Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Can Anna Karenina Be Saved?

There have been five English-language film adaptations of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, six if you include a 1985 TV version starring Jacqueline Bisset and Christopher Reeve, seven if you add the 1927 silent film Love, based on the novel and made with alternate endings. A happy ending to the silent version was for American audiences, of course.

I am willing to bet that this film Anna will be the last.

Let’s set aside the abysmal domestic box-office of less than $10 million, for a sumptuous all-stops-out production starring the eminently bankable Keira Knightley (pictured) as Anna. That number isn’t likely to encourage future producers.

But I think there’s a reason for the bad number, one that goes far beyond the fundamental non-likability of Knightly and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, poorly paired as Anna and her boy crush Vronsky—for whom she leaves her husband and children, and finally her life.

It’s simply this: Anna Karenina, the Tolstoy novel, is based on traditional principles of morality and natural law, and Hollywood has left those behind. In today’s movies, nothing but nothing is allowed to stand in the way of romantic love, driven by any form of sexuality you like. In Anna, everything stands in the way—society, marriage, family, even religion.

Anna’s husband, Karenin (a thankless role played well by Jude Law) clearly perceives her infidelity as a sin against God, and says so. Even Anna herself is plagued by a conscience that is nothing if not Christian. She throws herself into bed with Vronsky, and under the wheels of a train, with the same two words: “Forgive me.” Both times she looks skyward.

The culture that gave us Hester Prynne and asks us to sympathize with her (oh, those cold, unforgiving Puritans!) is not likely to have a place in its heart, ever, for a film that punishes a woman for moral transgressions.

Of course, Tolstoy’s heart never was with Anna. His alter ego is the idealistic farm owner Levin, whose chaste and abiding love for Kitty is the book’s moral counterweight to Vronsky and Anna. I read Anna Karenina in 1982 when I was falling in love with Katie (sounds like Kitty), and I identified with Levin, of course. Today, whenever the diffident Domhnall Gleeson appeared on screen with his deep, sad eyes and awkward smile, my heart leapt.

Levin and Kitty are the hearts of the book, as they should be of the film as well. Which makes Anna Karenina a terrible bet for any American film producer playing to the crowd. Anna, the character, might have been saved by a different author; but Anna, the film heroine, will always fail with American audiences—unless a producer gives us another happy ending.

No comments:

Post a Comment

If you have trouble posting comments, please log in as Anonymous and sign your comment manually.