Anna Karenina is the dream role of every actress. Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh, Tatiana Samoilova, legendary stars of world cinema, gave life to the immortal character of the great novel by Leon Tolstoy on the big screen.
There are literary works adapted to film dozens of times, to which filmmakers return again and again, and Anna Karenina, that pinnacle of world literature, is one of them.
The romantic odyssey of its protagonist is possibly one of the works to have seen the most adaptations since the birth of cinema. The famed novel about the tragic story of a woman married to an older man who falls in love with a young army officer was written by Tolstoy between 1873 and 1887.
If we recall that movies were first screened in 1895, we can begin to imagine the number of times such a work could have reached cinemas. How many film adaptations have dared to reproduce this great classic about love and social hypocrisy?
This observation was sparked on having recently seen in Cuba two new versions of Anna Karenina. During the Week of Russian Cinema held in Havana’s Cinematheque, I saw the 2017 adaptation of the work directed by the Russian Karen Shakhnazarov. Meanwhile, Cuban television broadcast a 2013 Italian miniseries, consisting of two episodes, directed by Christian Duguay.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Anna Karenina was first brought to the screen in Russia in 1911 by French director Maurice André Maitre, in the silent film era. In 1914, Russian Vladimir Gardin returned to the novel, this time played by actress Mariya Germanova.
But it was the 1935 Hollywood version that achieved the greatest fame and success. Directed by Clarence Brown, the lead role was played by none other than the legendary Greta Garbo. Garbo was at the peak of her career and gave an impeccable performance, recreating a real, credible Anna.
In 1948, another famous actress assumed the role, Vivien Leigh. Who better than the same figure to have played Scarlett O’Hara (in Gone with the Wind) to embody the tale of love and passion that challenged the social hypocrisy of the time? Directed by Julien Duvivier, the scriptwriter was none other than playwright Jean Anouilh (Antigone).
It is not surprising that critics and the public alike consider the most faithful adaptation to be that of 1967, directed by Russian Aleksandr Zarkhi, and the best Anna to have been played by his compatriot, the outstanding actress Tatiana Samoilova. It is a true cinematographic treasure.
Samoilova had made herself known outside her country thanks to her incarnation of Veronica in The Cranes Are Flying, a tragic love story interrupted by the start of World War II, directed by Mikhail Kalatozov. In 1958, it became the first Soviet film to be awarded the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the actress received a special mention.
As a curious fact, world ballet star Maya Plisetskaya plays a small role in Zarkhi’s Anna Karenina, that of Princess Betsy Trubetskaya. The ballerina would later star in the ballet of the same name by Rodion Shchedrin, premiered in 1972 at the Bolshoi Theater.
New adaptations continued to appear almost every decade. There is the Anna Karenina of 1997, directed by Bernard Rose, with France’s Sophie Marceau in the leading role, and in 2012 Joe Wright offered his version, with the British actress Keira Knightley.
Thus we arrive at the 2017 adaptation directed by Shakhnazarov, who rebelled against previous versions starting with the title, calling his work Anna Karenina: Vronsky’s Story.
The director took several risks. Not only as regards the title, but his version of the great classic is narrated by Count Vronsky, Anna’s lover and, it must be said immediately, he omits the famous scene of the literary character throwing herself under a passing train, the majestic final written by Tolstoy.
While Shakhnazarov begins with one of the most important phrases in world literature: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way;” he sets the story of Vronsky in a Manchuria military hospital, thirty years after the events. There he meets with Anna’s son Serguei, an encounter that obviously does not exist in Tolstoy’s original work.
Is this not too much to ask of viewers and readers who love the great novel?
Parallel to the feature length, Shakhnazarov filmed an eight-episode television version. There have been other adaptations for the small screen, such as a 1985 television film directed by Simon Langton with Jacqueline Bisset and Christopher Reeve, and the 2013 miniseries, recently shown in Cuba, directed by Duguay, with the Italian Vittoria Puccini as Anna.
It is believed that the number of films inspired by Leon Tolstoy’s novel has reached some thirty, and each new adaptation unleashes the passions of thousands, perhaps millions, of admirers of Anna Karenina. If asked to choose a favorite, my personal vote would be split between the Anna of Garbo and that of Samoilova.