the love that will grow, in the maturity that will expand, that we find the course of our story.  In a sense, the fortunes of the eventual two couples, can be seen in the growth in the two men.  Vronsky is a man of the world (similar to Oblonsky himself, of whom we have this perfect description: “He was on familiar terms with everyone with whom he drank champagne, and he drank champagne with everyone; therefore when, in the presence of his subordinates, he met his ‘disreputable familiars’, as he jokingly called many of his friends, he was able, with his peculiar tact, to lessen the unpleasantness of the impression for his subordinates.”), and in Kitty, he finds a young girl that he thinks is quite pretty and a nice use of his time:  “He did not know that his behaviour towards Kitty had a specific name, that it was the luring of a young lady without the intention of marriage, and that this luring was one of the bad actions common among brilliant young men such as himself.  It seemed to him that he was the first to discover this pleasure, and he enjoyed his discovery.”  At a ball, during the opening part of the book, he spurns Kitty, not out of any desire to hurt her, but precisely because he doesn’t know enough about how his actions could possibly hurt her.  He has met Anna that day, and his first impression of her is not one to be forgotten: “He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she was the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.”

Kitty, having already spurned Levin in the belief that Vronsky will soon make an honorable proposal, is devastated at the Count’s actions: “Kitty looked into his face, which was such a short distance from hers, and long afterwards, for several years, that look, so full of love, which she gave him then, and to which he did not respond, cut her heart with a tormenting shame.”  But this is where can see how Vronsky understands the world.  Later in the book, when his actions in a race cause the collapse and necessary slaughter of his horse, he finds himself in an odd situation:  “For the first time in his life he had experienced a heavy misfortune, a misfortune that was irremediable and for which he himself was to blame.”  That this is the same man who has crushed the heart and hopes of a beautiful young girl shows the lack of depth in the Count’s soul.  It takes nearly half the book before he can even get to this point: “He also felt something rising in his throat, tickling in his nose, and for the first time in his life he felt himself ready to cry.  He could not have said precisely what moved him so; he pitied her, and he felt that he could not help her, and at the same time he knew that he was to blame for her unhappiness, that he had done something bad.”  And, it is his utter inability to understand what is going on in Anna’s soul that so casually betrays the lack of depths in his own, as the novel draws towards its conclusion: “Later, when she was alone, she thought about that look, which expressed his right to freedom, and arrived, as always, at one thing – the awareness of her humiliation.”

But then there is Levin, the farmer, the man who quite clearly has a soul, and his depths in it that Vronsky would never understand.  He lacks Vronsky’s dash, lacks his ease with society, lacks his sheer nerve.  But Levin looks at life around him and thinks clearly about it: “Levin said what he had really been thinking lately.  He saw either death or the approach of it everywhere.  But his undertaking now occupied him all the more.  He had to live his life to the end, until death came.  Darkness covered everything for him; but precisely because of this darkness he felt that his undertaking was the only guiding thread in this darkness, and he seized it and held on to it with all his remaining strength.”  He is coping with the darkness, the darkness in his soul when he is tossed aside by Kitty for the shallow, callow man.  But life gives Levin a second chance.  In essence, Vronsky gives Levin a second chance.  And Levin, full of love for Kitty, wanting only to make her happy, seizes it.  The Levin we find later in the book has so much more to live for:  “The feeling was now stronger than before; he felt even less capable than before of understanding the meaning of death, and its inevitability appeared still more horrible to him; but now, thanks to his wife’s nearness, the feeling did not drive him to despair: in spite of death, he felt the necessity to live and to love.”

And so we find ourselves returning to the thoughts of young Klaus in the Series of Unfortunate Events.  We can look at the desperate passion between Anna and Vronsky, how it costs her her son, her pride, and, in final desperation, her life.  And for Vronsky, perhaps that death finally makes him understand what he might find or lack in the depths of his soul.  But for Kitty, who has loved not wisely either, but for whom life has found a better partner, and for Levin, full of the knowledge that he might still have anger, jealousy, regrets, but he yet has power to find good in it, in those final lines of the book, looking in his wife and his son for hope, we can see joy and see where the true love story has been.  For we must remember, even in Tolstoy’s incredible prose, that Anna’s darkness, though beautiful in words, is a haunting message to remember, of a passion that burned so bright that perhaps it incinerated all hope of life: “A little muzhik, muttering to himself, was working over some iron.  And the candle by the light of which she had been reading that book filled with anxieties, deceptions, grief and evil, flared up brighter than ever, lit up for her all that had once been in darkness, sputtered, grew dim, and went out for ever.”

translation note:  All quotes come from the Pevear / Volokhonsky translation.

The Films:

note:  Anna Karenina had never really had a great adaptation made, until this past year, where it finally got the adaptation that it was due, like Jane Eyre did the year before.

Big names for the big MGM production of Anna Karenina (1935)

1935  (dir. Clarence Brown)

If you were simply to watch this film version of the novel, would you have any idea how much the novel has to offer?  The novel has so much more than the affair between Anna and Vronsky.  But not this film.  The film is blatant in how they structure it.  The first glimpse we get of Anna is also the first glimpse that Vronsky gets – as the smoke clears and she emerges, out of the mist from the train, he is struck by her instantly (and we are too, of course – it is Garbo, after all).

There are a few cursory glances at the other characters in the novel (you can’t completely get rid of the Oblonsky family – if you do, you lose the motivating reason for Anna to come to Moscow in the first place and put the plot in motion), but really, from the second Vronsky sets eyes on Anna, there is nothing else for him, and nothing else for the film.

This is what allows the decent amount of success that the film has, while also all the limitations that fall upon the film.  Because, of course, Anna Karenina, is so much more than the plot.  Yet, this film is all about the plot – about the lovers who fall for each other so passionately, letting all reason fall by the wayside.  The problem with that is the plot isn’t what’s interesting about the novel and the two leads soon get tiring.

Worse than that, there are other problems with the film.  Frederic March, so good in so many other films, is so flat in this one.  Basil Rathbone, so utterly unsympathetic, robs us of any reason to believe that Anna shouldn’t run off with Vronsky.  Freddie Bartholomew, the most annoying child actor who ever lived, simply adds to that.  Then there is Garbo.

Garbo was quite easily one of the great actresses of her time.  But there are a couple of problems with casting her as Anna (even though, ironically, this was the second time she had played Anna on film, having already starred in Love, an earlier adaptation).  The first is that, while she is utterly believable as a woman who would inspire such passion and who would be so passionately devoted to her child, it is hard to believe that she would fall so hard for Vronsky that she would give up her life for him.  And, the way they write the ending of this film, there is no other way to interpret this.  This is not one of Garbo’s great performances and the problem with that, like with March, probably lies with Clarence Brown, one of the most over-rated directors of all-time (how, you ask, if I’ve never heard of him – because he was nominated for an astonishing six Oscars, though thankfully he never won).

But then there is the ending.  In the film, there is so much going on, with Anna’s desperate attempts to get Vronsky to meet her and his constant refusals.  Here, she simply misses meeting him, and then, apparently, decides to kill herself.  It is no longer a question of quiet desperation at her entire situation.  It’s just pure impulse and it just doesn’t work, especially when played by such a strong actress as Garbo.

Vivien Leigh in the fairly dull 1948 film.

1948  (dir. Julien Duvivier)

There is a dreadful mistake made with this film before it even begins.  Look at the credits.  It stars Vivien Leigh and Ralph Richardson.  That would be okay, though a bit strange casting.  But Richardson is playing Karenin, not Vronsky.  That makes it slightly better, but it emphasizes the real problem.  You can’t possibly have a film version in which the other name above the title is not the actor playing Vronsky.  To cast an actor of such talent as Richardson and then almost abandon the importance of who is playing Vronsky is a catastrophic mistake from which the film never recovers.

And the film never really does recover.  Oh, it’s not a bad film.  Not by any means.  Leigh brings a bit of desperation to her performance (something she had found in Scarlett) that Garbo would never have been quite able to find.  That makes her desperate need for her son (which is more believable here anyway since he’s not played by Freddie Bartholomew) much more understandable.  We can understand why she would turn away from the security of her husband in the need for passion.

But this is always going to come back to Vronsky.  One of the problems with filming the novel is that Vronsky is a naturally unsympathetic character, who is nonetheless responsible for being the romantic lead.  That puts you in a thankless position and one that a newcomer like Kieron Moore, acting alongside Leigh and Richardson is not even close to being able to deal with.

The film goes on okay, with occasional side glances to the other characters, as if someone said, yeah, we can’t cut the other characters entirely.  But when we get to the end of the film, it suddenly crashes down around us.  It isn’t quite enough to drop out of the range of ***, but it comes close.  There is the problem that all the films have, of making it believable enough that Anna would throw her life away over this affair, that there is so much lost that she can no longer chose to live (that she might have other reasons to give up her life never seems to have occured to filmmakers, in their desperate need to focus on the romance).  But what happens here, the way it is filmed, is the height of absurdity.  Rather than throw herself in the wheels, Anna walks out onto the tracks and seems to simply faint.  Then, from the point of view of the camera, we watch the train go completely over her.  For all anyone knows, she is still alive.  It’s so astoundingly stupid, I can’t bring myself to write anymore about the film.

Another late 60’s Russian film of a classic Russian novel

1967  (dir. Aleksandr Zarkhi)

In the course of a couple of years, Russian film-makers really went to work.  In this same period that brought us this version of Anna Karenina, also brought us the best film version of War and Peace and the best film version of The Brothers Karamazov (both Russian made).  And this is the best film version of this novel so far.

What is it that this film does right that the others can’t quite do?  Well, first of all, made by Russians and made in Russia, it has a fidelity to the look of the times more than any other.  These actors feel right for the part because they seem less like they are acting than in any other performance.  And part of that is because the film-makers actually allow the actors to inhabit characters, not just points in a plot.  We follow them through the houses (there are a number of quite good tracking shots, pulling back through all the great houses of Russia, with all those rooms in their splendor).

But let’s not go too far in the praise.  This is the best of the film adaptations, but that doesn’t make it anything more than a good film – not much better overall as a film than the Brown version.  Part of that is the clumsiness of it all.  I could never quite decide if the director was smart in not lingering on scenes and wasting time, or if he was too abrupt, making cuts in places where it feels like commercials should go.  It never really feels completely like a film, and too often feels like a tv mini-series.  It lacks the epic scope that Bondarchuk (a truly talented director) brought to his version of War and Peace.

But in some ways, Tatiana Samoilova makes the most satisfying Anna.  She is not as beautiful as Garbo or Leigh, but that only seems to add to her performance.  There is something in the way in which she moves, in which she speaks, that appeals something deeper, and the fact that we need to find those depths, perhaps adds something to Vronsky in this film.

The 1997 version.

1997  (dir. Bernard Rose)

I had to keep looking at the credits on this one.  I was certain it had been for television.  But no, it was a full film version, the first English language version to actually shoot in Russia.

So I watched it and kept thinking about what I would write.  And I had intended to save Anna’s death scene for my last note.  But then I watched it and I decided otherwise.  It has to be dealt with right away because it is so stupid, so badly filmed.  I thought that nothing was going to beat the Duvivier version, but this has it hands down.  We have no real idea why Anna kills her in this film and the actual moment of her death is so awful I can’t really believe it.

It comes back to the same problem that plagues this entire production.  It is essential that Anna be a beautiful woman.  It is part of her character, part of what people talk about, part of what pulls Vronsky in.  So, Garbo was a great choice.  And Leigh was a very good choice.  Samoilova wasn’t nearly as beautiful but she had great bearing and she had acting ability.  But that comes back to this film.  Is Sophie Marceau good looking?  Well, yes, but not enough to overcome the fact that she can’t act.  At all.  And while it is important that Anna be beautiful, it is absolutely essential that she be played by an actress who is actually up for the part.  And Marceau comes nowhere close.  She is absolutely dreadful.  We can understand (maybe) why Vronsky would want her.  But we can’t understand why he would be so obsessed with her, because nothing about the way she is played bears that out.

Interestingly enough, in the Roger Ebert review of this film he complains that the film focuses too much on the love story between Anna and Vronsky, when the book is so much more than that.  The book is so much more than that, of course.  But, this film actually gives more of the rest of the book than any of the other films.  On the other hand, it is also doesn’t really know what to do with those parts.  It has more scenes and more characters than any other film version, but, in a sense Ebert is right; it wants to pull back to the main story any time it veers away at all.  Perhaps it is telling that this film doesn’t begin with the problems in the Oblonsky household (which is good, because when it does finally get there, Anna isn’t believable in the role of peacemaker at all).  Clearly the problem here is with Bernard Rose.  Rose adapted the novel (quite badly) and it is direction that takes actors like Sean Bean, Alfred Molina and Danny Huston and is unable to do anything with them.  They all stand around like they don’t know what the hell is going on.  As a film, this is a relentlessly mediocre one.  But as an adaptation of the novel, even though it has more of the book in it than any other (yet still runs less than two hours, which shows you how much attention it paid to those parts), it is a travesty.

The sumptuous magnificent 2012 film version of Anna Karenina.

The sumptuous magnificent 2012 film version of Anna Karenina.

2012  (dir. Joe Wright)

So many directors, when tackling a big film make pedestrian decisions.  They make the standard choices and can make films that are good or bad, or sometimes very good or very bad.  But they are rarely daring, they are rarely visionary.  It becomes immediately apparent in the first few minutes of Joe Wright’s adaptation of Anna Karenina that he has made bold stylistic choices.  First, he is not going to slow down the action by gradually introducing the characters and making it clear who they are and how they relate and what is going on.  He is going to expect you to have some familiarity with the novel and have an idea of what is going on and if you don’t, well then, that’s your problem and not his.  But even more important, he decided to make the film within an abandoned theater, with nearly all of the actions unfolding within the various stages, around set pieces, up in the rafters, out on the floor.  It is an extensive theatrical production and it is a choice that could either sink the film or make it one for the ages.

I’ll go with one for the ages.  This was a film that I found so amazing, so stylistically brilliant, so amazingly directed in the opening scenes, almost like a ballet with the way characters move and interact, with a theater director’s sense of how to keep characters moving on and off without breaking the rhythm, that I stopped the film.  I then waited for Veronica to come home, Veronica who had not been interested in watching the film, and said to her, “You have to watch the first 10 minutes and then if you don’t want to keep watching, that’s fine.”  She finished the film.

All of this could have backfired very badly, it could have looked tacky and silly, like the sets of Dogville.  Or we could have bizarre shots to hide the edits like in Hitchcock’s Rope.  Instead, what we get is a bold and amazing vision.  We have tremendous cinematography (and, you could say, choreography).  We have amazing sets that seem only magnified when we see how well they have all been set up inside the theater.  And we have a sumptuous score that fits every moment and wonderful costumes.  And then we have the acting.

There are, I realize, many who are not fans of Keira Knightley’s acting.  And in a lot of films, she stands around and looks beautiful.  But I’m gonna hope that every book with a great female lead could be made by the team of Joe Wright and Keira.  After watching their Pride and Prejudice (a magnificent adaptation) and Atonement (a phenomenal film) and now Anna Karenina (which I hoped I would like and ended up liking so much that it made my top 5 films of the year), I can only hope that they’ll find their way to Portrait of a Lady or MacBeth or The Return of the Native.  And here she is very good, kind and caring towards her son, yet falling so desperately for this handsome young cavalry officer that she acts without thought or regard for her life or, eventually, her sanity.  The feverish pitch with which she acts towards the end of the film, in a kind of frenzied desperation reminded me of the candle image from her death scene in the novel.  And I could only think of the famous lines of Edna St. Vincent Millay: “My candle burns at both ends; / It will not last the night; / Bu ah, my foes, and oh, my friends – / It gives a lovely light!”.  Keira’s Anna has become that candle, burning at both ends, and of course she can last the night.

Then there are the rest of the roles.  The film is magnificently cast.  Even the weakest of the performers, Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky, is well-cast.  I had said about the 1948 film that the casting of a lesser known name for Vronsky was a huge mistake.  But here, it works perfectly.  He is young and good-looking (even younger than the actress who plays Kitty, interestingly enough) and he seems very much in character – the young man who is just realizing the power that he has to do these things and doesn’t know the devastation he can possibly wreck in these lives.  And yet, he even gets some sympathy in this film.  As does Karenin, played very well by Jude Law.  In fact, I was telling Veronica that this film gives more sympathy to Karenin than any previous film and then I was even more surprised to discover that both of the males in Anna’s lives actually get some sympathy in this film.

And that is not all.  There is Matthew MacFadyen, possibly the best of the supporting performers, as Oblonsky, always doing a dance around the strained relations around him (sometimes literally – this film really is staged like a ballet in some scenes).  That MacFadyen could be all smiles and charm (and playing Kiera’s brother) is ironic, since he had previously been the Darcy to Keira’s Lizzie.  And there is Kelly MacDonald, Michelle Dockery, Emily Watson and Olivia Williams in the various supporting roles.  And there is the lovely young couple of Levin (Domnhall Gleason) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander).  Their love story is given more time here than in most adaptations and it provides the necessary counterpoint to the burning candle of Anna.  In fact, by far the most tender and lovely moment of the film is the scene where they gradually reveal their emotions at a table with children’s blocks.

There are those who don’t appreciate this film, who may find it too stylized, may find the lack of great Russian settings to be off-putting, who can’t get into a performance by Keira Knightley in this role.  But to me, this is the film version that the novel has been waiting for, a bold and daring film that brings us everything we might hope to find from this novel that has been too often been done without style or grace.