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.)
The one exception, oddly enough, is Karenin, played with a stoic complexity by Jude Law. He alone is allowed to change during the film, and he alone elicits sympathy, because he is not just an image but, as both the cause and victim of Anna's transformation has some semblance of real personhood. One of Stoppard's earliest plays was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), which told Hamlet from the point of view of two minor courtiers. It is almost as if Stoppard is returning to that technique: looking primarily at Anna from a completely different angle - the cold husband whose lack of love drives the central dramatic action of the novel. The film could have been titled Alexei Karenin, not Anna Karenina.
What kind of Anna is it, then, which is largely images and surfaces, with little humanity, and where, in the little humanity that exists, Karenin is more sympathetic than Anna?
The film does raise the age-old argument about why and how novels can be - should be - translated into film. The modern debate begins with George Bluestone's provocative 1957 book, Novels Into Film, reissued by Johns Hopkins University Press 2003. A.O. Scott's review in The New York Times damns more literal adaptions of novels like Wright's earlier Pride and Prejudice, with Knightly taking a wonderful turn as Elizabeth Bennet. He praises this Anna, the ninth film version: "It is risky and ambitious enough to count as an act of artistic hubris, and confident enough to triumph on its own slightly - wonderfully - crazy terms. Pious Tolstoyans may knit their brows about the stylistic liberties..."