Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

I recently finished reading the epic novel by Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina. It’s epic because it weighs in at over 1000 pages on my eBook reader – thankfully it weighs far less than it would in its paper form. I’d wanted to read something else of Tolstoy’s since reading his work ‘The Kingdom of God is Within You’ (TKoGiWY) back in 2017.

Tolstoy has a remarkable list of published works available to read including both novels and philosophical works such as these, most of which have been translated from Tolstoy’s Russian into English. I’m not sure why I chose Anna Karenina (AK) as the first novel to digest since it’s second to last on the list on Wikipedia. Also, AK was published in 1877 whereas TKoGiWY was published over 15 years later, so I kind of read them the wrong way round; I wasn’t conscious of this while I read AK, indeed I had it in my mind that AK was written in the order of my reading – this is an important point because surprisingly AK hit on some similar and generally philosophical topics; I suppose this illustrates the mind of Tolstoy and what interested him.

Actually, the novel began more as an insight into romantic relationships and how we perceive the other party. I was impressed by how Tolstoy put into words the various feelings I’ve had over the course of a few decades of the occasional relationship here and there.

…Levin was in love, and so it seemed to him that Kitty was so perfect in every respect that she was a creature far above everything earthly… The place where she stood seemed to him a holy shrine, unapproachable… He walked down, for a long while avoiding looking at her as at the sun…

Perhaps Tolstoy’s own insight is hardly surprising given that it is said on Wikipedia that he had an extensive sexual past and already had a son to another woman before he married his wife in his 30s. His wife was also 16 years his junior, a fact that makes me think of the age gap between Vronsky and Anna in the film.

After reading the novel of AK I was keen, in similar fashion to what I had done with Bram Stoker’s Dracula last year, to seek out a film version of the story, and just like Dracula, I had a multitude of options at my disposal. AK has been adapted for film and television some 18 times by my reckoning, in addition to numerous theatre, opera and ballet renditions. But which one to choose?

With the novel being as long as it is it was obvious that any film adaptation was going to be a vastly condensed affair with big swathes being removed but I was keen to see on screen the characters I had imagined and get an overview of the story I had just read. I looked at the list of options on Wikipedia and then headed over to Youtube to see what was freely available. Wikipedia’s page for Dracula had given me some brief descriptions of each with highlights and criticisms, making my choice easier, but the AK page was lacking in this regard. Once over on Youtube I was faced with some poor-quality recordings (mainly due to the age) and some in various languages other than English and without subtitles (sadly not an option for me). For some renditions the actors didn’t gel with me.

In the end I settled on a Russian version (not even mentioned on the Wikipedia page) that looked quite recent and with quality recordings; it seemed to be quite fitting that I’d be hearing the Russian dialect whilst reading English subtitles. This was actual a version made for television and divided into 8 x 45 minute episodes. Since I haven’t watched any other versions I can’t compare, but it would seem this was quite a vast enterprise and likely did the novel a good amount of justice. It begins from, and regularly jumps back to a time some 30 years after the novel was set and involves Vronsky looking back to his time with Anna, a perspective and technique which works well when you have just read the novel. It wasn’t until I found the Wikipedia page for the version I was watching that I read the following:

Anna Karenina: Vronsky’s Story… is a 2017 Russian drama film directed by Karen Shakhnazarov. An expanded eight-part version titled Anna Karenina aired on Russia-1 television channel [the version I watched]… It is a free adaptation of Lev Tolstoy’s novel of the same name which also combines the publicistic story “During the Japanese War” and the literary cycle “Stories about the Japanese War” by Vikenty Veresaev.

The full title, had I known it at the time, should have given me a head’s-up. To me this ‘film’ was from the perspective of, and telling the story of, Anna Karenina, whereas the novel itself, while being called ‘Anna Karenina’ is somewhat misleading in its title as it is about far more than only her story, or as another blogger has put it: “a story of adultery told with sympathy for the plight of the adulteress.”; it tells individual stories of the individual characters, as well as provide a generous dose of topics from philosophy, religion, politics, and the science of farming! This explains the novel’s length.

Either admit that the existing order of society is just, and then stick up for one’s rights in it; or acknowledge that you are enjoying unjust privileges … and then enjoy them and be satisfied.

I ended up making many pages of notes such as these. The film cuts a lot of this out, in particular the farming, which considering it is supposed to be “Vronsky’s Story” is a little odd for the part about farming. The story is all told from the perspective of “princes and princesses” (the ‘better off’ in society) at the time, although Vronsky does engage with the peasants working on his land (in the novel at least) but just like for Vronsky, this largely seems to be for curiosities’ sake. Some of the characters and stories don’t seem all that closely linked to Anna herself, which is odd to me given the novel’s title; this is an area where the film logically cuts things out.

One particular character that has her own back story in the novel is Kitty. She doesn’t seem to have that much involvement with Anna other than being fond of her; holding her in admiration for the most part. I quite liked Kitty, she “always imagined … people in the most favorable light…”; she reminded me of Mina from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Dickens’ maid in Bleak House – all stories from a similar time and told by men. It was therefore disappointing to me to find that this Kitty character had all but been erased from Tolstoy’s story; she was only mentioned in the last episode and existed in only one scene… off camera and in another room, only to be spoken of. It was a strange instance where had I not known of Kitty from the novel then I would have wondered “Who is this ‘Kitty’ that is being spoken of?” because in that moment Anna was bothered by her supposed opinion of her.

The film though is beautifully shot from the outset with the War setting and the costumes and sets of the story itself. However, while I liked the ‘looking back’ perspective, I think the glossiness of these scenes were there to shore up the lacking story as was now left to be told due to all of the other stuff being cut out, a point made clear when it is considered that eight episodes were used to tell the story of how Anna cheated on her husband and left him and her son to live with her lover, had another child with him, and then ultimately lost her mind when she spiralled into the same depressions she had experienced with her husband. It is the story of a ‘fallen woman’.

Her husband, Karenin, by the way, was played by Vitaly Kishchenko and he didn’t match up with how I had imagined him at all; seeing him on screen I couldn’t help thinking he was going to give Anna a beating at any moment! Whereas in the novel he seemed more the snivelling sort. I found Elizaveta Mikhailovna Boyarskaya’s role as Anna to be very strong, although quite scary when she began to lose her mind – how she was failing to keep things together seemed to reflect well on the requirement of her class (as portrayed throughout the early part of the film at least) to do so. This seemed more pronounced than I imagined whilst reading the novel.

Anna wouldn’t have liked Twitter, “…it was distasteful to her to read, that is, to follow the reflection of other people’s lives. She too great a desire to live herself.” I get a sense that Tolstoy, despised triviality. She goes on to consider, “If she read that the heroine of [a] novel was nursing a sick man, she longed to [do so also]…” This made me reflect on how I do this also with characters I admire in films.

 

If you would like to read the novel then you can find it as a [free download here].

If you would like to watch Anna Karenina: Vronsky’s Story, here is Episode 1:

 

 

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