From Book to Film: Anna Karenina

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The Story: In imperial Russia, the wife of a prominent politician begins an illicit romance with an army officer, while a philosophical landowner courts a princess.

The Book: If the above description sounds a tad boring, rest assured that Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina defied all my expectations.  Anna Karenina is considered one of the greatest novels ever written, and this is no exaggeration.  But if you think this means that the book – which weighs in at over 800 pages – is dry and dull, think again.  From the very first line, Tolstoy assures us that this is going to be as enjoyable a read as he can make it.  Though there are parts in the middle in which not a lot happens, Tolstoy intertwines the story of Anna and her illicit love of Vronsky with Levin’s courtship of Kitty to give the novel balance.  It’s too great a book to pass up.  You can read a few more of my thoughts on Anna Karenina here.

The 1927 Film (Love): This is the second of four films that Greta Garbo and John Gilbert made together.  If this film’s main characters weren’t named Anna and Vronsky, I don’t think I would have caught on that this was meant to be an adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel.  Levin is not featured at all, and the American version changes the ending – though the version I saw from TCM noted this and also showed a European ending to the film that maintains Tolstoy’s vision of what happened to Anna.  Only recommended for classic/silent film fans or those interested in Garbo and Gilbert.

Garbo in the 1935 Anna Karenina (public domain) - via Wikimedia Commons

Garbo in the 1935 Anna Karenina (public domain) – via Wikimedia Commons

The 1935 Film: Garbo’s second turn as Anna Karenina is more famous – and arguably, a lot better – than her silent version.  Beautifully directed by Clarence Brown, this is often considered the best film made out of Anna Karenina.  Compared to the book, however, it falls a bit short.  Garbo has excellent rapport with Freddie Bartholomew, who plays her son in the movie, but has a lot less chemistry with Fredric March, who plays Vronsky, which hampers this film’s efforts.  One plus is that Levin gets some screen time, though his arc is given little attention.

The 1948 Film: Critically panned, this version of Anna Karenina holds up fairly well now.  I found its treatment of the story to be better than either of the Garbo versions.  If anyone played “tragic heroine” better than Garbo, it was Vivien Leigh, and if Leigh’s resume weren’t as formidable as it is, I think her performance as Anna would be considered better.  She receives great support from the incomparable Ralph Richardson as her husband.

The 2012 Film: Much has been said about director Joe Wright’s decision to situate most of the action of this move in a theater, but the effect works surprisingly well.  The choreographed movement and characters moving furniture around takes a bit of time to get used to, but it makes for a very meta viewing experience.  This version is also notable for giving the Levin and Kitty storyline a decent chunk of time.  Keira Knightley’s performance as Anna has ups and downs, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson seems miscast as Vronsky, but the rest of the cast, particularly Jude Law, does a fantastic job.

The Bottom Line: Each of the versions I’ve seen has its strengths and weaknesses.  See Love for Garbo and Gilbert, the 1935 film for Garbo and Brown’s direction, the 1948 film for Leigh and Richardson, and the 2012 version for its artistry and handling of Levin.  But the book tops all.  Read it first, for sure.

I know that there are several versions I haven’t seen, so feel free to share thoughts about any other versions you may have seen.

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2 thoughts on “From Book to Film: Anna Karenina

  1. I just saw the 1948 version of AK followed quite coincidentally by the film The Hedgehog. If you haven’t seen it, give it a try. AK figures prominently 🙂

    (Read AK over a year ago but still think about it all the time. Loved it.)

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