Today sees the release of Joe Wright‘s “Anna Karenina,” the latest attempt to adapt Leo Tolstoy‘s unruly epic of Russian literature to the screen. It’s far from the first, with silent versions arriving as early as 1910, while the most recent was Bernard Rose‘s take in 1997. But Wright’s version numbers among the best, thanks to a fine cast, a bold, cinematic approach to the material, and astonishing production values. You can read our review of the film here.
It’s another example of how malleable some of the great works of Russian literature can be. There have been straight-ahead adaptations of many of the classics, but literary works by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Bulgakov, Chekhov, Pushkin and many others have inspired adaptations both faithful and loose, both domestic and international, both good and bad. And so with “Anna Karenina” in theaters, we thought we’d round up ten of the most interesting. Check them out below, and you can let us know your own favorites in the comments section below.
“L’Argent” & More
The great French auteur Robert Bresson became near-obsessed using Dostoyevsky short stories as launching pads for loose adaptations of his work. 1959’s “Pickpocket” is loosely inspired by Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” and Bresson’s arguable masterpiece, “Au Hasard Balthazar,” derived inspiration from “The Idiot.” 1969’s “A Gentle Woman” (his first color film) is based on the short story “A Gentle Creature” and focuses on the unknowable inner world of a young girl, who we meet at the beginning of the film right after she commits suicide. Based on a story called “White Nights,” Bresson returned again to Dostoyevsky’s short stories for inspiration with “Four Nights of a Dreamer.” It’s about a young painter, who by chance runs into a woman who is contemplating suicide. He talks her out of it and on their fourth day together falls in love with her, only to watch her leave him for her original lover, the man she was distraught about in the first place. Bresson’s final adaptation of great Russian literature however does not come from Fyodor. 1983’s astringent, cruel and mordant “L’argent” is based on “The Forged Coupon,” a short story by Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. Bleak as all get out, it illustrates the chain of events led by greed that eventually lands on an honest, unsuspecting gas man who is ruined when he comes into contact with counterfeit money. He winds up in jail, and then goes on a desperate and depraved journey that finds him totally consumed by his dire circumstances. It’s grim, grim stuff, but then again, none of these Russian greats were huge optimists.
“The Brothers Karazmov” (1958)
It’s especially gratifying to note just how dynamic Richard Brooks‘ adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky‘s “The Brothers Karamazov” is, given when it was produced. Because the 1956 Henry Fonda/Audrey Hepburn “War and Peace” (see below) barely grossed its production budget (it cost $6 million to make and made $6.25 million), and it’s very easy to imagine that a lesser version of ‘Karamazov’ could have been cranked out. But Brooks’ version, whose exceptional ensemble cast boasts Lee J. Cobb, Yul Brynner, Maria Schell, and a fresh-faced William Shatner, is impressive. Brooks, who both directed and scripted the film, handily establishes the novel’s concern with impoverished characters that are obsessed with their material needs and desires. Father (Cobb) and Dmitri’s (Brynner) blustery feuding over money owed and women stolen (in this case, Schell’s Grushenka) paves the way for the film’s later spiritual concerns. But what’s most charming about this version of ‘Karamazov’ is the ease with how kinetic the film’s dialogue-driven confrontations are. Save perhaps for Shatner’s Alexi, who is often too fidgety to be believable as anything but an actor playing a part, the film’s cast all comfortably inhabit their respective roles. Cobb and Brynner tower above the rest, however, which is fitting since their characters are arguably the most vital to propelling Brothers’ story forward. With two great alpha males and several fantastic supporting roles, Brooks’ adaptation works because its characters are totally believable.
“La Chinoise” (1967)
Revolution of various kinds echoed through the 20th century, in most cases inspired by what took place in Russia in the 1910s. And Paris in the late 1960s was one of the more notable cases, the city erupting into riots in 1968, events which inspired filmmakers like Bernardo Bertolucci and Olivier Assayas in recent years. But Jean-Luc Godard was there on the ground floor, making a film about radical Parisians even before the events of May ’68 (indeed, there’s an urban legend that the film inspired the riots at Columbia in early 1968, now mostly refuted), using Dostoyevsky‘s “Demons” (originally titled “The Possessed“) as loose source material. Set mostly within a single apartment location, it follows five students belonging to a Maoist group — Veronique (Anne Wiazemsky), Yvonne (Juliet Berto), Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Leaud), Kirilov (Lex De Brujin) and Henri (Michel Semeniako) — discussing their revolutionary ethos, the benefits or otherwise of violence, and an upcoming assassination of a Soviet minister. This is Godard just before “Weekend,” about to jettison “bourgeois” narrative filmmaking altogether, and as such, it’s far from an accessible watch, blurring the lines between fiction and documentary, to the extent that you can hear Godard asking questions of the actors, and glimpsing the camera. But for all that, it’s a compelling, provocative and energetic piece of work, immaculately shot and art-directed, and one which has the spirit of revolution embedded in the very celluloid it’s shot on. Somewhat undervalued for many years, its critical reputation has been restored since it returned to American screens and video in the last few years.
“Doctor Zhivago” (1965)
Given that, when adjusted for inflation, it’s the eighth biggest-grossing film of all time in the U.S., one might have thought that “Doctor Zhivago” would be spoken of in more hallowed terms today, but it’s often overshadowed by some of David Lean‘s other epics, including “The Bridge Over the River Kwai” and, in particular, “Lawrence of Arabia.” One probably couldn’t deny that director’s near-200-minute adaptation of Boris Pasternak‘s novel is a tad overlong, and may not be quite as perfect as ‘Lawrence.’ But it’s still an extraordinary piece of work, and the one on this list to which Joe Wright‘s “Anna Karenina” probably owes the biggest debt. Told through a framing device, in which a KGB agent (Alec Guinness) searches for the daughter of his half-brother, the film documents the romance between the titular Zhivago (Omar Sharif, in a serious upgrade from his scene-stealing supporting role in “Lawrence of Arabia”), a battlefield doctor who falls in love with Lara (Julie Christie), who’s married to Bolshevik activist Pasha (Tom Courtenay), and under the thumb of the powerful Komarovsky (Rod Steiger). Unlike some modern films which, naming no names, never justify their epic running time, Lean earns virtually every second of his expansive romance, in part because the chemistry between Sharif and Christie is so electric, and because there’s such depth in the supporting cast. Lean’s direction is on top form, and for all the length, it’s never dull. Pasternak’s source material might be a slightly soppy pastiche of Tolstoy and others, but it kind of soars on screen.
“Love and Death” (1975)
Ok, so Woody Allen‘s “Love and Death” isn’t, strictly speaking, based on a particular Russian novel. But it’s based, in many ways, on all of them, a satirical smorgasbord of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky (one scene is comprised of nothing but Dostoyevsky titles) and everything in between. A loving, literate homage to some of the finest works of literature ever written, the plot, such as it is, folllows Boris (Allen), a pacifist, who enlists in the Russian army when Napoleon invades, more because of the news because his cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton) is getting married than from any patriotic duty. The pair are fated to be entwined forever, especially once they decide to assassinate the French leader together. Once described by the director himself as his funniest film, it does serve as an intriguing blend of the silliness of its predecessor, “Sleeper,” and the more profound, truthful elements of its successor, “Annie Hall,” although probably leaning towards the latter. But in Keaton’s Sonja, it has the director’s most complex and fascinating female character to date (even if it does, in retrospect, feel like a warm up for Annie). It’s also one of the densest and most intellectual comedies ever made, for all its broad moments, with references not to the great Russian writers, but also to filmmakers like Eisenstein and Bergman. Remarkably, it was still the 18th top grossing movie of 1975.
Helmed by the provocative and morbidly funny Russian filmmaker Aleksey Balabanov (“Cargo 200,” “A Stoker“), “Morphia” is almost certainly the best adaptation of a novel or short story written by Mikhail Bulgakov. Bulgakov is most famous for having written the surreal, allegorical fantasy “The Master and the Margarita,” but there hasn’t been a really good adaptation of ‘Master’ made yet. “Morphia” (translated from the Russian “Morphine”) however retains both Bulgakov’s imagistic style and Balabanov’s bitterly funny cynicism, too. Balabanov’s film is based primarily on Bulgakov’s short stories, and political feuilletons. Mikhail (Leonid Bichevin), a fresh-faced medical student, is enlisted to serve as the primary physician in a small, isolated Russian village at the turn of the 20th century. When treating one patient with morphine, he becomes addicted to the sedative and grows increasingly dependent on the stuff. Balabanov’s film is probably his most compelling to date because, weirdly enough, it’s his least grindingly bleak. The silent film aesthetic that his film sometimes assumes, the kind that he briefly dabbles with at the end of “A Stoker,” is compelling here because it bolsters the kind of morally ambivalent impressionistic narrative that Bulgakov excelled at. In that sense, it makes sense that Balabanov should excel at adapting Bulgakov’s sensibility to the screen. The bitter comedy in both men’s work comes from class inequality, specifically how the unchecked abuse of power allows otherwordly, malevolent forces to oppress the poor. “Morphia” is nothing if not brutal, but that brutality can also be very funny.
While the works of Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni were the ones most easily ridiculed when American comedians in the ‘60s and ‘70s tried to spoof or satirize the pretentiousness of European art films (think folks like SCTV), Bernardo Bertollucci’s oeuvre must be thrown in this same group for consideration. Don’t get it twisted — “The Conformist,” “Last Tango in Paris,” “The Last Emperor” — are all classics, but perhaps unlike the two aforementioned auteurs, Bertolucci’s body of work was always consistently uneven. For every “The Spider’s Stratagem,” there’s a “Luna” (a little bit risible) or a masterpiece that can’t find a way out of itself (see “1900”). Which leads us to “Partner,” Bertolluci’s nearly unwatchable New Wave-inspired take on Dostoyevsky’s “The Double” (which “Submarine” helmer Richard Ayoade is working on a new, modern-day take with Jesse Eisenberg to be released next year). The novella centers on a government clerk who goes mad, obsessed by the idea that a fellow colleague has usurped his identity. It deals with the internal psychological struggle of its main character and his doppelganger. Bertolluci’s unorthodox take on the material features an anarchic performance by Pierre Clementi (the sexually ambiguous chauffeur in “The Conformist”) and eschews traditional narrative and any exposition in favor of something much more chaotic. Clementi stars in dual roles of an disillusioned student and his deranged double — a radical alter ego that he creates. Influenced by Jean-Luc Godard (too influenced, one might say) the film is more or less a series of experiments and most of them are fairly intolerable — like Godard’s late ‘60s/early ‘70s period there’s a lot of arguing, polemics and shots fired at various political ideologies. So, in short, Bertolucci uses the basic doppelganger conceit, but squanders it pretty quickly. Thank god, he mostly returned to narrative as this exercise is for the curious and highly tolerant only.
“The Sea Gull” (1968)
There’s a new one in the works starring Katie Holmes, Allison Janney, William Hurt, Jean Reno and Mark Rylance, but in its absence, we’re still lacking a defining screen version of the greatest play that ever came out of Russia, Anton Chekhov‘s “The Seagull” (if you ask us, Wes Anderson should do it). However the new film by Christian Camargo turns out, one thing’s for certain, despite the talent involved, Sidney Lumet‘s 1968 adaptation, pointlessly punctuated as “The Sea Gull,” can be improved upon. Lumet assembled an impressive cast, led by James Mason, Vanessa Redgrave, David Warner, Denholm Elliot and the great French star Simone Signoret, and shot on a lush Swedish location, but surprisingly, given his success with stage adaptations like “Twelve Angry Men” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” seems to have something of a tin ear for Chekhov. The writer always described the play as a comedy, and the very best productions have always been the ones which play it as such, but Lumet’s cast seem overwhelmed by tragedy. It’s oddly taste-free, for a man who made so many great choices: Gerry Fisher’s softly pastoral photography is misjudged, making the film pretty at the expense of truth, while the famous ending is entirely botched by the director’s decision to cut away to Konstantin’s body. Signoret and Redgrave both seem a little miscast, although Warner and Elliott, in particular, are superb. One for Chekhov completists only, really.
“Two Lovers” (2008) /”Le Notti Bianche” (1957)
“Two Lovers” and “Le Notti Bianche” are both partially based on Dostoyevsky’s short story “White Nights,” but beyond that, the two films are strikingly different. This is mostly because James Gray’s recent film makes even more drastic changes to Dostoyevsky’s source material than Luchino Visconti’s does. As in “White Nights,” both films follow awkward, introverted lovers that only become involved after one character is already involved in a relationship that’s been approved by their parents. In “Le Notti Bianche,” Maria Schell waits on Jean Marais, who wins over Schell’s doddering grandmother, then Schell, and then mysteriously abandons his conquest. In “Two Lovers,” Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his mercurial new neighbor (Gwyneth Paltrow) while he also has feelings for Vinessa Shaw, who plays the girl his parents have arranged for him to marry. Gray’s film is notably more impressionistic than Visconti’s because ‘Bianche’ deliberately doesn’t try to recreate the first person-perspective of Dostoyevsky’s story. Visconti’s protagonist is also strikingly different in that Marcello Mastroianni, the awkward young man that tries to win Schell over, is shown turning down another woman while he ineffectually courts Schell. In that sense, both films are unique products of their time and locations. Like Fellini’s “I Vitelloni” before it, “Le Notti Bianche” shows how simultaneously familiar and alien life can in a small town full can be. The modern-day Brooklynites in “Two Lovers” are by contrast already so alienated that effectively are their own community of apathetic strangers.
“War and Peace” (1956)
Though it significantly pares down Tolstoy‘s narrative, the 1956 adaptation of “War and Peace” is exceptional in that it’s both gigantic in its scope, and detailed enough to be memorably intimate. For example, the scene where the naive Natasha, played by the effervescent Audrey Hepburn, practices her look of “disdain” and fails miserably, stands out as a sign of how balanced this Dino Di Laurentiis-produced, Nino Rota-scored, Jack Cardiff-shot, and King Vidor-helmed epic is. In fact, while Henry Fonda‘s performance as Pierre is often arresting, especially during the film’s stirring duel scene, Hepburn’s Natasha and Mel Ferrer‘s Prince Andrei Bolkonsky really ground the film. As doomed lovers, she’s stubbornly convinced of the nobility and excitement of war, while he’s wracked with guilt over being unable to do anything but survive the Napoleonic Wars. Both Andrei and Natasha are so well rendered as characters that while they don’t have many scenes together, are yet still totally convincing in their longing for each other. But ultimately, it’s Vidor’s knack for pacing that makes the first Hollywood adaptation of “War and Peace” memorable. Andre’s conversations with Napoleon (a scene-stealing Herbert Lom) are as exciting as the battlefield scenes, and as emotionally involving as Pierre’s long march back home, because Vidor knew exactly how to proportionally condense Tolstoy’s gargantuan plot. His vision of that famous narrative is often impressive for its ostentatious confidence, making it that rare post-“Gone with the Wind” Hollywood epic that feels genuinely massive.
– Oliver Lyttelton, Simon Abrams, Rodrigo Perez