In which I continue my exploration of the cinematic misrepresentation of classic literature.
Synopsis: In late-19th-century Russian high society, St. Petersburg aristocrat Anna Karenina enters into a life-changing affair with the dashing Count Alexei Vronsky. (Synopsis from IMDb)
Review: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Thus begins the opening chapter of Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece of familial misery, Anna Karenina. Tolstoy considered Karenina to be his first actual novel, he decided that War and Peace was more than a novel. Karenina was originally published in serial installments from 1873-1877 in The Russian Messenger. The novelization was published in 1878 after Tolstoy had a political clash with Mikhail Katkov, the editor of The Russian Messenger. Most of the events in the novel are influenced by the rapid economic transformation of Russia by Emperor Alexander II. The novel is divided into eight sections and the seventh section is considered groundbreaking for its stream-of- consciousness style.
This novel is written in the style of family novels popular in Russia in the early 1800s. These novels fell out of style by the time Karenina was serialized. Family novels are works that explore the benefits of family togetherness and domestication in an idealized fashion. By the 1860s, many Russian social progressive vehemently attacked the familial institution and considered it an extreme limitation on personal freedom. This background is needed to explain the exploration of familial happiness and unhappiness in Karenina. Tolstoy explores how some people’s happiness depends upon others’ unhappiness. This is not a romance, if anything, it acts as a warning about the mythology of love.
Karenina is Tolstoy’s explicit philosophical exploration of happiness and the human condition. His exploration is based upon the notion of adultery. Anna Karenina’s betrayal and humiliation of her husband is the main narrative arc. Levin’s spiritual awakening and eventual domestic bliss serves as the secondary arc and as the foil to Anna’s selfishness. Essentially, this is Tolstoy’s version of Original Sin. The main theme is that what makes people unique and human can also act as a barrier to real happiness. Anna Karenina explores faith, fidelity, marriage, society, hypocrisy, sexual desire, jealously, passion, simplification, and connection to the land. The key takeaway message is: it is impossible to build happiness upon someone else’s pain.
I am pointing out the main themes of the novel in order to show its atrocious misrepresentation in cinema. Anna Karenina is a tragic and extremely philosophical tale. Reducing the book down to a flippant star-crossed romance is a disservice to Tolstoy and misrepresents the narrative. The two arcs are 1) Anna Karenina is a bored married socialite who starts an affair with Count Vronsky, and 2) Konstantin Levin’s difficulties with his estate, marriage, and religion. Tolstoy is pointing out the dangerous misconception of romance. Audiences have been conditioned to cheer for the sanitized happy ending, even though nothing good results from Karenina’s affair with Vronsky. Everyone would have been better off if they had never met. Love is depicted as a kind of curse, an element used to mete out happiness and unhappiness. This depiction runs counter to the modern mythology of “love can conquer all” or “all you need is love”.
The 2012 cinematic adaption of the novel paints Anna as a tragic anti-hero. In the novel, Anna is not really an anti-hero, she merely underestimates the impact of her actions. Portrayed by Keira Knightley Anna comes across as an alluring fallen romantic heroine. In fairness to Knightley, Karenina is an extremely complex and faceted character. But this version depicts Karenina as a Nora Roberts style heroine and this completely disregards the characterization in the novel. Karenina is meant to come across as moody, someone who realizes a downward slump is quickly approaching. She is depressed and fighting an impending sense of doom. However, these elements never manifest in the movie. In the novel the death of the railway track worker serves as a turning point for Karenina, but this scene is extremely rushed in the movie.
However, the worst offense is the depiction of Count Vronsky. In the novel, Vronsky is a cynical womanizer who uses carnal passion to conceal his inner despair. He needed to be portrayed as a man with an all-encompassing cynicism, worldliness, and an extreme sexual edge. Vronsky is a man who allows himself to be swept up in impulsive passion but also possesses enough cynicism to realize that the feelings will fade. Instead of casting an experienced actor capable of portraying this complexity, Wright cast the then 22 year-old Aaron Taylor-Johnson. This is a perfect example of choosing stunt casting over acting experience. Taylor-Johnson could convincingly play the role in about twelve-years. His Vronsky comes across as a limp rake who is boyishly attractive, not overpoweringly masculine. He simply does not have the acting experience required to portray such a worldly character. The result is an unrecognizable characterization of Vronsky.
Since the movie completely ignores the emotional structure of the novel, Wright resorts to depicting Karenina and Vronsky in compromising situations. The result is a series of rhapsodic idealized sex scenes. While the characters come together due to passion, the relationship is not just about carnal relations. Over focus on this part of the relationship dynamic undercuts the tragedy of their actions. The movie would have been a thousand times better if it focused on the disintegration of the relationship and Karenina’s moral depravity. Cutting out these elements means the relationship is portrayed as some kind of legendary romance. The only part of the novel that is accurately portrayed is Levin’s relationship with his estate and Kitty. But Wright spends so much time creating a yearning romance, that Levin’s storyline is underdeveloped.
If Wright wanted to turn Anna Karenina into a romance, he should have focused on Levin and Kitty. The evolution of their relationship in the novel would make an excellent film. As it stands, Wright created an extremely stylized adaption of Tolstoy’s novel. This is not a faithful version, it merely masquerades as Tolstoy’s narrative by borrowing elements from the novel. Instead, it comes across as the back-cover synopsis. It is just too idealistic and romantic. And Anna Karenina is not a love story, it is a warning about falling for the mythological cult of love. Read the book.