By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist November 16, 2012 at 3:58PM
Today sees the release of Joe Wright's "Anna Karenina," the latest attempt to adapt Leo Tolstoy's unruly epic of Russian literature to the screen. It's far from the first, with silent versions arriving as early as 1910, while the most recent was Bernard Rose's take in 1997. But Wright's version numbers among the best, thanks to a fine cast, a bold, cinematic approach to the material, and astonishing production values. You can read our review of the film here.
It's another example of how malleable some of the great works of Russian literature can be. There have been straight-ahead adaptations of many of the classics, but literary works by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Bulgakov, Chekhov, Pushkin and many others have inspired adaptations both faithful and loose, both domestic and international, both good and bad. And so with "Anna Karenina" in theaters, we thought we'd round up ten of the most interesting. Check them out below, and you can let us know your own favorites in the comments section below.
The great French auteur Robert Bresson became near-obsessed using Dostoyevsky short stories as launching pads for loose adaptations of his work. 1959’s “Pickpocket” is loosely inspired by Dostoyevsky's “Crime and Punishment” and Bresson’s arguable masterpiece, “Au Hasard Balthazar,” derived inspiration from “The Idiot.” 1969’s “A Gentle Woman” (his first color film) is based on the short story “A Gentle Creature” and focuses on the unknowable inner world of a young girl, who we meet at the beginning of the film right after she commits suicide. Based on a story called "White Nights,” Bresson returned again to Dostoyevsky's short stories for inspiration with "Four Nights of a Dreamer.” It’s about a young painter, who by chance runs into a woman who is contemplating suicide. He talks her out of it and on their fourth day together falls in love with her, only to watch her leave him for her original lover, the man she was distraught about in the first place. Bresson’s final adaptation of great Russian literature however does not come from Fyodor. 1983’s astringent, cruel and mordant “L’argent” is based on “The Forged Coupon,” a short story by Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. Bleak as all get out, it illustrates the chain of events led by greed that eventually lands on an honest, unsuspecting gas man who is ruined when he comes into contact with counterfeit money. He winds up in jail, and then goes on a desperate and depraved journey that finds him totally consumed by his dire circumstances. It’s grim, grim stuff, but then again, none of these Russian greats were huge optimists.
It's especially gratifying to note just how dynamic Richard Brooks' adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov" is, given when it was produced. Because the 1956 Henry Fonda/Audrey Hepburn "War and Peace" (see below) barely grossed its production budget (it cost $6 million to make and made $6.25 million), and it's very easy to imagine that a lesser version of 'Karamazov' could have been cranked out. But Brooks' version, whose exceptional ensemble cast boasts Lee J. Cobb, Yul Brynner, Maria Schell, and a fresh-faced William Shatner, is impressive. Brooks, who both directed and scripted the film, handily establishes the novel's concern with impoverished characters that are obsessed with their material needs and desires. Father (Cobb) and Dmitri's (Brynner) blustery feuding over money owed and women stolen (in this case, Schell's Grushenka) paves the way for the film's later spiritual concerns. But what's most charming about this version of 'Karamazov' is the ease with how kinetic the film's dialogue-driven confrontations are. Save perhaps for Shatner's Alexi, who is often too fidgety to be believable as anything but an actor playing a part, the film's cast all comfortably inhabit their respective roles. Cobb and Brynner tower above the rest, however, which is fitting since their characters are arguably the most vital to propelling Brothers' story forward. With two great alpha males and several fantastic supporting roles, Brooks' adaptation works because its characters are totally believable.
Revolution of various kinds echoed through the 20th century, in most cases inspired by what took place in Russia in the 1910s. And Paris in the late 1960s was one of the more notable cases, the city erupting into riots in 1968, events which inspired filmmakers like Bernardo Bertolucci and Olivier Assayas in recent years. But Jean-Luc Godard was there on the ground floor, making a film about radical Parisians even before the events of May '68 (indeed, there's an urban legend that the film inspired the riots at Columbia in early 1968, now mostly refuted), using Dostoyevsky's "Demons" (originally titled "The Possessed") as loose source material. Set mostly within a single apartment location, it follows five students belonging to a Maoist group -- Veronique (Anne Wiazemsky), Yvonne (Juliet Berto), Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Leaud), Kirilov (Lex De Brujin) and Henri (Michel Semeniako) -- discussing their revolutionary ethos, the benefits or otherwise of violence, and an upcoming assassination of a Soviet minister. This is Godard just before "Weekend," about to jettison "bourgeois" narrative filmmaking altogether, and as such, it's far from an accessible watch, blurring the lines between fiction and documentary, to the extent that you can hear Godard asking questions of the actors, and glimpsing the camera. But for all that, it's a compelling, provocative and energetic piece of work, immaculately shot and art-directed, and one which has the spirit of revolution embedded in the very celluloid it's shot on. Somewhat undervalued for many years, its critical reputation has been restored since it returned to American screens and video in the last few years.
Given that, when adjusted for inflation, it's the eighth biggest-grossing film of all time in the U.S., one might have thought that "Doctor Zhivago" would be spoken of in more hallowed terms today, but it's often overshadowed by some of David Lean's other epics, including "The Bridge Over the River Kwai" and, in particular, "Lawrence of Arabia." One probably couldn't deny that director's near-200-minute adaptation of Boris Pasternak's novel is a tad overlong, and may not be quite as perfect as 'Lawrence.' But it's still an extraordinary piece of work, and the one on this list to which Joe Wright's "Anna Karenina" probably owes the biggest debt. Told through a framing device, in which a KGB agent (Alec Guinness) searches for the daughter of his half-brother, the film documents the romance between the titular Zhivago (Omar Sharif, in a serious upgrade from his scene-stealing supporting role in "Lawrence of Arabia"), a battlefield doctor who falls in love with Lara (Julie Christie), who's married to Bolshevik activist Pasha (Tom Courtenay), and under the thumb of the powerful Komarovsky (Rod Steiger). Unlike some modern films which, naming no names, never justify their epic running time, Lean earns virtually every second of his expansive romance, in part because the chemistry between Sharif and Christie is so electric, and because there's such depth in the supporting cast. Lean's direction is on top form, and for all the length, it's never dull. Pasternak's source material might be a slightly soppy pastiche of Tolstoy and others, but it kind of soars on screen.
Ok, so Woody Allen's "Love and Death" isn't, strictly speaking, based on a particular Russian novel. But it's based, in many ways, on all of them, a satirical smorgasbord of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky (one scene is comprised of nothing but Dostoyevsky titles) and everything in between. A loving, literate homage to some of the finest works of literature ever written, the plot, such as it is, folllows Boris (Allen), a pacifist, who enlists in the Russian army when Napoleon invades, more because of the news because his cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton) is getting married than from any patriotic duty. The pair are fated to be entwined forever, especially once they decide to assassinate the French leader together. Once described by the director himself as his funniest film, it does serve as an intriguing blend of the silliness of its predecessor, "Sleeper," and the more profound, truthful elements of its successor, "Annie Hall," although probably leaning towards the latter. But in Keaton's Sonja, it has the director's most complex and fascinating female character to date (even if it does, in retrospect, feel like a warm up for Annie). It's also one of the densest and most intellectual comedies ever made, for all its broad moments, with references not to the great Russian writers, but also to filmmakers like Eisenstein and Bergman. Remarkably, it was still the 18th top grossing movie of 1975.