Cinema: Screen Adaptation of Anna Karenina

Categories: Anna Karenina


Screen adaptations of literary works have always been a popular film genre throughout the world and some of the greatest films have been based on famous literary pieces, most commonly novels. The most common debates or discussions that could have been occurred during that were about the notions of a specificity and fidelity. Specificity is an idea where film shares the same individual material and structure as the literature which separates and distinguish them from other practices. In comparison to specificity, fidelity is the notion which simply shows the accuracy of movie that has been created on a piece of literature.

Screen adaptation always was and still is one of the most complicated things to do. The goal is to adapt the piece of literature faithfully and accurately as a movie, because that is also a picture of the imagination which will always be the approximation to the original text. In addition, there are various structures that strengthen the differences between the literature and its screen adaptation, structures such as production technologies.

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The level that shows how faithful is the film or the adaptation to the original literary work is also the indicator to the strength of the film, which shows how clear the literature was transformed and pictured as a film. Those indicators can be either the textual styles, or the voices, also cast and plots. In the ex-Soviet Union and in Russia a special attention has been accorded to Russian classics of the XIX century by such authors as Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevskij, Lermontov, Chekhov.

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One of the main characteristics of most of these adaptations was their fidelity to the source material. The films thereby provided loyal cinematic illustrations of the well-known literary works. The tradition of screen adaptations continues into the last decades of the Soviet State and into the post-Soviet age. The 90s see several adaptations, which, differently from the previous periods, update their XIX century subject matter to modern Russia, proving that old texts can say something that has a meaning about Russia even hundred years later. In the last two decades, the adaptations of Russian classics of the XIX and XX centuries have moved from cinema screens to TV screens. With more than 30 cinematic adaptations produced through the years, Anna Karenina is undeniably a favorite of world screen media. The first silent adaptation of the novel appeared in 1911, just one year after Tolstoy's death, while the last one was released by Joe Wright in 2012. In the interim, numerous other versions have been produced.

Anna Karenina by Alexander Zarkhi

First let us analyse the adaptation of Aleksander Zakhir on Leo Tolstoy's novel "Anna Karenina". This adaptation is the most famous one, moreover, the most celebrated one of Tolstoy's novel in Russia. The film stars some of the most popular Soviet actors of those times. Furthermore, the role for countess Betsy Tverskaya played world-known Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. The main and the lead role for Anna Karenina played Tatyana Samoylova, who is the perfect actress for Anna and gained the sympathy of audience of many Russians. The soundtrack for the film was written by a famous Russian composer Rodion Schedrin.

As mentioned by the associate Professor at The Ohio State University, Alexander Burry, who is also an author of Multi-Mediated Dostoevski (transporting novels into Opera, Film or Drama), nearly all directors simply reduce the novel to the Anna plot, ignoring or minimizing Levin. However, Zarkhi, tried to incorporate Levin more fully into the film. Nevertheless, doing so results in what could best be termed a collection of scenes from "Anna Karenina". In the movie, we can see how one part quickly moves to the next part, which including in each just the main lines of dialogue and making quick, frequent, and jarring cuts. An example of this is opening scene, with the conversation of Stiva and Dolly about the unfaithfulness, which is then followed by the discussion with Levin about Kitty. All this was made without any transition. The film also draws together various threads of the novel in the scene when Anna meets Levin. During their conversation, her comments on her desperate need for love intersect with Levin's own suicidal thoughts, along with the narrator's more general commentary on marital relations. Viewers may not find this comparison effective, however, it is a valiant attempt to make the film about Levin as well as Anna.

Besides its great casting, acting and the camera works this adaptation has other parts to like, such as the music who was written with the leading Soviet and post-Soviet composer Rodion Shchedrin. Here in this film the music creates connection between the scenes, and this happened sometimes with the help of motifs. The clarinet theme, which was a little bit strange, is followed by a staccato motif in the trumpets in the train station scene when Anna passes Vronsky. This same scene appears again when Anna sees Vronsky at the Shcherbatskys', however, this time music was with the strings. This music, along with the parallel shots of Anna standing on stairs above Vronsky, links the two unexpected meetings.

Then it comes the Ball scene with the waltz which is seemed to be cheerful, however, as the music becomes tempo and dissonance, it quickly transforms to something which is terrifying. The ball in the film rationalizes the action from the equivalent scene in the novel, but Shchedrin's music faithfully preserves the essential sense of discontinuity that is the keynote of the scene as read (Kitty and Vronsky starting their dance as the music stops, or Kitty somehow "hearing" Anna and Vronsky's conversation): by being neither a realistic representation of the music actually played at the ball, nor an expressionistic portrayal of Kitty's emotional state, but something in between, it perfectly mirrors Tolstoy's free indirect discourse, his subliminal imitation.

Anna Karenina by Joe Wright

This is the 2012 British adaptation of Tolstoy's Novel, which was based on the script written by Tom Stoppard. This film earned four nominations at the 85th Academy Awards and six nominations at the 66th British Academy Film Awards. Jacqueline Durran won both prizes for Best Costume Design. This "Anna Karenina" film stars in lead roles Keira Knightley, Aaron Johnson and Jude Law.

Yuri Corrigan, the Assistant Professor of Russian & Comparative Literature, mentioned that one of Tolstoy's brilliant observations about Anna is the way she poses as the traditional romantic heroine; torn between duty and passions, as a way of easing her guilt and uncertainty over leaving her husband and son; that is, since the dictates of her chosen genre clearly state that Karenin must be unlovable and cruel. Keira Knightley, who plays Anna in Joe Wright's adaptation, seems to be a girl who is programmed to miss Vronsky, however, all actors give the performance on the highest level, and visual poetry that portrayed Joe Wright was beautiful.

Thoughts about simplicity, obedience, rebellion and authenticity which Tolstoy tried to picture are folded and placed in two boxes by the script of Tom Stoppard. He pictures duty to be bad and the passion of Anna as a good thing. Consequently, we have the result of what the Russian society was morally strict.


It is hard to adapt any novel, especially the ones which have high demands and are well known to many people, as each who read a novel has his/her own imagination of what is happening in it and pictures that in the way which is best for him/her. This means that it will be hard for the filmmaker to find all possible solutions and combine them in one. Adaptations of "Anna Karenina" can always unfold new details about the novel, helping us to unmask our own critical prejudice about characters. All in all, although critics agree that this novel by Tolstoy is challenging to adapt, their remarks also suggest that this challenge may be exactly what makes the novel so attractive to directors.

Updated: Feb 18, 2024
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Cinema: Screen Adaptation of Anna Karenina. (2024, Feb 18). Retrieved from

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