One of the greatest literary characters is Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin, yet he is subsumed into an even greater character: Anna Karenina. That observation may not true for anyone who has had the pleasure of reading the novel, Anna Karenina. For the audiences, however, since its first film adaption, called Love with Greta Garbo – a milquetoast concoction which is so adumbrated from its source material ‘based on’ is a deception – the knowledge that there are three major stories with several significant characters in that massive novel, might be news.
It is the season of holidays and movies and sweeping adaptations from grand, mostly unread, classics. Of all the adaptations ever made Anna Karenina has suffered very badly. As such it is depicted as a tragedy. But taking the substantial story of Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin, an intellectual, who eventually marries a woman unlike himself, but they develop a strong loving bond, have a family is the flip-side to the tragedy. Levin is also involved in the great social and political challenges of his day and gives considerable space to agrarian reform and modern farming techniques. Agricultural science has not – to my knowledge – ever been something to get the emotions racing like adulterous, illicit, love but, nevertheless, ignoring Levin’s story misses the breadth of the novel.
His story is so fundamental to the whole book that after Anna dies, a moment, an episode in the work, not its climax, Levin has several pages to reflect on his work and family and what he will continue striving to achieve. His story is positive, a counterpoint to the mess of Anna, who is a bit of a crystal meth addict by the end, which only compounds her situation. She loses all clarity. The big screen versions avoid any elements that may make the lead not utterly charming.
On the topic of charm, would anyone watch a movie series with a pompous middle-ranked bureaucrat, given to writing long-winded boring memos, who spoke French frequently as way to show off and spoke Italian badly; who smoked 70 cigarettes a day, and might be classified as a functional alcoholic? No, of course not, he had to be re-adapted into James Bond, where he never writes anything except his name for credit at the casinos.
Reading Casino Royale again, and in the context of the new Bond film, it is extraordinary that 60 years ago the character of a smug, supercilious Englishman with affectations to grandeur, and some chronic drinking and smoking problems, would be considered attractive, even sexy. But it was in England in 1953, the land of hot water bottles, so perhaps the tedious memos Bond wrote M were thrilling to a reader in damp Doncaster.
Adaptations necessarily take liberties. They must, but some go too far. The rendering of The Sound and the Fury is almost pointless. One of the best is the 1999 version of The End of the Affair which had the tone, moments and sense of the book exactly, but fortunately removed the lengthy, bitter arguments in Bendrix’s personal catechism.
In matching text to adaptation the reader is like a forensic researcher going back to the original and asking, what did someone in see in this material and then why did they change it? That may be the subject of a new blog.
Time’s up! The last thing to say is that Nine Avenues will available soon, very soon, so stay in touch and enjoy the holidays.
11th December 2012