Stoppard's 'Anna Karenina' breaks with convention again
Posted November 13, 2012
When celebrated playwright Tom Stoppard signed on to pen director Joe Wright's new big-screen adaptation of Anna Karenina, out Friday, he had no idea that the stage would be a key conceit.
"I wrote a conventional film script, and until a late stage Joe's intention was to do an orthodox costume drama," Stoppard, 75, says. But then Wright went to Russia to scout locations, and "they kept showing him places where they'd done (other versions of) Anna Karenina." His luck proved no better in England, where "they showed him houses where Keira Knightley" -- Wright's leading lady -- "had been dressed in costume only a year before last."
So the director -- armed with a screenwriter who had four Tony and two Olivier Awards to his credit, among countless other honors -- decided that his adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's classic novel would be set mostly in a theater, with only the pastoral scenes taking place in the outside world.
"The idea was that there would be artifice in the way the scenes were presented, but within those scenes the acting would be truthful and naturalistic," says Stoppard. "So that you would have a dinner party set backstage at a theater, but as soon as people started talking it would seem a totally real party."
Anna Karenina would seem a fitting choice for Stoppard's first "start-to-finish" feature film project since 1998's Shakespeare In Love, which earned him and Marc Norman the Academy Award for best screenplay. Russian (and Soviet) history has figured into his plays, and his numerous adaptations and translations include several dramas by Tolstoy's near-contemporary Chekhov.
But in adapting one of Tolstoy's most famous tales, Stoppard was most keen to write about love in the most universal sense, "in all its forms -- between brothers, lovers, mother and child, husband and wife." And where other movie versions of Anna Karenina have focused on the tortured, doomed title character, Wright and Stoppard put equal emphasis -- as Tolstoy did -- on the more uplifting story of Levin, a sensitive, deeply moral landowner (played by Domhnall Gleeson) besotted with Kitty, Anna's brother's sister-in-law.
For the uninitiated, Kitty is at first infatuated with Count Vronsky, a handsome cavalry officer who rejects her for the married Anna. The pure-hearted relationship that gradually blossoms between Kitty and Levin "represents the kind of love that I think Tolstoy most approved of," says Stoppard. When latter-day novelist Vladimir Nabokov taught Anna Karenina to American students as part of a Russian literature course, Stoppard notes, "he made a point that Anna was being punished because hers was a carnal love, a love of the flesh. That chimed with my reading of it, too."
Stoppard wanted to acknowledge both Anna's predicament and that of her husband, Karenin, a government official played in the new film by Jude Law. "I think the reason the novel has remained fascinating is that you can see it from the husband's perspective or the wife's," Stoppard says. "Their marriage was arranged by an aunt when Anna was only about 18, to a considerably older man. My assumption was that she'd never really known sexual ecstasy until the first time she went to bed with Vronsky."
Conversely, "Karenin's nature is cold and he's a bit of a prig, but he never actually does anything that bad."
Stoppard chuckles lightly. "It goes to show you that the psychology of love and passion doesn't change. It's just the same today as it was 150 years ago."
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