The Novels We Write For Ourselves

There’s nothing objectionable about the new Anna Karenina film starring Keira Knightley. But she won’t be my Anna.

Jane Miller

Keira Knightley may play Anna Karenina, but not the Anna Karenina I love.

Perhaps I should say something about this new British film version of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which I don’t plan to see. You might have read about its being filmed for the most part in an old film studio just outside London, done up to look like a derelict theatre, while the countryside bits were shot on Salisbury Plain. Apparently Keira Knightley, as Anna, achieves what one reviewer describes as screen goddess” status. Anna’s husband, whose sticking-out ears upset his wife so much, is played by handsome Jude Law, and her lover, Vronsky, by a blond young actor with lots of hair, so he won’t need to wear his hair long and brushed over his bald patch as Vronsky does when he is with Anna in Rome and momentarily pretending to be an artist.

If I made films I too might want to make a film of Anna Karenina. I don’t think of it as sacrosanct, and far from doting on Tolstoy, he often makes me very cross.

Appearances are not everything, of course, and they are by no means the only reason I don’t want to see this film, though they are an important part of what one takes from a novel. Tolstoy never tells us much about what his characters look like, but what he does stays in the mind. So a blond, waif-like Anna is hard to imagine if you remember that Tolstoy writes about her black hair, her rather full figure… her full shoulders and bosom that seemed carved out of old ivory, and her rounded arms with very small hands.”

There are bound to be problems about turning very long novels into films. This novel is 900 pages long, and the film lasts for 130 minutes. Anna Karenina has been put to film at least 12 times. Most of the actresses who played her (Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh, for instance) were thin, and no one seemed to mind. I haven’t seen any of them. I want to hold on to the Anna Karenina that I’ve read — four times in English, and once, most recently, in Russian. And that took me over a year, with a dictionary by my side. The hardest parts of the novel to read in Russian are where Levin is thinking about modernising farming methods on his estate. My farming vocabulary is not extensive in English, let alone Russian. The easiest parts were when women were talking, especially to each other. Tolstoy uses a kind of children’s Russian for them, which suggests that they’d not had much of an education, despite being aristocrats, or perhaps because of that, though they spoke French fluently. It is difficult to know what Tolstoy was saying about Anna’s foray into writing children’s books. Tolstoy wrote some himself, after all. I hope he wasn’t infantilising her, but was recounting that, as well as missing her own children, Anna had creative ability that had not had chance to flower. 

It was clear to me when I was teaching literature to young people that seeing a film could encourage some of them to read the novel it was based on. I have seen versions of Dickens’ Bleak House and of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which, if they were not as good as the novels, were worth watching, witout blotting out my memories of the books themselves.

If I made films I too might want to make a film of Anna Karenina. I don’t think of it as sacrosanct, and far from doting on Tolstoy, he often makes me very cross. His women are wonderfully understood at times, especially the ones who are sad and plain. But Anna and Natasha in War and Peace come to sticky ends, differently punished, you might say, for their earlier vitality, their natural intelligence and their sexual waywardness. Natasha’s punishment is to have too many children and to be congratulated for believing her husband is always right.

Some of the reviewers of this new film version have been taken aback by the director’s decision to stage the high-society parts of the novel in an old theatre. Several of them have remembered that Tolstoy famously disapproved of the theatre and once said to Chekhov, Shakespeare’s plays are bad enough, but yours are even worse.” In fact, I am always struck by Tolstoy’s organisation of his novels into scenes that move through time rather as a play does, with no modernist monkeying with the pluperfect, and no flashbacks and only a few prefigurings.

As readers we all make our own spun-off versions of the novels we know well, and sometimes it is hard to endure the imposition of anyone else’s.

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Jane Miller lives in London, and is the author, most recently, of In My Own Time: Thoughts and Afterthoughts (2016), a collection of her In These Times columns and interviews.
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