On bad and successful literary adaptations

New York Times film critic A. O. Scott articulates his criteria for bad and successful literary adaptations. I love this genre of film, so I am intrigued. Scott helps remind me that film and literature are distinct in their forms: film shows the story through images, privileging the faculty of perception, whereas literature tells the story through words, privileging the faculty of imagination. A bad literary adaptation seems to forget or downplay its form, aspiring to be literature instead of exploring its potential as film. The “artistic hubris” that Scott admires in a successful literary adaptation is what I would call “creative fidelity” or “faithful improvisation.” My phrases try to keep the tension between honoring the original work and risking something new and praiseworthy in its own right. Scott writes:

Bad literary adaptations are all alike, but every successful literary adaptation succeeds in its own way. The bad ones — or let’s just say the average ones, to spare the feelings of hard-working wig makers and dialect coaches — are undone by humility, by anxious obeisance to the cultural prestige of literature. The good ones succeed through hubris, through the arrogant assumption that a great novel is not a sacred artifact but rather a lump of interesting material to be shaped according to the filmmaker’s will.

The British director Joe Wright has seemed to me — up to now — to belong to the dreary party of humility. His screen versions of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” and Ian McEwan’s “Atonement” are not terrible, just cautious and responsible. For all their technical polish and the admirable discipline of their casts, those films remain trapped in literariness. Instead of strong, risky interpretations, they offer crib notes and the pale flattery of imitation. The proof of their mediocrity is that admirers of Austen or Mr. McEwan will find no reason for complaint.

Mr. Wright’s “Anna Karenina” is different. It is risky and ambitious enough to count as an act of artistic hubris, and confident enough to triumph on its own slightly — wonderfully — crazy terms. Pious Tolstoyans may knit their brows about the stylistic liberties Mr. Wright and the screenwriter, Tom Stoppard, have taken, but surely Tolstoy can withstand (and may indeed benefit from) their playful, passionate rendering of his masterpiece.

The challenge of “Anna Karenina” is that Tolstoy’s loose and baggy monster of a novel is more than large, bigger than great: it is comprehensive. As it glides among its many characters, reading their thoughts and dissecting their desires, the book becomes a vivid panorama of an entire society, you might even say a whole species. “Anna Karenina” does not take place, as movie-trailer voice-overs might say, “in a world” of such and such exotic customs. The book lives in the world, in the busy, contingent present tense of mid-19th-century Imperial Russia, which contained everything Tolstoy knew. To try to reproduce that world according to the canons of 21st-century movie realism would be to diminish and falsify his narrative, which ascends through cultural and social detail into a realm of universal emotion.

Mr. Wright’s brilliant gamble is to arrive at this level of emotional authenticity by way of self-conscious artifice. The cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg are rendered as elaborate stage sets. (Sarah Greenwood is the production designer.) Characters make their way around props, past painted backdrops and through catwalks, ropes and backstage rigging. You get the sense that in these bureaucratic offices, ministerial meetings and aristocratic households, everyday life is a form of theater. To play your part in this intricately hierarchical society you must speak your lines, hit your marks, know your place and beware of improvisation.

But the film itself is the very opposite of stagy. The camera hurtles through the scenery as if in hungry pursuit; the lush colors of the upholstery and the costumes pulsate with feeling; the music (by Dario Marianelli) howls and sighs and the performances are fresh, energetic and alive. Compressing the important events of Tolstoy’s thousand pages into an impressively swift two hours and change, Mr. Wright turns a sweeping epic into a frantic and sublime opera.

“Infidelity, Grandly Staged: Review of Anna Karenina” (New York Times)

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