A novel exercise


Translating books to film

Film critics and theorists generally concede one thing about novel-into-film adaptations: The more “literary” the parent novel the more challenging the transposition process for the screenwriter.

By “literary” I mean a novel of varying story-telling qualities: one that offers an expansive universe in terms of scope and narrative density (Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men;) a book with imaginative temporal-spatial properties (Michael Cunningham’s The Hours;) or a work that exists entirely within a character’s “internal” life (Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.)) There are, of course, numerous other possible definitions and examples of the literary novel; yet whatever its nature, the novel has been (and continues to be) a primary source of screen material.

Year’s end 2012 saw a number of challenging novels adapted for film audiences: The Hobbit, Life Of Pi, Cloud Atlas, The Silver Linings Playbook, and Anna Karenina. Of these five screen adaptations I found Focus Features’ Anna Karenina, written by Tom Stoppard and directed by Joe Wright, to be the most interesting and memorable. The 2012 film version stars Keira Knightley as Anna and Jude Law as her spurned husband, Karenin. It is, to my counting, the 13th screen adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s literary masterpiece; but unlike those before it, this latest iteration offers a highly stylized, theatrical avenue into the world created by the Russian author.


Set in late 19th-century Russia, Tolstoy’s grand tale of passionate and doomed romance spans a vast universe of topics and themes. The epic narrative encompasses virtually every aspect of Russian life at the time: agricultural and educational reform, medicine, class etiquette, social justice, religion, and politics. At some 900 pages delivered in eight parts, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina depicts the urban realities of Moscow and St. Petersburg circa 1874, along with the rural experience in the peasant-occupied regions of the surrounding countryside. In addition to its massive breadth and scope, the text also delivers a rich depiction of its characters’ interior lives—their thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of the world around them.

Mixing media

Cover of Anna Karenina novel.

Delimiting the novel’s expansive subject matter is likely the greatest initial challenge for any screenwriter tackling Anna Karenina. Most filmmakers strive for a running time of two hours, resulting in inevitable narrative and character deletions. (The Stoppard-Wright version runs two hours and 10 minutes). In two earlier adaptations of Anna Karenina, the characters of Levin and Kitty were either eliminated completely or minimized to mere minutes on screen. Stoppard chose to develop at length both Levin’s character and his agrarian setting. As a result the screenplay achieves the contrasting narrative emphases Tolstoy intended. Stoppard’s choice is critical in that Levin personifies Tolstoy’s alter ego through his moral conscience.

Screen adaptations invariably require swift and economical development of characters and plot. The Stoppard-Wright version initiates the drama and passion in Anna Karenina with short, rapidly changing scenes set mostly in and about a legitimate theater stage. The film’s emotional intensity is driven by clever production design and strategic editing that have the characters moving in and out of doors, arches, corridors, and rooms—coming and going in a frenetically paced flow of action, light, and color.

Novel-into-film productions also must address the fact that film can never convey the descriptive prose and literary tropes that live on the page—and ultimately in each reader’s own mind. An example: The metaphorical power of Tolstoy’s prose can be seen in his depiction of Anna’s state of mind after confronting her husband about her affair with Vronsky. She is consumed with guilt about her son, and distraught about what will become of her life. With Anna looking out onto the landscape just after a chilling rain shower, Tolstoy writes: “Standing still and looking at the tops of the aspen trees waving in the wind, with their freshly washed, brightly shining leaves in the cold sunshine, she knew that they would not forgive her, that everyone and everything would be as merciless to her now as was that sky, that green.”

It is possible in film to deliver a shot of what Anna sees, but her interior thoughts of “that sky, that green” as correlatives for the “merciless” world she faces, are more difficult to convey. What the adapted film must do is translate those literary images and states of mind into visual imagery that can come from an actor’s physique, costumes, makeup, camera dynamics, object associations, and editing.

A picture paints a thousand words

A single screen image can be a very powerful characterizing device. A five-second closeup of a rooster residing in the rafters of Levin’s country manor, for example, quickly contrasts his agrarian lifestyle with the opulence he abhors in the mansions of St. Petersburg and Moscow. In another scene, Anna is leaving the ball where she has fallen for Vronsky. She catches an image of herself in a wall mirror, and as the glass refracts her face in two divided parts Anna is visibly startled by the vision that her life is breaking apart. In yet another powerful sequence after Anna has acknowledged to her husband her affair with Vronsky, she kisses her sleeping son goodnight and later rebuffs Karenin’s sexual advances. Broken, he leaves the room and sits in a chair staring out into blackness. Anna enters and observes him from behind, still and emotionless. As she looks upon him, there is a long, slow fade to black—one of the few in the film. This cinematic convention signals finality for what has transpired. Anna’s husband and, in effect, her marriage have faded away.

The film’s editor also plays a critical role in conveying emotion and passion. As Vronsky and Anna make love for the first time, the viewer is treated to a montage that cleverly violates the chronological time-space continuum. Shots of the couple are intercut with images of Anna arriving—in slow motion—at Vronsky’s apartment to consummate the relationship. As their lovemaking ends, we cut to Vronsky taking Anna’s hand and leading her inside his apartment. The editing device serves to convey Anna’s bold and joyous anticipation of what is to follow, realized entirely without words.

Anna Karenina in a white gown.

Keira Knightley as Anna. (Image: Focus Features.)

Costumes also serve as a dramatic storytelling device. When Anna chooses to ignore Vronsky and re-enter the social world from which she has been shunned, the irony in her choice of attire is lost on no one. She arrives at the grand opera house in a glowing white gown—the pristine image of an angelic, virginal bride. The audacity of Anna’s presence is accentuated by the bold, symbolic choice of attire. Her former friends and peers—staring at Anna in static, frozen shots—convey their complete rejection of someone “who has broken the rules.”

The stylized, highly inventive nature of the Stoppard-Wright reworking of Anna Karenina is not perfect—as few “big movie” adaptations are. But in my estimation it far surpasses its predecessors. Where Tolstoy’s novel presented an epic panorama of 19th-century imperial Russian life, Stoppard and Wright’s film—even with its many theatrical liberties—goes instead to the very heart of the three love stories that framed Tolstoy’s sprawling universe. It is engrossing, compelling, and convincing. As with any novel-into-film adaptations, the movie cannot be the book. But it can be something equally interesting for very different reasons.

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