Anna Karenina: Read the Book, Skip the Movie

Tolstoy's epic novel reveled in the humanity of its characters. Alas, that quality was lost in translation to the screen.

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For the holidays, buy someone you care about deeply Tolstoy's novel, Anna Karenina. Don't settle for silver or bronze - or modern dross - when you can give the purest gold. But do not go to Anna Karenina, the current movie, thinking you will get a two- hour essence of the novel. Joe Wright's film, while perhaps interesting in its own terms, is a perversion of one of the world's great books.

Once you have started the novel, you will be completely transported into a complex world that will enthrall, inspire, and awe you and ultimately break your heart. At the center is one of the great heroines of literature.You will fall in love with Anna as she leaves a cold marriage with a well-to-do Russian bureaucrat (Alexei Karenin) for a passionate affair with a young military officer (Count Vronsky), which evolves into pregnancy, societal recrimination, separation from the son she had with Karenin, moments of ecstasy with Vronsky, and then a slow spiral into guilt, insecurity, jealousy, and, ultimately, death. Surrounding the love triangle are the two contrasting marriages of Anna's brother, Stiva, and his wife, Dolly, and Dolly's sister Kitty and the landowner Levin. They are mirrors within mirrors, creating a sequential and dynamic series of vivid comparisons and reflections.

Anna Karenina is on lists of the top ten novels of all time (get the new Viking translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky). Ask anyone who has read it, and it will be among his or her favorite novels, if not at the top of the list. The reasons are many. But at the core is Tolstoy's genius at creating a universal world we are allowed to enter: of engaging people in a vivid but highly structured society who reflect the emotions, thoughts, motives, unconscious drives, conflicting actions, mistakes, happiness and sadness that is as close as we will ever come in literature to the totality of the human comedy (marriage) and the human tragedy (death). Shakespeare is Tolstoyean.

Anna Karenina, the film, ostensibly follows the arc of the novel, and the screenplay by Tom Stoppard includes many of the main characters and main scenes. But it is all slick surface. The film is a kaleidscope of arresting visuals - most set in a faux theater to give the film an operatic feel, some using real landscapes, all set to an original score. The set pieces are stunning, exemplified by an opening scene at a ball where Vronsky acts with indifference to Kitty, who has come with high expectations of a relationship and engages in a waltz of seduction with Anna. But the remarkable visual, often surreal, images obscure the essence of the novel: the humanity of character. Most remarkable is that Keira Knightly's Anna is superficial, selfish, and, hard as this is to achieve, unsympathetic. Vronsky is a pretty boy lacking in dashing and dangerous masculinity. And all the other characters who are in the great novel here have no depth, no development. They are literally cartoonish, made to utter but a few lines to move along the fast-paced tableaux. (The unpretentious Levin of the countryside, often seen as Tolstoy's alter-ego, is a scythe-swinging shadow of a real character.)

Presented by

Ben W. Heineman Jr.

Ben Heineman Jr. is is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, in Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and at the Harvard Law School's Program on Corporate Governance. He is the author of High Performance With High Integrity.

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