Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, Northwestern students: “Oh my God, you have to take Intro to Russian Lit! That class will change your life!”
Too real, right? You’ve probably been hearing some variation on that since you started signing up for classes fall quarter of your freshman year. Gary Morson’s Russian Lit course is one of the Holy Grails of Northwestern electives.
For those of you unfortunate enough not to have taken this class yet, it focuses on two classic novels: Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. As you may or may not know, Anna Karenina was recently adapted into a movie starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law. How well does it mesh with Morson?
One of the most interesting aspects of Morson’s course is that his interpretation of Anna Karenina is so different from the majority critical opinion. The book is usually perceived as an aggressive proponent of romantic love, but as he lays out in his book ‘Anna Karenina’ In Our Time, Morson “came to see Tolstoy as highly critical of Anna.” Unlike Anna, who acts based on a romantic vision of life lived to the fullest in grand moments of passion, Tolstoy’s worldview centers on what Morson calls "prosaics." This is the belief that "the most important events in history and individual lives are the small, prosaic ones we barely notice and may not even remember.” Tolstoy would not be a fan of YOLO, in other words. According to Morson, the true hero of Anna Karenina is Dolly, Anna’s sister-in-law who finds happiness in caring for her children instead of brooding over her husband’s infinite infidelities. What Tolstoy constructs with Anna is a criticism of popular notions of romance, but he is so subtle that many often confuse his satire for honesty, as with Oliver Stone's Gordon Gekko or John Milton’s Satan.
How does the new Anna Karenina movie stack up to this interpretation? Well, a lot of classic books are getting made into movies these days. Anna Karenina will soon be followed by Christmas Day’s eagerly awaited (if Taylor Swift-less) Les Miserables and then next year by Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby. However, all of these particular books have been around the adaptation block a few times already; Les Miserables has been adapted into musicals and movies so many times I wonder how many people today even know that it started out as a book by Victor Hugo. As a result, there’s nothing to do but make it new.
This isn’t your daddy’s Anna Karenina. Most scenes are surreally set on a stage. The characters act as if they’re in a normal movie, but there are set changes going on constantly, music is always playing in the background and most characters move in dancing motions. The overall effect, I believe, is to underscore the superficiality of high society. As the movie goes on and love affairs blossom, more and more scenes are set outdoors without any of that metafictive stage stuff, showing how passion is the only way to escape these meaningless societal restrictions. In that respect, the film does seem to be supportive of what Morson calls “the majority opinion” of Anna Karenina. On the other hand, Knightley realistically portrays Anna’s transition to an unhinged, jealousy-ridden psycho by the end of the story, though the movie does leave it unclear whether the responsibility for that transition lies with gossipy Russian women or (as Morson argues) Anna's own self-deception.
The movie is actually pretty fun to watch. It is exceptionally cast and many of the major scenes in the novel are vividly realized. However, the honest truth of the matter is that no movie, no matter how brilliant or stylized, can compare to the experience of reading Tolstoy. Author Isaac Babel once observed that "if the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy." Tolstoy is a force of nature. Movie scenes may be vivid, but they can’t possibly match what your imagination dreams up in response to Tolstoy’s prose. This, probably, is why the film uses those aforementioned postmodern, metafictive tricks. No movie can match the book, so why not try something different?
More importantly, Tolstoy's idea of prosaics exists in his novels as a string of small events that all come together to produce big changes, which is why both of his novels exceed 900 pages. There simply isn’t enough time in two and a half hours to illustrate those small but crucial developments. In addition, as Morson notes in his book while discussing why so many people misinterpret Anna Karenina, Tolstoy “places key information in subordinate clauses or buries it in long paragraphs primarily about something else.” By simply translating the actions and dialogue of Anna’s brother-in-law Stiva to the screen, the movie ends up omitting the small clues Tolstoy gives us as to his feelings about Stiva’s evilness.
Morson often brings up the 1935 movie version, starring Greta Garbo, as one of the reasons the majority opinion of Anna Karenina is so ingrained in the mainstream consciousness. This movie, at least, is a little more true to the book. It presents an Anna that is both sympathetic and critique-able, and does a good job of including the book’s other major characters like Levin and Dolly (whom Morson considers to be Tolstoy’s true protagonists and moral compasses).
As a piece of art, it can’t compare to the original work, but then again, nothing can. However, it does manage to make a name for itself without distorting the book’s ideas.