The Many Faces of Anna Karenina: Film, Dance, Opera and More

Anna Karenina: Always Inspiring

In choosing to adapt ANNA KARENINA, filmmaker Joe Wright took on an enormous challenge, and not simply because of the immensity and complexity of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel. The book, first published in installments in 1873, has inspired countless interpretations, adaptations, variations, and the like in film, theater, opera, ballet, musicals, and more. To get his story right, Wright turned to the acclaimed playwright Tom Stoppard to shape the massive book into a comprehensible screenplay. Wright and Stoppard departed from many earlier versions of Anna Karenina by weaving all the stories of love – and the characters they involve, from Anna and Vronsky to Kitty and Levin – into one rich dramatic tapestry, rather than just making the story about Anna. Then Wright went even further by deciding to film much of ANNA KARENINA inside a dilapidated theater, a bold, poetic gesture that captured the truly theatrical nature of Russian society at the time. With each innovation, Wright pays homage to how Tolstoy’s vision affected him. “When I read the book, it spoke directly to the place that I found myself at in life,” Wright commented. “You hope you are like one of the characters, and you realize that you have been like another of the characters. They are all perfectly true, and terrifyingly close.”  Other artists – filmmakers, writers, choreographers, composers – have been so moved by the tale of Anna to try to express that story in the way they knew best. Here are a few of the many faces of Anna.

Train of Thought: Vladimir Gardin’s Anna Karenina

In Vladimir Gardin’s 1914 Russian production of Anna Karenina, the train plays a prominent part – as, in fact, it does in the novel itself. For a few Russian critics, cinema – which arrived via such films as the Lumière brothers’ 1895 Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station – seemed to immediately connect trains, films, and Tolstoy’s tale. At the time, the art critic Vladimir Stasov wrote of the Lumière film, “All of a sudden a whole railway train comes rushing out of the picture towards you; it gets bigger and bigger, and you think it’s going to run you over, just like in Anna Karenina — it’s incredible.” Cinema wasn’t alone in wanting to emphasize the train in Anna Karenina. In 1895, the popular Skomorokh Theater exploited the train effect, advertising on posters, “a railway engine (specially constructed in L. A. Fyodorov's workshop) will cross the entire stage, and Anna Karenina will throw herself under it.” Unfortunately, as one writer later recounted, “It not only failed to run Anna Karenina over (she let out a scream even before it appeared), but it did not even succeed in crossing the whole stage as promised: it got hopelessly stuck between the first stage wing and the garden table at which Levin, Kitty and their guests had been drinking toasts ‘To Russia.'”  For his 1914 film, Vladimir Gardin made sure not to repeat the same mistake, letting the train coming for Anna fill the frame. 

Greta Garbo as Anna: Love (1927) and Anna Karenina (1935)

While there were a number of silent versions of Anna Karenina, the first great Anna arrived in 1927 when Greta Garbo took on the role with Edmund Goulding’s Love with John Gilbert –– Garbo’s real-life paramour at the time –– as Vronsky. While the film took its plot from Anna Karenina, the MGM extravaganza was more interested in the heat generated by its two stars than in literary pedigree. As Photoplay rightly pointed out, the selling point for this film “isn’t Tolstoy but it is John Gilbert and Greta Garbo, beautifully presented and magnificently acted.” Indeed Goulding, under orders from MGM, went so far as to shoot an alternate happy ending in which Anna lives, and Vronsky and her are reunited. Eight years later, MGM started production on a sound version of Anna Karenina, although interestingly they did not want Garbo to reprise her role. Producer David O. Selznick was pushing for Garbo to make Dark Victory, but the strong-willed Swedish actress insisted on playing Anna instead. Little came easy to Selznick on this production. George Cukor, who was originally slated to direct, left, quipping that he “couldn’t face all the suffering, agony and rat-killing” of the story. Clarence Brown replaced him. The filmmakers wanted Clark Gable for Vronsky, but got Frederic March instead. Sick of doing costume dramas, March grumbled that he’d only appear as Vronsky if the studio ordered him – which they did. The film was filled with notable performances, including Basil Rathbone (who would later make his name as Sherlock Holmes) as Karenin and a young Freddie Bartholomew as Sergei. However during the production, Selznick was hounded by Hollywood’s censorship organization, the Production Code Administration (PCA), for staying true to Tolstoy. They wanted the script rewritten so that Vronsky was clearly punished for having an affair with a married woman. Despite all its difficulties, the film was picked by the National Board of Review as one of the top ten films of the year, and cemented Garbo as the preeminent Anna Karenina.

Vivien Leigh’s Anna: Marital Strife On- and Off-Screen

Garbo had so defined the role of Anna Karenina that most actresses could only be compared to her unfavorably. Such was the fate for the star of Sir Alexander Korda’s 1948 British production. As the New York Times commented, “With all due respect for an actress who would willingly undertake a role that has twice been rendered immortal by Greta Garbo within the past twenty years, it must be confessed by this observer that the Anna Karenina of Vivien Leigh is a pretty sad disappointment.” The British production had cast Leigh, hoping to leverage some of her popularity from Gone With the Wind, and moreover had Korda hoped to cast Leigh’s real-life husband Laurence Olivier to play Vronsky. But unfortunately Olivier was busy on his Hamlet, so Korda took his chances with the up-and-coming Irish actor Kieron Moore as the young romantic Vronsky, with veteran actor Ralph Richardson as Karenin. The entire team –– from director Julien Duvivier, to screenwriter Jean Anouilh, to cinematographer Henri Alekan –– were at the top of their form. So when the bad reviews started rolling in, Moore often took the brunt of the criticism. The critic Dilys Powell poked fun at Moore, writing that he "might be playing a professional dancing partner instead of a headstrong Tsarist officer." Leigh took the film’s critical and commercial failure very personally, telling Richardson’s wife, “I know Anna, I was inside her. I know everything about her, and yet they say I can't do it.” Adding injury to insult, Olivier’s Hamlet – the reason he couldn’t join her in Anna Karenina – proved a huge hit, both with audiences and critics, a fact that fueled Leigh’s insecurity and her fear her roving husband was having an affair.

Anna Karenina on TV: UK and US Versions

While Hollywood stayed away from Tolstoy for a few years, the BBC picked the novel up in 1961. Entirely shot in Studio Three of BBC’s Television Centre, Rudolph Cartier’s Anna Karenina lacks the sumptuous look one might expect from such a period piece. Indeed the black-and-white movie was high on talk, low on landscape, and very edited down from the original novel. While most versions of Anna Karenina are noted for the actress playing title character, here it was not Claire Bloom (who acquitted herself admirably as Anna) but the dashing Sean Connery (who plays Vronsky) that was the stand out. The next year Connery would take the world by storm playing James Bond in Dr. No. More than 20 years later, British director Simon Langton’s 1985 CBS made-for-TV Anna Karenina also pushed the testosterone by casting Superman’s Christopher Reeve’s as Vronsky, with Jacqueline Bisset as Anna and Paul Scofield as Karenin. For Reeve, the project was personal. Although he’d read the novel at Cornell, finding it “possibly one of the best novels ever written,” making the film connected him to his father, who’d received a master’s degree in Russian language and literature from Princeton University. The film also introduced him to horseback riding, a sport which Reeve loved, but would have tragic consequences for him later in life. While this version is all but forgotten, it had more than a few admirers. Monica Collins, writing for USA Today, noted, “Garbo may have been a more keenly tragic, melodramatic Anna, but Bisset is perfect for TV's needs--a stunning, heart-breaking heroine. And Reeve's Vronsky has the perfect pitch of the lovelorn naif--youthfulness, extravagance and crass opportunism.”

The Wide World of Anna Karenina

As a classic of world literature, Anna Karenina has reverberated with people around the world, each creating their own adaptation: from Germany comes Otto Schenk’s 1981 Der Lebender Leichnam; from France, Yves-André Hubert’s 1975 TV movie La passion d'Anna Karénine; from Finland, Mikko Niskanen’s 1969 TV drama Elävä ruumis. Perhaps most striking is the Egyptian director Ezzel Dine Zulficar’s 1960 Nahr al-Hob (The River of Love), which transposes the story of infidelity to Egypt itself. But, of course, the story has probably been most poignant for Russians themselves, with a number of productions that range in budget and scope, from Tatyana Lukashevich’s 1953 small film of a stage production at the Moscow Art Theater to Aleksandr Zarkhi’s 1967 big-budget 70mm color epic. In 1997, with the Soviet Union now a piece of history, Warner Brothers took the opportunity to film the first American production actually made on location in Russia. Bernard Rose’s interpretation –– with Sophie Marceau as Anna, Sean Bean as Vronsky, and James Fox as Karenin –– gained high points for its look. Although while critics, like Roger Ebert, loved the scenery – “we see St. Petersburg exteriors, country estates and opulent Czarist palaces whose corridors recede to infinity. It all looks wonderful…” — few were equally complimentary about the performances or storytelling.

Writ Long: Anna Karenina as a Miniseries

Tolstoy’s massive novel –– chock full of complex plot lines, extended descriptive passages, and rambling meditations on love, Russian politics, agriculture, the existence of God, and more –– poses a daunting challenge for any screenwriter hoping to tame it into a feature film. As such, in the 1970s, when miniseries became all the vogue, Anna Karenina seemed an obvious candidate for television’s weekly chapter format. Basil Coleman, who helmed a number of BBC miniseries, took on the task of steering the 1977 program, with Anna Karenina broken up into 10 50-minute episodes. Nicola Pagett (famous for her role on Upstairs, Downstairs) was cast as Anna, Stuart Wilson as Vronsky and Eric Porter as Karenin. In 2000, Masterpiece Theater aired its own version of Anna Karenina, four one-hour episodes directed by David Blair, with Helen McCrory as Anna, Kevin McKidd as Vronsky and Stephen Dillane as Karenin. Russians also came to understand the power of the miniseries. In 2007, the edgy Russian filmmaker Sergei Solovyov released his own miniseries with Tatyana Drubich as Anna. His production, which took nearly 15 years to make, rivals the novel in melodrama. As Solovyov recalls, “before Anna was hit by a train, we were hit by all the affairs and shady deals of the difficult 1990s in Russia. Including the default of 1998. The money earmarked for the film was constantly cut.”

Passionate Movement: Anna Karenina as Dance

There have been at least four major ballets based on Tolstoy’s novel. One of the first major choreographed ballets came from the famed Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, who created the work from music especially written for her by her husband, the composer Rodion Shchedrin, in 1971. In 1976, Margarita Pilikhina captured Plisetskaya’s ballet (with her dancing the lead role of Anna) in a performance film. Plisetskaya had already appeared in one version of Anna Karenina, appearing in Zarkhi’s 1967 film version. Thirty years later, several very different choreographers took up Tolstoy’s classic again. In 2005, Russian Boris Eifman (with music by Tchaikovsky) created a pruned-down, minimalist and highly passionate dance based on the novel. Jettisoning the stories of Kitty, Oblonsky and Levin, Eifman’s piece just looked at the impassioned triangle between Karenin, Anna and Vronsky. The piece created a stir internationally, with advocates, like the Star-Ledger’s Robert Johnson, endorsing how it was “relentless in its energy and merciless in its emotional impact.” Eifman told The Mirror that, as a Russian, this story was deeply personal: “Through my performances I am trying to solve the problem of the mysterious Russian soul, I am trying to perceive the uniqueness of the Russian national character.” A more traditional approach was picked up by German choreographer Terence Kohler, whose version was first performed in Karlsruhe, Germany in May 2006. Most recently the story was again put to dance by Alexei Ratmansky with the music that Rodion Shchedrin had created 40 years earlier. Unfortunately, this work appears to have received the same tragic ending as the novel’s heroine. As the New York Times quipped, “As bad ballets go, Alexei Ratmansky’s two-act Anna Karenina is one of the best.”

Grand Passion, Big Music: Anna Karenina Sings in Opera

It seemed inevitable that Anna Karenina’s larger-than-life emotions and piercing passions would lead someone to hear an opera in Tolstoy’s novel. In the last century, there have been nearly 10 complete or nearly completed operatic works inspired by it. In 1904, the Italian composer Edoardo Granelli started on his version, and the next year, Salvatore Sassano won a prize at the Institute for the Advancement of Music, Naples, for his Anna Karenina opera. In 1970, the Russian story was adapted by an Ukrainian composer, Yuly Sergeyevich Meytus. The great English composer Benjamin Britten had started an opera with a libretto Colin Graham, but canceled it when Russia invaded Czechoslovakia. Decades later, Graham handed off to American composer David Carlson his libretto, which became the basis for a 2005 two-act opera. To get the Russian flavor, Carlson visited Russia and incorporated Russian music (like the Czar’s Hymn) in his work. The opera, which debuted as a big-budget production at Miami’s Florida Grand Opera in 2007 with Kelly Kaduce as Anna, received mostly glowing reviews. The New York Times wrote, “Just as Mr. Graham remained faithful to Tolstoy’s vision, Mr. Carlson …. remained faithful to a 19th-century Russian sound world… His romantic and luxuriantly textured music, with soaring vocal writing, retains interest with an underlying tension and hint of astringency.”

All Dancing, All Singing: Anna Karenina, the Musical

If some heard the wild emotions of Anna in operatic tones, others saw the rollicking tale as musical theater. In 1994, Hungarian composer Tibor Kocsák, with lyrics by Tibor Miklós, created an operetta of Anna Karenina. But two years earlier, Daniel Levine (music) and Peter Kellogg (lyrics and book) tried to bring this epic tale of love to Broadway. Directed by Theodore Mann, the production ran a short 46 performances before succumbing to a fate similar to its heroine. Panned by critics, the Broadway show seem an inappropriate medium for the Russian tragedy. Variety, meanly playing off the novel’s first line, began its review with the mock epigram, “All hit musicals are like one another; each flop flops in its own way,” before slamming the piece as “comic-strip Tolstoy.” Of course, one culture’s kitsch is another’s entertainment. In 2004, the Japanese successfully restaged the show, translating all the songs into Japanese.

Anna Karenina: Back as a Book

While ballet, film, dance, and the like have naturally turned to Tolstoy’s classic as source material, it stands as a testament to the book’s classic status that even authors have used it as inspiration. Ben Winter’s steampunk Android Karenina joins the legion of other fun literary mashups, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Jane Slayre, in bringing a different twist to the Russian tale. Indeed it seems entirely appropriate to turn Tolstoy’s uneasiness about technology and the steam-engine revolution (as exemplified by the ominous use of trains in Anna Karenina) into a nightmarish vision involving robots and cyborgs. While Winters acknowledged to the Los Angeles Times that Tolstoy might not be at all pleased with his homage, he explained what pushed him: “It’s universally known as one of the best, if not the best novel ever written. If you’re going to perform this insane idea of transforming great classical novels into science fiction action novels, why not go for the best?” While not a re-write, Rat Soap’s Anna Karenina in 100 Sketches is a strange concept for a graphic novel. Adapted by A. R. Eguiguren and illustrated by India Eguiguren, the book is the first, as the publishers explain, in a “series of graphic adaptations of classic novels——using minimalist drawings——in which rats represent the principal characters."


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