The Film ‘Anna Karenina’: Screen and Cinema Adaptation of Great Literary Works

March 17, 2021 by Essay Writer

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 when literature and film have individual material and formal structures that distinguish and differentiate them from other practices, whilst, fidelity is notion that measures the extent to which a work of literature has been accurately recreated as a movie.

Emphasizing the textual specificity of literature and film clearly complicates. The aim is to faithfully adapt a book as a movie, since it implies a translation between languages that will always be only approximate of the original text. Mediating the grounds between specificity and fidelity, moreover, are the different industrial and commercial structures that reinforce the textual differences dividing a literary work and its filmic adaptation, such as the technologies of production which are for example print compared to moving images and the mechanisms of reception, for example reading versus viewing. To the degree that a film is faithful or not to the textual specificity of a literary work (the narrative voice and textual style, as well as characters, settings, and plots) or to the so-called spirit of that original, cinematic adaptations will always measure both the power of film – to assimilate, to transform, to distort, or to overcome – the specifics of that source material.

While most of casual responses to film adaptations usually call upon some notion of specificity and fidelity, where the movie rarely able to do justice to the book for most viewers, the most important film scholars and critics of the twentieth century have also taken strong positions around these terms, frequently as a way of defending the power and art of cinema.

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. 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 (1967)

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.


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