From the Archives: Flowers in the Pit
When Vladimir Nabokov wrote up his Lectures on Russian Literature one of his few complaints about Leo Tolstoy, “the greatest of Russian writers of prose fiction,” and his “immortal” Anna Karenina was the clumsiness of his transitions. Tolstoy, Nabokov declared, moved between his characters and intersecting plots as if they were “stage sets.” One chapter ended and the next opened abruptly somewhere else. Virginia Woolf agreed, stating that the shifts from Anna’s story to Levin’s literally “dislocate” the reader. The recent film version of the novel, directed by Joe Wright, takes full advantage of this disadvantage by presenting the whole story as theater. Although the camera will enter a room to close in on a scene, when it pulls back we see it is on an elevated stage, framed by red velvet curtains, with props and crews visible backstage. Characters enter and exit these rooms through doors that open only to darkness. We are always in the audience, but sometimes Russian society is too, and we see the action spill offstage into their seats.
This theatricality may at first seem incongruous for Tolstoy, the novelist famed for his comprehensive realism. Nabokov admired Tolstoy’s close attention to the details of real life— the red purse Anna carries through important scenes, the gesture her brother Oblonsky makes while being shaved, the description of the night sky over their friend Levin’s fields — but believed that there were other novelists who did vivid description as well or better. Wright applies his theatrical conceit only to the interior scenes in Russian society; the camera moves outdoors for scenes at Levin’s farm. Filming it this way visualizes the moral contrast between the two plots. By unexpectedly creating a theatrical Tolstoy, Wright does more than simply translate the novel to film: he interprets it afresh.
Playwright Tom Stoppard adapted Anna Karenina into a screenplay before he knew about Wright’s theatrical concept. The original screenplay, included in the movie tie-in edition of the novel, begins at Levin’s farm with the birthing of a calf. In the novel Levin’s storyline parallels Anna’s but in reverse: where Anna begins content with her marriage to Karenin, Levin begins in unrequited love with Kitty; where Anna falls into adultery, Levin and Kitty settle into a happy marriage on his farm; where Anna ends tragically, Levin ends with a newborn son and a spiritual awakening. Stoppard explains that he wanted to begin with the birthing scene in the farm to foreshadow where the film would end, but that once Wright made the decision to frame the film as theater they had to cut that scene: “to go from Levin (delivering the calf and having his dinner) to a theatre curtain rising on Oblonsky and the barber would be too dislocating.” Instead, the screenplay, and film, begin as Tolstoy did: shifting back and forth between the domestic crisis of Oblonsky’s affair with his children’s nursemaid and Anna’s preparations to visit and help reconcile her brother and his wife. The rapid shifts between Anna’s house in St. Petersburg and Oblonsky’s in Moscow effectively underscore the similarities and differences between their adulteries and the double standard toward the sexes, setting the stage for a full-scale exploration of marriages.
Adapting a novel to film is inevitably an act of translation, and it raises the usual questions about balance between the needs of the original version (accuracy in parts and whole) and the needs of the new (coherence, accessibility)? Transitions within an artwork and translations between art forms must also find an appropriate balance between fidelity and innovation. They must especially avoid slavish transliteration, or the new work adds nothing to the old. In her 1926 essay “Cinema,” Virginia Woolf criticizes the new art of film for being too literal, for trying to translate words into symbolic images so they can be easily “read.” “The eye says ‘Here is Anna Karenina,’” she writes, “A voluptuous lady in black velvet wearing pearls comes before us. But the brain says ‘that is no more Anna Karenina than it is Queen Victoria.’ For the brain knows Anna Karenina almost exclusively from the inside of her mind— her charm, her passion, her despair. All the emphasis is laid by the cinema on her teeth, her pearls, and her velvet.” Woolf read Anna Karenina in January that year and her reading notes dwell on Tolstoy’s fusion of inner and outer experience: “‘O. could not answer,’” she quotes, “‘but he raised one finger and M. nodded at him in the glass–’ Very characteristic.”
Woolf would probably have read and quoted the first English translation of the novel, published by Constance Garnett in 1901. Her note is very close to Garnett’s description of Oblonsky being shaved as he speaks to his servant, Matvey. It is this same gesture that Nabokov singled out for praise in his lectures: it is telling but not verbal. Perhaps both novelists admired the way that Tolstoy used it to exceed what he, or Oblonsky, could say in words. Matvey has asked him if Anna is coming to visit alone or with her husband. Oblonsky’s face is covered in soap. The one raised finger answers for him. It is a cinematic moment within the novel, a moment of visual exposition.
In contrast, in her essay Woolf complains that films sometimes turn literature into a sort of rebus: “A kiss is love. A broken cup is jealousy. A grin is happiness. Death is a hearse.” Why, she asks, can’t cinema aim for the effect of the original instead of this simplistic translation? In the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), for example, a dark shadow overtakes the screen and she feels fear as a “visual emotion.” Film can and should access a more abstract sort of symbolism that transcends words and suggests “thought in its wildness, in its beauty, in its oddity”: then “Annas and Vronskys— there they are in the flesh.”
Presciently, Woolf suggests that the transitions that plague Tolstoy’s novel, that “dislocate” us between Moscow and St Petersburg, from Anna’s story to Levin’s, could be made smooth visually, by seamlessly editing backgrounds and returning to the same locations. Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina does just that: it shows us these juxtapositions but returns again and again to trains (for example) to move us between places and plots, and to foreshadow feelings of pain and grief. Stoppard states that his favourite moments in the film occur when transitions blend together visually: when Anna and Levin cross paths “the back of the stage opens to reveal the snowy landscape Levin is going home to, and the two worlds elide for a moment before they separate.” The locations themselves overlap “in a way impossible to convey with a conventional scene break.” This obsession with merging and separating, with shifts between states or places, is integral to the novel.
Wright’s film uses the theater as a stable background for a story of dramatic falls, but he doesn’t try to explain them. He makes us feel Anna’s metaphorical fall first through Vronsky’s fall from his horse during a race. As Anna and all society watch through opera glasses, the race runs across a shallow stage until Vronsky and his horse tumble into the orchestra pit. Anna screams, and she is lost, her passion visibly and audibly betrayed to the world. Vronsky too accidentally reveals himself in that scene, striking his horse in frustration and perhaps revealing that he is not worthy of Anna’s love and sacrifices. This scene is probably the turning point of the film, when something breaks irrevocably and happiness begins to turn to unhappiness.
Despite the title’s focus on the heroine, neither the movie nor the novel of Anna Karenina ends with Anna’s death. Instead, both move back to Levin and his happy family, based on the Tolstoyan virtues of faith, connection to nature, and simplicity; the aristocratic and industrialized world in which Anna and Vronsky sinned has been rejected. But the very last scene of the film unites these two worlds: we see Anna’s children playing in a flowering meadow, watched over by the rejected husband, Karenin. As the camera pulls back we see that this meadow too is on a stage and that the flowers are spilling over into the audience. The overflow feels important: it is what cannot be contained by art, what exceeds translation or interpretation. The flowers bridge a gap between generations, between characters, and between locations, serving as a visual transition to the curtain’s fall.
Victoria Olsen teaches Expository Writing at New York University. Her last essay for Open Letters Monthly was about E.M. Forster’s Passage to India.