Critics row over film version of Tolstoy’s love story

Keira Knightley as one of the world’s most famous heroines.

Anna Karenina, the tale of a doomed woman torn between her family and a compelling love affair, is often called the world’s greatest novel. How does a film director tackle a classic?

It starts with one of the most celebrated lines in world literature and ends with an equally famous suicide. In between, the four central characters in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina – two involved in an adulterous affair and two finding their way gradually and painfully towards a happy marriage – experience every possible emotional high and low.

Now this classic novel, published in the 1870s, has been given a daring makeover for a film that is released in cinemas at the weekend. The film director Joe Wright has taken a radically simplified screenplay by the playwright Tom Stoppard and filmed the sprawling saga, which roams across cities and countryside, inside the confines of one theatre. The set is supposed to create a world as enclosed and artificial as the high society in which the characters play out their tragic drama.

‘Bold,’ say the critics. ‘Unorthodox’ and ‘iconoclastic’. But do they mean that the director is courting disaster?

Alongside its love stories, this long novel deals with spirituality and religion, the position of women, the morality of relations between the social classes, rural politics, dogs and farming. The narrating voice is as strong as the dialogue. For example, that famous opening observation at the start of chapter one: ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’

In the new film, all that is swept away and replaced with swirling cameras and stylised representations of famous scenes, such as the horse race in which Anna’s lover Count Vronsky suffers a fall.

Stoppard has admitted it was a shock to hear how his script was going to be filmed. But Wright was already backed by a team of designers and technicians he trusted with the experiment and a lead actress in Keira Knightley, with whom he had shared success in a film reworking another classic novel, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. And he wanted to avoid repeating what audiences had already seen in the twelve previous screen adaptations of Tolstoy’s tragedy. That meant giving up on shooting scenes in lots of different locations decorated to look like the period in which the novel is set.

Passion on the page

Purists will be horrified if they are looking for a respectful tribute to a great novel. But should the team behind the new film apologise for taking liberties? Tolstoy’s novel, dealing as it does with a sex scandal that ends violently, shocked readers at the time. To recreate those reactions in a modern cinema audience, perhaps you have to play some games with expectations and be more visually daring? Some will think a classic has been unnecessarily ruined. Some will be thrilled. Others might just go back to the original for more.

You Decide

  1. Are some books of more value than others? Who gets to decide what’s a great work?
  2. In the society portrayed in the book, for a woman to stray is disastrous: to be with her lover she would be ostracised and have to give up her son. Some parts of the the world still take this view, elsewhere social norms have changed. Which is better, strict rules or flexibility? For both sexes or just for women?


  1. What is your favourite book? Write a script (dialogue and stage directions) for the first scene of an adaptation. You could try drawing a ‘storyboard’ for a film version.
  2. Research some of the most famous first lines in literature. Make a presentation on a few of the best, explaining why they are so memorable and so good at hooking the reader into the story.

Some People Say...

“Costume dramas are always old-fashioned.”

What do you think?

Q & A

A very old, long book about the upper classes in imperial Russia. Irrelevant, surely?
Well, its themes are still with us: love, family duty, and unhappy relationships. A contemporary story might have a different look and different dialogue, but many readers and critics today think Tolstoy’s harrowing portrayal of falling disastrously in love has never been improved upon.
So why make a film if the book is so good?
Some Tolstoy fans will stay away from the cinema, it is true. But both the director and the playwright who made this adaptation will reach a wider audience. You might as well say, why bother to translate it from the original Russian into other languages. Only Russian speakers can enjoy the real thing!

Word Watch

The script used to shoot a film, complete with dialogue and directions.
Cast out by society. Ignored by previous friends and acquaintances. This happens to Anna in a famous scene at the theatre where her fellow theatre-goers turn their backs on her as an adulterer. Her lover Vronsky, because he is a man and unmarried, is welcomed back into society.
Imperial Russia
Before the Russian Revolution of 1917, Russia had been ruled by Emperors from a royal family, who headed a feudal system. Tolstoy was a Count and a landowner; in Anna Karenina, the character of Levin, who struggles to find a moral way to live with the peasants on his estate, is used to explore some of the author’s own beliefs about his stratified society.

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