Filming Anna.

Ani Kokobobo’s “Candid about the Camera: Tolstoy Scholars on Adapting Anna Karenina” is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking things I’ve read on adapting a classic novel; it’s a set of scholarly reactions to Anna Karenina film adaptations based on a special issue of the Tolstoy Studies Journal: Anna Karenina for the Twenty-First Century. I won’t try to summarize the various contributions, I’ll just reproduce one of the shortest and most intriguing, by my man Gary Saul Morson:

My favorite adaptation of Anna Karenina is the old Greta Garbo film because it gets the story EXACTLY wrong. Karenin is made completely beastly, Anna just a long-suffering, completely innocent soul. In the novel, Vronsky goes off to fight the eastern war because Anna has committed suicide, but in the film, Anna commits suicide because Vronsky has left her to fight the Eastern War! The Levin story barely exists, only as much of it as Anna would pay attention to.

In short, the Garbo film is the film that Anna herself would have made. If one sees the difference between it and the novel Tolstoy wrote, one appreciates the difference in perspective underlying the work, and so one understands the novel a lot better. And one grasps the difference between the “pro-Anna” and “anti-Anna” critical traditions better as well.

I now want to see several of the movies they mention, and am curious to see Woody Allen’s Hannah and her Sisters again from this point of view. And here‘s a follow-up post by David Herman.


  1. how does Anna Karenina speak beyond its time, and how does it address contemporary problems? We relate the novel to contemporary questions of sexuality and desire, performativity and authenticity, and even “The Kardashians”!

    I read the novel last time about 20 years ago and forgot most of it, but I am surprised by these questions. Of course, you can take any classical text and ask all the same questions, but Anna Karenina is interesting not because of the “questions”, it’s interesting for its mastery of depicting human relationships, psychology, and for sheer literally quality. Searching for “questions” in A.K. is about as meaningful as studying King Lear for its insights on royal power or Othello on race relations.

  2. @D.O.: “Searching for “questions” in A.K. is about as meaningful as studying King Lear for its insights on royal power or Othello on race relations.”

    I’ve not a shadow of doubt than thousands of theses and dissertations doing exactly that have been successfully defended in Anglophone countries in the past 20-30-40 years.

    I like Morson’s take on that shabby old movie, probably because it reminds me of my own interpretation of the universally despised Peter the Great statue on Balchug Island. This is how Moscow must have once seen the first Russian Emperor: a monstrosity.

  3. Royal power in Lear, and race relations in Othello, are important thematic elements and plot drivers. Plot and theme may seem peripheral to someone interested only in “human relationships, psychology, and […] sheer literally [sic] quality,” but they’re not exactly topics of study that were invented yesterday.

  4. I am surprised by these questions.

    They’re not serious scholarly questions, they’re clickbait questions, meant to entice you to read on to find the exciting answers (and then get distracted by what the scholars are actually saying, which is of course more interesting). It’s like titles and headlines, which often have a rather casual relationship to the contents — their goal is not accurate representation but maximum readership.

  5. The discussion of “Anna Karenina” adaptations should include Virginia Woolf’s wonderful essay “The Cinema” (1926). Though she talks about the silent films, her defamiliarization is still wonderful: “Eye and brain are torn asunder ruthlessly as they try vainly to work in couples. The eye says ‘Here is Anna Karenina.’ 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 almost entirely by the inside of her mind—her charm, her passion, her despair. All the emphasis is laid by the cinema upon her teeth, her pearls, and her velvet. Then ‘Anna falls in love with Vronsky’—that is to say, the lady in black velvet falls into the arms of a gentleman in uniform and they kiss with enormous succulence, great deliberation, and infinite gesticulation, on a sofa in an extremely well-appointed library, while a gardener incidentally mows the lawn. So we lurch and lumber through the most famous novels of the world. So we spell them out in words of one syllable, written, too, in the scrawl of an illiterate schoolboy. A kiss is love. A broken cup is jealousy. A grin is happiness. Death is a hearse. None of these things has the least connexion with the novel that Tolstoy wrote, and it is only when we give up trying to connect the pictures with the book that we guess from some accidental scene—like the gardener mowing the lawn—what the cinema might do if left to its own devices.”

  6. It’s kind of too bad no one seems to be looking at Nahr al-Hob (River of Love), the 1960 Egyptian film, if only because that’s in principle a more extreme adaptation than the usual “English-language recreation of 19th Century Russia” film.

  7. Sounds interesting! This is the first I’ve heard of it, and I imagine I’m not alone, which is probably why it didn’t get mentioned — Egyptian cinema is not focused on very often in the English-speaking world.

  8. Yes, I think it’s pretty obscure from the anglophone/European cinema perspective. I only know about it because of some casual research I was doing a couple of years ago into the subject of cross-cultural film adaptations; one of the things I ended up looking at was Wikipedia pages on film adaptations of Tolstoy. (The novel Resurrection has been made into Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Sri Lankan films.)

    I’ve never seen it, and I assumed it would be difficult to source, but I just discovered that the entire film is on YouTube, with English subtitles…

  9. Here it is, for anyone who might be interested.

  10. David Marjanović says

    Having watched the first 2 minutes, I recommend at least the introduction to learners of Arabic. I’m not one, but many of the few words I happen to know occur in those 2 minutes – loud, clear, and in recognizable forms, if sometimes only recognizable thanks to the subtitles.

    Does Egyptian Arabic have word-final fortition?

  11. I could have sworn we’d discussed the name Kokobobo somewhere, but apparently not — this is the only post where I’ve mentioned her. So: anybody know what kind of name Kokobobo is?

  12. Ani Kokobobo is said to be a native of Albania, which of course is not the same as being an ethnic Albanian. Additional Kokobobos found by Dr. Google are Adrian, Agron, Arianit (a known Albanian first name), Arjanit (a different person), Emi, Emira, Jon, Marin Artan (double first name), Nusret, Skënder, and Eftiqila or Eftiqija (possibly different persons). Searching on these last two names turns up only Kokobobos, so there is some kind of linkage between the odd first name(s) and the odd surname. One source says that Adrian, Eftiqila, and Eftiqija all have the same address in Brooklyn.

    Ismail Kadare’s novel Lutka, possibly ‘The Doll’, has a character named Izmini Kokobobo. The House of Kokobobo in the city of Gjirokastër is 300 years old and a cultural monument, but in an extreme state of disrepair. For what it’s worth, which may be nothing, Gjirokastër has large Greek and Christian Albanian minorities.

  13. So definitely Albanian then; thanks! A very odd-sounding name, in any case.

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