Last week I watched the 2012 film of Anna Karenina, with Keira Knightly and Jude Law. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that, other than the ancient Persian classics, it’s the first non-Western story I’ve got through from end to end (I had a go at the Ramayana during uni, but didn’t make it very far). What struck me most was the difference in structure. I think a typical Western writer would have ended either with Anna leaving Karenin, or going back to him and sending her lover Vronsky away. That seems like a complete story arc to me. But no – Tolstoy has her leave Karenin for a second time and then throw herself under a train. It makes it a very different type of tale. The phrase that kept going through my head was ‘to the bitter end’ – Tolstoy didn’t stop at the end of the arc, he kept going to the end of the story. Sure, in one sense it was the end of Anna’s arc of depression, but it was past the point that I expected. I’m about to start in on some traditional Russian fairytales for a LARP project, so I’ll be very interested to see if this is a Tolstoy thing or a cultural thing.
The other thing that was slightly surprising was the lack of cultural difference in terms of the setting and society. The social norms and pressures were all basically identical to those I’m familiar with, and I expected something a little further from my own culture. I don’t know if that’s because the director, Joe Wright, anglicized things in order to better connect with his audience, or whether hushing up scandalous love affairs is just that universal. Guess the best way to answer that question is to read the original!
Finally – and this has nothing to do with culture, really – Wright’s decision to use a theatre stage as recurring setting and scene changes was very interesting. I dimly recall that the critics were not impressed, and I can see why as that kind of overt stylistic approach disrupts immersion. Still, I thought it brought a couple of things to certain scenes which couldn’t have been achieved any other way. Karenin’s awareness of the world watching, for example, when he’s sitting alone considering his honour and his wife’s infidelity whilst facing the edge of a bare stage. It’s harder to employ that sort of visual technique in writing, although options like diary entries and letters are possible, but the concept that style brings different messages to a scene is an important and often forgotten one.