Fitting Anna Karenina into a New Dress: Adaptation and Cinematic Technique in Anna Karenina (2012)

Foreword: Here follows a term paper I wrote last semester for my university class under Tolstoy scholar Ani Kokobobo, PhD. This should be of interest if you have read Anna Karenina, or seen the 2012 film adaptation (Keira Knightley), or both. I discuss not only the works themselves but the nature of adapting a book into a film. I could not add superscripts with reference to citations, but there is a works referenced list at the end. So sit down with a cup of tea or coffee, and enjoy!

Many bibliophiles find film adaptations of beloved novels akin to murder. Joseph Wright and Tom Stoppard, who respectively directed and wrote the 2012 adaptation of Anna Karenina, find themselves at the end of a long line of brave souls who have attempted to adapt the classic novel. A myriad of successes and failures behind them, they have fought their own struggle with a book that runs at 38 hours in the audio recording, features a host of characters with extensive story invested in each, and runs along two deep, long paths of plot as it features two protagonists who meet only once. But against these obstacles, they have achieved a victory, creating an original piece of cinematic art, distinct from its muse yet of her same spirit: Wright and Stoppard’s knowledge of the book and its labyrinthine web of themes, as well as of the art of film and its unique abilities, bring forth an artistic form of Anna Karenina that preserves not only significant plot and theme, but the underlying, interwoven web of Anna Karenina, showing both innovation and faithfulness to the novel. With this claim in mind, we must distinguish, explore, and understand first the nature of film adaptation, particularly with a long and multiplot novel; and then the particular techniques and products of this film with regard to the novel. 

Let us clarify that “adapt” comes from the Latin “fit,” and thus a film adaptation should not replicate a novel, but fit it into the form of film. Its purpose, therefore, is not to do what the novel did, but rather to reform the novel into a new work of art, inspired by the original, telling the story in a different way. Indeed, it must tell the story in a different way. June Perry Levine, former professor emerita of English and founder of the Film Studies program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, wrote: “[E]very translation of a novel into film must deal with the differences between the two media in the rendering of narrative structure, tone, characterization, thematics and presentation.” The best adaptation tells the story in a way the novel couldn’t, making use of the camera and appealing to the eye and ear. 

Stoppard and Wright first had to deal with the obvious issue of “fitting” Anna Karenina’s length into their medium: A miniseries would have to cut out considerable content, even more so a two-hour movie. The resolution to this problem depends first on a good understanding of the novel’s most important themes, even more than of the plot, since many plot points reinforce the same theme, and some support lesser themes and therefore one can omit them without sacrificing a great portion of the novel’s integrity. We shall return to this as we examine the design of this adaptation and its strengths and weaknesses in faithfulness. 

Second, the adapter must determine what he wants to do with this adaption: “how does the film adaptation situate itself and its audience in relation to the original literary work? Does it seem to expect knowledge of the work from the film viewer? Does it appear to place itself—and its viewer—in dialogue with Tolstoy’s text? Or does it seek to stand alone, even to replace the novel as a cultural product?” Catharine Nepomnyashchy argues that “cinema, as a post-romanticism art form, has from its very beginnings tended to the international rather than the national, the development of national cinematic traditions offset by collaborations of artists across geographic borders.” Thus the audience of Anna Karenina likely will not have a familiar grasp of Russian culture, and may not have read the novel. Wright “considers period dramas not a means of historical preservation, but of creation ‘fantasy,’” and so this adaptation will not, and does not intend to, educate its viewer on an unfamiliar subject; nor, as just stated, should it assume the viewer’s knowledge of the context of novel and culture. With Anna Karenina, Wright and Stoppard also had their own context of the many film adaptations preceding them, already varying in plot and theme (some diminish Levin’s storyline significantly, and one removed Anna’s death). Tom Stoppard said, “[T]he first thing I did was to watch all the other [adaptations].” Therefore, the writer chose to set his work amid not only a literary legacy but also a very cinematic one; and the director intended “to do something bold and new, that is, to innovate rather than preserve (or reinvigorate by innovating).” 

In all of this, there is an over-arching rule: The viewer will not experience this work through a literary lens, but a cinematic one. This leads to the third factor the adapter of Anna Karenina must address: His personal cinematic design in order to tell the story with integrity, though it lacks much of the novel’s plot; and either attempt to preserve the original thematic elements, improve upon them, or go in a different direction. Wright said that “originally the screenplay written by Tom Stoppard was a fairly literal translation;” however, as they sought film locations within their £31 million budget, they found that locations in Russia were expensive and had been used in several other Anna Karenina adaptations, and locations in England had already been used by Joe Wright in previous filmwork. The film’s production designer, Sarah Greenwood, called Wright and gave him the idea of setting the film on a decrepit 19th-century-style stage. Turning a limitation into an avenue of innovative design, Wright used the dichotomy of stage scenes and “real” scenes to contrast the society of St. Petersburg and Moscow with Levin’s home estate of Pokrovskoe and other scenes in nature, such as Anna and Vrosnky’s initial freedom from constraints as they pursue their relationship (as their relationship deteriorates, the audience sees them more often in society [since the film does not feature their stay on Vronsky’s home estate]). Wright says he was inspired by Orlando Figes’ Natasha’s Dance, “in which he describes Russian society of the time living their lives as if upon a stage. High society. . . . And I found this kind of idea that a whole society, or a whole section of society, was performing for each other very interesting, and so that was why I chose to set it on a stage.” Tolstoy also contrasted the high society—presented as vain and filled with adultery, dishonesty, and superficiality—against the simple and relatively joy-filled countryside. Thus Wright used a cinematic design to present a key theme of the book, achieving faithfulness not through unfeasible imitation, but by adapting—“fitting”—Tolstoy’s story into a new art form. 

Nepomnyashchy argues that “far from seeking to preserve Tolstoy’s work ‘faithfully’ in an alternative art form, directors have been empowered by Tolstoy’s texts to innovate and therefore overcome strong predecessors in screen media.” As stated above, Tom Stoppard did reference other adaptations and Joe Wright wanted to do something different from them (thus also referencing them). And in some cases, as we shall see, they did choose their own path contrary to the book, such as with the ending. However, if one were to claim that Wright’s adaptation were not faithful, he would misunderstand his intent, the film’s sometimes subtle keeping with the novel, and the nature of film adaptation, which appeals to different senses and employs different tools. As Nepomnyashchy wrote: “[N]o matter how fitting to the complex architecture of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina Wright’s architectural tour de force in choreographing his film largely within a single theatrical space may be, it is ultimately a choice that is cinematic rather than literary, that is, a design that innovates in relation to the tradition of film rather than the literary tradition—and asks how to be valued creatively in that context.” It is within this medium, which cannot replicate and ought to re-envision, that Stoppard and Wright present their mark in the history of Anna Karenina adaptations. 

In the novel Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s “labyrinth of linkages,” as he himself called it, lie beneath the surface of plot. Joseph Wright took advantage of film’s ability to tell a story without being explicit, using some of Tolstoy’s linkages as well as some of his own. Liza Knapp wrote that Tolstoy “used the interplay of the plots in Anna Karenina to examine the interrelatedness of human lives.” Two of the many parallels Tolstoy presents are Anna and Levin, his two main protagonists, each of whom goes through an existential crisis of inner dialogue and suicidal thought; and Kitty and Anna, each of whom falls in love with Vronsky. Early in the film, Wright sets up the binary plot of Levin and Anna, as Anna and Levin cross the stage from opposite ends, Anna exiting as Levin stops and turns upstage (away from the audience) to where the snow-covered countryside opens before him. “Levin strides out of the theater that confines Anna and the other characters.” Later, Kitty will follow him to Pokrovskoe in the novel and in the film. In both, when Kitty and Anna meet, Kitty is entranced with Anna until the ball in which Anna and Vronsky dance together, displaying their affection for one another in a way perceptible to all, including Kitty. In the film, the interaction afterward between Kitty and Anna, who afterward sees her own reflection accompanied by the steam of a train, highlights the relationship between Kitty and Anna. The film places this scene as a pivotal point whence Anna and Kitty trade positions in society, Anna forsaking family and finding herself more deeply entrenched in society and vanity, and Kitty forsaking society for marriage and family in the countryside. In the novel, Dolly says, “‘How happily it turned out for Kitty that Anna came then. . . and how unhappily for her. Precisely the opposite,’ she added, struck by a thought. ‘Anna was so happy then, and Kitty considered herself unhappy. How completely opposite!’” 

Levine wrote that the literary tone, “the implicit evaluation which the author manages to convey beyond his explicit evaluation,” presents a complex problem for adapters. While novels “express tone solely through verbal language,” cinema instead has “camera positioning, editing and sound.” In the novel, the relationship between Anna and Vronsky begins with nonverbal, sensual communication, soon followed by an inability to communicate that descends into near-constant animosity. At times this appears more implicitly, such as when Anna blames Vronsky for her decision to go to the opera when he did not encourage it; and at other times Tolstoy makes explicit statements such as, “It was as if she did not understand the meaning of his words.” In the film they barely speak in proportion to their screen time together, thus placing a similar emphasis on their erotic relationship. And in scenes leading up to her death in the film Anna exhibits erratic mood swings, as the novel’s narrator describes: “The stay in Petersburg seemed the more difficult to Vronsky because all the time he saw some new, incomprehensible mood in Anna. At one moment she appeared to be in love with him, at another she became cold, irritable and impenetrable.” Wright shows this disconnect cinematically in a scene shortly before her death in which, after Anna has been taking morphine, the camera shows the audience that Vronsky sees only her reflection in a mirror; and then she in turn sees him fragmented in a reflection. 

Throughout the film, we find several other examples of Wright’s innovative design, cinematic technique recalling the novel. At the scene of her first sexual encounter with Vronsky, Anna calls Vronsky a murderer, and says, “God forgive me,” foreshadowing her death and final line, similar to Tolstoy’s morbid description of the same sex scene (to this credit goes to Tom Stoppard). The camera’s odd angles of the bodies obscured by the contrast of light and darkness give an appearance of chaos and disunity, disjointed and disconnected limbs and bodies, recalling the violent disconnectedness Anna and Vronsky experience in that same scene in the novel and in their relationship throughout. Frou-frou and Anna parallel one another in the book and in the movie, but Joseph Wright uses the visual aspect: The way Vronsky touches Frou-frou recalls his caresses of Anna in the previous scene, where they also discussed how he most loves her and his horse; Frou-frou is all white, as is Anna in the preceding and in the following scene. And as Tolstoy associates Kitty with the sun, Wright nearly blinds the audience with sunlight and lens flare when Levin awakes in the field to see Kitty in the carriage. 

Some of Wright’s linkages within the film allude to Tolstoy’s linkages more indirectly, or else reference only a general theme of Anna Karenina. We have already discussed Wright’s use of the stage in the film, but he also associates toys and models with child’s play, as with the enormous set on which Anna and Dolly’s children play, and as with Seryozha’s train. The train in particular alludes to Anna: Wright mixes in several scenes of train locomotion, once mixing it with an obviously toy model train that is supposed to be a real one, implying that Anna’s new life is just play, and not real; and, associated with the train in particular, it will lead to her death. Wright also adds a scene where Anna uses letter blocks to communicate to Kitty, thus juxtaposing Anna and Levin, who have some similarities in the novel within their existential searches for happiness and love. He also opposes them, because what Anna writes with the letters (“Vronsky”) does not come to be for Kitty, but instead for Anna; and this foreshadows Kitty and Anna’s enmity, while the scene with Levin and Kitty prompted their union. 

Wright deserves special attention for his usage of motion and stillness, seen especially in Vronsky and Anna’s dance scene and in her suicide scene. In the former, everyone but Anna and Vronsky freeze for several seconds, the pair passing away from them, utterly engrossed in one another. This emphasizes their movement away from the societal norm, which everyone notices; creates a fantastical, magical sensation which their relationship holds for themselves; and alludes to the theme, scene also in the novel, of their self-absorption to the neglect, even hatred, of others (for example, Anna and Seryozha, and Anna and Alexei Karenin). While Tolstoy used inner dialogue, Wright relied on the skill of his actors (for which there is no room to discuss here) and his tools of direction and cinematography. In Anna’s death scene, all remain still save her as she walks in the station, and this recalls her self-absorption and selfishness; but also her disconnectedness, her loss of reality as she looks at the mother and son, a relationship and part of her life she has lost (in the book, Anna asks, “Where am I? What am I doing? Why?” recalling similar disconnectedness), and her helplessness as there is none to come to her rescue (as in the book Tolstoy prompts the reader to ask: Who can save Anna? Who should?). 

Many would focus on the changes or perhaps poor decisions that Wright and others made in the film, due to which the film lacks much of the novel’s beauty. Many of the characters lose the depth and nuance they received in the novel, in large part because of the brevity of the film: Karenin, Kitty, and Vronsky have very few scenes without their spouse or love interest. The film leaves out Vronsky’s suicide attempt, of which Nepomnyashchy wrote that “Stoppard has said in interviews that he never found Vronskii’s suicide ‘believable,’ so he apparently chose to improve on Tolstoy by leaving it out.” Karenin has a much darker aspect to his character when he shoves the pregnant Anna to the ground in their struggle over her letters. Dolly has none of her charm and strength from the novel, but remains in the viewer’s mind most strongly at the beginning—weeping in an almost comedic scene—and near the end, commending Anna for her pursuit of Vronsky and saying she wishes she had done such a thing, and would have if she’d been pursued (thoughts she entertains in the novel, but the novel develops her character in many other scenes). And Kitty and Levin’s marriage, as well as his exploration of God in the Church, vanishes. To be sure, these are significant changes, and the film thus lacks a great deal of the novel’s splendor. 

But again we must recall the form into which the story is being “fitted,” adapted: This is not a mini-series, and time is limited. It may be that Vronsky’s suicide was omitted in part because it would indeed have been unbelievable in a film that lacked the time to develop his character sufficiently. That Wright could keep so much plot via his techniques that allow for quick scene changes (notably the set designs, as well as parallelisms in camera work that weave the film into one solid piece of art—for example, when Levin comes to Oblonsky at the latter’s work the first and the second time), as well as preserve many thematic points of the novel, warrants respect and laud. Many of the similarities could be lost to an inattentive audience: Anna and Vronsky’s verbal communication in both never works well, as mentioned above; Anna progressively dresses more extravagantly in both; and Oblonsky remains almost unchanged throughout most of the film as in the novel (the film emphasizes this in the aforementioned parallel scenes of him at work). Even some changes, such as the added humor in the film, serve a purpose congruous to the novel: in such a case, to mock the high society and show its foolishness. 

The film’s ending presents an excellent example of Wright and Stoppard’s design which diverges from the novel and yet retains some faithfulness. The novel ends on a hopeful note, with Levin’s epiphany about God; and while the film retains this scene, it places two more following. In the first, we see Oblonsky at Pokrovskoe, sorrowful and apparently mourning Anna’s death (which the reader sees no one do in the novel). In the second, Stoppard and Wright present positive parallels between Karenin with his children and the Levins, showing both in nature, living simply, and appearing happy (akin to the themes of anti-societal simplicity and nature in the novel). However, the novel’s central question of Anna’s impact on others and their relation to her remains, albeit altered from the book. Karenin, sitting while his children play, returns to reading, a habit he had mostly in the first parts of the film—did he really change? has his life changed since Anna left, other than the addition of Anya? Moreover, they are in the same field in which Anna announced her pregnancy to Vronsky. She has disappeared, and her husband and children appear unaffected. Yet this reminds the viewer of her lasting presence in Anya—her trace, the interconnectedness between her and others, remains, which the viewer sees even if others do not. And although Oblonsky appears to mourn Anna, yet according to what Levin said about adulterers at Oblonsky’s dinner party, Oblonsky may not know what true love is. But if he does know, do then the happy Levin and Kitty? Tolstoy’s original happy ending is undone, yet Anna remains unmourned as most of the characters seem happy, as in the novel, and these nuances and subtle allusions leave the viewer in an ambivalent, questioning state far from bliss. Again this echoes Tolstoy who presented questions for the reader to ask for himself. 

Stoppard and Wright’s knowledge of Tolstoy’s novel and of the cinematic art have turned an enigmatic and lengthy multi-plot novel into a film that retains many of the same themes and plot points that gave the novel its beauty. Though important aspects were sacrificed, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina remains, now fit into a new dress, but still asking questions about interconnectedness, paralleling contrary characters, mocking Russian high society, and showing the ruin of an adulterous plot. Stoppard and Wright achieve the same goal that Tolstoy did: creating a labyrinth of linkages, leaving it “up to the reader’s consciousness to recollect, select, and combine different segments,” at the end of which the audience finds the final word directed at them: “What sayest thou?” 

Works Referenced 

Knapp, Liza. Anna Karenina and Others: Tolstoy’s Labyrinth of Plots. Madison, The University of Wisconsin Press, 2016. 

Levine, June Perry. “Two Rooms with a View: An Inquiry into Film Adaptation.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, vol. 22, no. 3, 1989, pp. 67–84. JSTOR, 

Nepomnyashchy, Catharine Theimer. “Adaptation in Contexts: A Tale of Two Annas.Tolstoy on Screen, edited by Lorna Fitzsimmons and Michael A. Denner, Northwestern University Press, 2015, 317-337. 

Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. New York, Penguin Group, 2002. 

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