Joe Wright’s new adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina may be a failure, but other auteurs have succeeded in bringing literary gems to life on the screen. From Pasolini’s Canterbury Tales to Olivier’s Henry V, WATCH VIDEO.
Joe Wright is either bookish to a fault or the best literary agent working today, representing such new voices as Leo Tolstoy and YA sensation Jane Austen. He is the most determined refuter of the claim that film and literature don’t mix, starting with Ms. Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (2005), which includes the pleasant surprise of Donald Sutherland amusing himself as Mr. Bennet. Then Wright further shored up his literary credentials by locking into place Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2007), showing how Briony Tallis is and never will be “just a dim old biddy in a chair” thanks to his recruitment of Vanessa Redgrave. To anyone paralyzed by the thought of a movie director who reads, Wright now has taken on the mother of all novels, Leo’s Anna Karenina. What a goody! The scene when Anna and Vronsky first consummate their affair should make every surrealist's mouth water:
But, despite all the murderer’s horror before the murdered body, he had to cut this body into pieces and hide it, he had to make use of what the murderer had gained by his murder.
And, as the murderer falls upon this body with animosity, as if with passion, drags it off and cuts it up, so he covered her face and shoulders with kisses. She held his hand and did not move. Yes, these kisses were what had been bought by this shame. Yes, and this one hand, which will always be mine, is the hand of my accomplice.
You'd think this was straight out of Psycho (an adaptation of a book by Robert Bloch, by the way). But if you don’t recall a murder in Anna Karenina, you are not wrong. Anna is feeling criminal and guilty as she commits adultery, and Vronsky, as if having a conversation with his lover about what metaphors to compound, is imagining sex with Anna as murder. It is a moment the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein thought completely unexpected in its compositional structure, something directors can learn from in its complex possibilities. But Wright flubs it by applying it only to Anna's consciousness, thus depriving Vronsky of any inner life—and more importantly, his Adam-and-Eve-like conspiracy with Anna.
Eisenstein (1898-1948) thought a lot about how writers such as Tolstoy and Flaubert provided fine examples of filmic techniques—for instance, his beloved montage. But ever since the first great film theorist, with the unfortunate name of Hugo Münsterberg, wrote that “the photopoet must turn to life itself and must remodel life in the artistic forms which are characteristic of his particular art,” film has increasingly asserted its medium specificity. Film can rely neither on drama nor novel. As François Truffaut declared, filmmakers must themselves be auteurs. This might have inspired Wright to enclose part of his Anna Karenina inside a theater, as if a Chekhov play is being mounted. Wrong author, of course, and Tolstoy was never concerned about dramatic techniques—his novels usually begin haphazardly and end long after the curtain call. And the conceit of total artifice deprives us of what Tolstoy is best at: marrying artifice with verisimilitude. The huge pear that Stiva Oblonsky is supposed to be holding when he is caught by his wife, and which is intented to inject succulence to the whole episode, instead looks like a dead, plastic stage prop in Wright's film. It is all smoke and mirrors.
Of course, a great literary work does not a great film make—if it did, Shakespeare would need merely to be slathered on celluloid. Wright at least makes an effort, but just to draw from the selections in theaters now, the contemporary classic Cloud Atlas couldn't survive a screen shuffle, Life of Pi is gorgeous on screen but hardly a good book on the page, and let's also be sufficiently critical before we call Les Misérables, coming up as a musical, a great book. More likely than not the adaptation of relatively pulpy books become ruddy movies: The Godfather, The Manchurian Candidate, Jaws, The Magnificent Ambersons, Greed. The filmmaker turns a screenplay into a work of art. He or she is not a stage manager with a duty to be faithful to dramatic text, and great books can't come alive on the screen on their own.
Armed with that logic, surely no director would dirty their sleeves adapting a classic work of literature, would they? Viewers who are loyal vassals of Shakespeare and Dickens would foam at the mouth if they saw even one line diverge from the original. In the example of Wright, his endeavor fails not because you shouldn't swerve from the words (Keira Knightley as Anna, the woman who "carried her rather full body with such strange lightness"? Please.) but because he chose the wrong details to not pay heed. (Anna's full body matters because of the moral weight she will bear, and her light steps matter because of her desire to take flight, from Karenin, from Vronsky, from a male-dominated society. She throws herself under the train not because of jealousy, which is what you'd think watching Wright, but because of her need for freedom. While her lover can go out and take his light steps in society everyday, she cannot, and she grows heavy with resentment.)
Tolstoy was a bold artist—even strange. As Nabokov observed, he is bad at simple metaphors that turn into tautology: an old man is like an old man, a young woman is like a young woman. But that's because Tolstoy describes things as if he's seeing it for the first time—to make a stone feel stony, as the formalist Viktor Shklovsky said. We are so used to recognizing spectacles without actually seeing them. Like Tolstoy, the best films estrange the material. Great directors affirm their authority by managing immortal characters and plots while maintaining their own strange originality. That is how to make sharp films from literary gentry. The risk is big, but the payoff is even bigger. Here are some masters who were able to succeed.
The Canterbury Tales by Pier Paolo Pasolini
Wright falls in the Pasolini tradition—the Italian maestro never met a classic he couldn’t beat into submission, and I could have named almost any other work from his filmography: A Thousand and One Nights, The Decameron, Oedipus Rex, even The Gospel According to Matthew. The traumatizing Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom, is the better film, but Chaucer is the better writer, and Pasolini serves both equally well not by stepping aside and letting the text do the talking but by putting his politics front and center. As Marxists go, Pasolini was especially anti-romantic, always bemoaning the degradation of Italian culture and choosing to depict the ugliness of life even as he offered up brimfuls of sex and violence. As he chose de Sade for his free and libertine condemnation of bourgeois erotic codes and how those modes of power can turn into sexual slavery and slaughter, he loved Chaucer’s liberating grittiness and perversion in the face of feudalism. It helped that Pasolini was a first-rate poet himself.
Great Expectations by David Lean
“My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard…and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry was Pip.” What a cry, what a definite candidate for best first page in literature. And what supreme confidence Lean has in the opening shot, zooming in on Dickens’s book but blowing it away with the wind rushing to the sea and plunging poor old Pip right in the marshes. Pip’s scream announces one of the great howling scenes of all time.
Henry V by Laurence Olivier
Watch the regal actor discover the medium. What until then was the most up close and personal Elizabethan performance of Henry V at the Globe, complete with thunderous crowd and backstage slapstick errors, melts without warning beyond the stage and into the world. It is as if Olivier took flight over the green battlefields of Henry’s cavalry. Olivier’s Richard III is a great performance, and his Hamlet is spectacularly heady noir. Shakespeare on the page, Shakespeare on the stage, or Shakespeare on the screen? Each experience is unique.
The Trial by Orson Welles
Welles had his own Shakespearean obsession—Chimes at Midnight is the most fun you can have with Sir John, Othello a silvery Venetian cobra, Macbeth driven by a dark nightmare (noir again). But The Trial is a dizzying, claustrophobic drug, which perfectly recreates the lethal Kafka story of Josef K., accused of a crime never specified.
War and Peace by King Vidor
Audrey Hepburn as Natasha was a mistake, and if it had been made 20 years earlier Vivien Leigh would have been spot on, and the picture would have been called Gone With the Wind. But the crumbling weakness of Hepburn couldn’t deter a director as fearless and arrogant as Vidor, who made sure the retreat from Moscow had the space to spread their vast geography. A running time of 208 minutes helped. In a way, War and Peace, with all its miraculous details (Napoleon's fat back and hairy chest, the man fixing his blindfold just before being executed, Natasha's smile at Prince Andrei that says, 'I'm tired; but you see, I've been asked to dance, and I'm glad of it, and I'm happy'") is really a book about the hugeness of Russia and the long arc of time—the novel ends seven years after the main actions of 1812, with a dream that Prince Andrei's orphaned son has. It has a simple flatness about it. Whereas Anna Karenina is all inner psychology. Even the crux of the famous train scene is something hidden: "A feeling seized her, similar to what she experienced when preparing to go into the water for a swim, and she crossed herself." This is so very difficult to film.
L'Argent by Robert Bresson
Based on part one of the novella The Forged Coupon, the most gaunt and austere man of French cinema channeled the fanatical piety of late Tolstoy to show how a counterfeit banknote corrupts the souls of everyone it touches. The ghostly camera fuses with the crumpled, devilish bill—actually, it seems to be of the same mind as Bresson and Tolstoy themselves, as the trinity wags its finger at a morally bankrupt society.
Save and Protect by Aleksandr Sokurov
Flaubert is already like a camera, so it shouldn’t be hard to adapt the father of the realists, should it? Ah, but Emma Bovary’s inner life is so hard to render. What Sokurov does is file a sensory report on the sounds (the buzzing of flies, the grunting during meals and sex) and textures (the window’s view of a gravel pit, hands and faces touching veils and dresses) surrounding Bovary’s world, and brings her very much alive.
Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau
Silence. It does a lot to stoke the fears of people huddled in the dark. And what do movie-goers do? They huddle in the dark. No film about vampires, Bram Stoker’s or not, will ever be as disturbing as Murnau’s, except maybe Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr, which also benefits from being silent and misty. I hesitate to call Stoker's book great, but it did launch an industry, and its quality of being adaptable without losing authencity comes from the fact that Stoker himself was a stage actor’s manager—he knew a little about melodrama. No wonder Dracula presents itself so well to the motions of the likes of Bela Lugosi. Count Orlok’s frozen smile is hard to shake, and the film is even more unnerving today, like a relic unearthed.
Moby Dick by John Huston
Huston, like Vidor, was not scared of anything, and that his name begins like “hubris” helps him become one with Captain Ahab and the lexicographically fearless and obsessed Melville. Huston said making this film was so perilous that he thought his assistant director was plotting against him, then found that the problem was much more manageable because the plotter “was only God.” Of course, Huston, Ahab and Melville, preferred as big a spiritual enemy as they could conjure, and the framework for the script was sketched by Ray Bradbury.
Wuthering Heights by William Wyler
I’m tempted to go with Luis Buñuel’s 1954 version, Abismos de Pasión, and give the edge to the surrealists, who knew a thing or two about irrational, death-obsessed love. But it is the 1939 film that we know. Laurence Olivier looks like a zombie and Merle Oberon is hysterical throughout, and the scenes of the Yorkshire moors were filmed in the Conejo Valley of Ventura County, with what appears to be a giant umbrella put over it. But the mistakes end up resembling genuine strangeness—ugly, spooky and captivating—which is what makes Emily Brontë’s novel so good in the first place.
Throne of Blood by Akira Kurosawa
Why are there so many icy adaptations of Macbeth? Perhaps because the Scottish play is a tragedy of bloody hurly-burly, and “violent sorrow seems a modern ecstasy,” prone to conceptions of Patrick Stewart strutting about in fascist regalia or Ian McKellen fretting upon a nearly bare, existential set. Orson Welles’s Macbeth is a close encounter with nightmare, and the importance of piercing sounds that disrupt the thin membrane of dreamscape and witchcraft is central to its considerable power. Roman Polanski’s version is fully bloody, but if you want the hurly-burly, you only have to watch the final sequence of Kurosawa’s adaptation—where a Japanese Macbeth is stuck with arrows and turned into a human porcupine—to experience the thrill of seeing so much violence visit upon Macbeth’s soul. Sensory and atmospheric overload shreds Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, played by the great, chilling Isuzu Yamada, and suddenly you understand the importance of Scotland. Kurosawa’s version is the foggiest—you’ll suspect he imported the mist straight from Glasgow. The steam drives everything, even Birnam Wood, which really does come to Dunsinane. As Pauline Kael said, Throne of Blood is a spectacular demonstration of making a movie move.
Time Regained by Raúl Ruiz
David Mitchell’s polyphonic Cloud Atlas is not the most unfilmable book, no matter what the preachy Wachowski mirage suggests. Short of reviving the smelly Sensurround or offering every viewer a bit of petites madeleines softened in tea, how would you film Proust? Let the photoplay of time and memory last for years? Alas, if you only had 162 minutes, go with Ruiz’s masterpiece. It is hardly a faithful adaptation of In Search of Lost Time’s final volume, but a work that seems to remember the books’ past, as characters float into dreamy, artistic recollection. It is a movie about a man who, as the great critic Edmund Wilson wrote of Proust, “dominates the scene and plays host in the mansion where he is not long to be master.”
The Dead by John Huston
The most unfilmable scene, in my book, is this: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” How do you get that “faintly falling,” that transcendent rhythm? Fred Astaire did it, but “A Fine Romance” number would never work in a film of Joyce. This is no problem for Huston, who never disliked problems, and he surely knew about the “James Joyce Challenge,” for he knew his great books, as Moby Dick would tell you. So before he died he set himself the task of taking on “The Dead,” and we’re better for it. The last scene in his last film is as close to slowly swooning and falling upon the living and the dead as it comes.
Sense and Sensibility by Ang Lee
With only six novels to consume, it is no surprise that we always want more Jane Austen, and the thirst spills into films. Every year an Englishman or two invariably makes an attempt on the hand of Ms. Austen, and Mr. Wright did a good enough job in 2005. But it is a Taiwanese who has presented the most faithful and handsome Austen ever, because in the case of Jane you really do need to get out of her way and let her songlike sentences sing while you simply try not to mess it up with too much interference. Persuading Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet and Hugh Grant helps.
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story by Michael Winterbottom
Whether Laurence Sterne wrote a novel or not is still an open question. Appropriately, the status of A Cock and Bull Story as an adaptation is unconfirmed, and England is still refusing to call it Tristram Shandy, or concede that it is even about Tristram Shandy. In any event, Winterbottom, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s hilarious movie is the funnest thing on this list, and isn’t that the whole point of Tristram Shandy? I’d say Winterbottom nailed it by refusing to nail it—by creating yet another cycle of diversions in the legend of Tristram Shandy—which is the only way to film the book, really.