anna karenina

I started reading Anna Karenina (by Tolstoy) while I was travelling in January.  It took me five months to finish, and I can’t totally explain why.  Sure it’s long, but not that long.  I’ve read comparably-sized books in a (small) fraction of that time.  And it isn’t that I didn’t enjoy it either.  I love Russian writers, and Karenina was saturated, no, brimming-over with gratifying drama.

Maybe it was because I didn’t finish in Asia or on the 15 hour flight back, and taking the book back with me mostly unread when I walked, filthy and still nauseous from the flight, through customs at JFK destroyed my resolve.  Maybe it was my last college semester, the anxiety about my thesis or my last gen-ed throwing a pitch-black shadow onto Tolstoy.

Whatever it was, I didn’t really pick up the book again until the end of May, when I devoured the last half of the book in only a few weeks.  Despite this final gasp of reading fervor, the amount of time I spend not reading the book left me feeling somewhat detached from the story and its characters.  I’d go months only reading a few chapters, usually only remembering impressions of characters rather than details (that happened to be important to the plot).

So when I sat down to watch the film version of Anna Karenina (dir. Joe Wright, 2012), I was surprisingly…surprised.  How could I have forgotten the blatant gruesome foreshadowing that the book begins with?  How did I forget how young and sweet all the characters (especially Anna) were towards the beginning?  The drawn out, amnesiatic experience I had with the book left me with a much different understanding than the over-arching (albeit more condensed) version on the screen.

This is one of the reasons I was so enamored by the film: I could digest the drama as a whole, in only 2 hours. Another reason, as showcased in the frame above, is that the film satisfies my guilty pleasure for historical costume dramas.  Those gowns!  The sumptuous sets! Those chandeliers!

But perhaps the most interesting quality of the film is in the interpretation of the different settings.  The story takes place in three main locations: Moscow, St. Petersberg, and in the countryside (where Levin lives).  In St. Petersberg and Moscow, where the noble and bourgeois society live highly affected lives, it is plain that each set is built upon an actual stage.  Set changes are highly visible, and sometimes when characters walk out of a room, instead of finding themselves in an adjoining room, they rather find themselves in a backstage area (complete with pulleys and rafters).

here’s Karenin, wanting to be alone and away from his wife and so finding himself upon a barren stage, deep in thought as the stage lights dim

the horse race, instead of taking place on a track, is set in the theater. when the horses and riders go off stage, the spectator can still see them running against a blank, black background, until they make it around to run across the stage again, for the benefit of the audience in the theater.

It seems to me that this emphasis on the theatricality of life in St. Petersberg and Moscow is meant to make a statement about its falseness when juxtaposed with the “reality” of the countryside.  In the country, the setting is open and outdoors, without any sets or hidden backstage area.  In this way, perhaps, the country is meant to seem more wholesome.

However, I feel it is a shame that the movie, despite setting up the country as such an idyllic space within the film, does not give adequate attention to the lives of the characters who inhabit this space.  The book focused a great deal on the lives of Levin and Kitty, whose timid love affair acts as a source of relief against the intense drama between Anna and Vronsky.

Even with this unpleasant truncation of one plot line, I enjoyed the film.  It’s intense stylization, beautiful set design and costumes made for a visually stunning film.  It’s impossible to condense a book, especially a 800+ page book, into a two hour film, so I understand that certain decisions had to be made.

I can only wonder: how would the film be different if Tolstoy could have been consulted?

Kitty and Levin spelling out their affection in blocks


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