Many consider Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to be the greatest novel ever written. Not surprisingly, it’s been adapted for film many times over. Today marks the opening of a new take at the classic love story, this time starring Keira Knightley as the doomed Anna, Aaron Johnson as her young lover, Vronsky, and Jude Law as Anna’s dull and cuckolded husband. But what makes the film special is director Joe Wright (who has had success with two other recent book-to-film adaptations, Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, both starring Knightley) and screenwriter Tom Stoppard’s decision to set all of the action of the gossipy 19th Century Russian aristocrats entirely on stage, giving this well-known story a fresh look.
I sat down with Wright last week for a brief chat about his desire to bring a new Anna to the screen, his love for the source material, and his conceptual take on a classic love story.
Where you just such a fan of the book that gave you the inspiration to tackle another adaptation of the book?
I just found that I was at a point in life where Levin and this mediation on love that Tolstoy had put down for us began to feel even more pertinent and relevant. I read it and just wanted to spend time with it, really. I was also a big fan of Tom Stoppard and wanted to spend time with him and learn from him, as well, so I approached him and was he interested in adapting it with me. So that was the beginning of the journey.
I’ve read that the theatricality of the film—the stage setting in which you placed the film—was a decision made fairly late in the creative process. What was the revelation that sparked that?
It came out of this desire to find a form of filmmaking that allowed me to get closer to the emotional lives of the characters. I think period films often get so caught up in historical reenactment that it distracts in the end from the characters’ lives, and people, including myself, find them quote cold and sort of distancing. I wanted to find a way of focusing on just the essence of the story and the essence of the characters. And so to do that, I thought if I stripped away the stuff that wasn’t really about the story—the physical house or the carriage, you know—then I might achieve something that had modernity and directness and a communication of the essence.
There were many musical qualities to the film, but it never felt like a filmed play. Did you have any experience in directing theater?
I don’t have any directing experience, but my parents had a puppet theatre in Islington, London. There was a theater and a workshop next to our house where the puppets and scenery were made, so it was this kind of complete little magical world that seemed to exist all on its own. And so I think this film is closer to that kind of childhood aesthetic than any I’ve made before. Another influence on the movie was Jan Svankmajer, the Czech animator that made Alice. He has this incredible kind of handmade aesthetic and is constantly playing with scale and I enjoy those kind of visual motifs.
I started reading the book after I saw the film, and I’m impressed that you’ve been able to balance the second storyline of Levin and Kitty so well.
I think that without that story, Anna’s story doesn’t make sense. The book is a meditation on love in all its many forms. Anna’s love is deeply flawed, as is Anna, really. She’s not the heroine that she’s been held up to be. She’s almost an anti-heroine—but I mean almost. For me, Levin and Kitty’s story is the point of the book. I think the title is misleading; I think it should be called “A Group of Interesting People Battling With the Challenges of Love in 1870s Russia.” But that’s not as catchy. But it’s really an ensemble piece, and Levin’s story is important because he gives us not the answers, but the resolution. He finds us at the end and takes us up and shows us that it’s a book about love and a book about humanness—about how to be human and the idea that love can teach us how to be human. And that is a kind of spiritual path, although I’m not talking about religion.
Did you look at any other previous film adaptations of the novel?
The only one I watched was the 1935 film with Greta Garbo. I was interested when I saw that film to see that they had cut Levin, and therefore they had to make Anna this kind of big romantic heroine. It is a love story, but her love is founded on something that isn’t necessarily real. So I saw how that didn’t work. There’s one kind of gender reversal moment that Tom and I took from that film, which we thought was quite fun. There’s the famous scene, where Garbo’s Anna gets off the train and emerges through the steam to see Oblonsky; in our film, we did it the other way around and had Anna get off the train and Oblonsky emerge through the steam, which we thought was kind of fun.
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