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'Anna Karenina' Through the Film Ages

by Beth Hanna
August 20, 2012 6:39 AM
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Keira Knightley (left) and Greta Garbo (right) as Anna Karenina
Keira Knightley (left) and Greta Garbo (right) as Anna Karenina

Joe Wright's "Anna Karenina" (November 16) looks to be a highly original take on the Leo Tolstoy classic, but it's certainly not the first time (or even the 10th) that the Russian romance has been adapted for the big screen. Below, a compare-and-contrast of six film versions.

"Anna Karenina," 1935: Greta Garbo stars in the title role, with Fredric March as Vronsky. Clarence Brown ("National Velvet" and another Garbo vehicle, "Anna Christie") directs. This was Garbo's second outing as Anna K., with her first go-around in 1927's "Love" (see below). The film's budget is estimated at just north of $1 million, with the domestic take at $865K. The film is 100% Fresh, and Emmanuel Levy writes:

"In her 23rd film, Garbo's luminous performance, as the adulterous protag of Tolstoy's novel, is way above the mediocre level of the narrative and direction; the film is a remake of 'Love,' in which Garbo starred opposite her then lover John Gilbert.Other critics opined that, after years of being miscast, Garbo found 'her own particular province of glamour and heartbreak.'"

"Anna Karenina," 1948: Brilliant French director Julien Duvivier ("Panique," "Pepe le Moko") went to the UK to direct this Vivien Leigh-starrer. Kieron Moore plays Vronsky, with Ralph Richardson as cuckold husband Alexei Karenin. The film has a tepid if decent 6.5 on IMDb, but notoriously grouchy NY Times film critic Bosley Crowther wrote of the film upon its release:

"With all due respect for an actress who would willingly undertake a role that has twice been rendered immortal by Greta Garbo within the past twenty years, it must be confessed by this observer that the 'Anna Karenina' of Vivien Leigh is a pretty sad disappointment, by comparison or not. At the same time, it must be admitted that Miss Leigh is not wholly to blame. It's a pretty sad chunk of motion-picture... Miss Leigh [does] slowly disintegrate into a whining, maudlin, vain, self-pitying dame."

"Anna Karenina," 1997: This Warner Bros. production stars Parisian-born actress Sophie Marceau ("Braveheart," "The World is Not Enough") in the title role, with Bernard Rose directing (check out our TOH interview with him about his third Tolstoy adaptation "Boxing Day," playing Venice). Sean Bean plays Vronsky. The film flopped painfully, with a $35 million budget, and not even an $800K domestic take. More ouch: A 26% Rotten. (With a 6.2 on IMDb, viewers seem to regard it more positively.) Check out Roger Ebert's review of the film, with this segment basically summing up the critical consensus:

"It's not the story but the style and the ideas that make Tolstoy's 'Anna Karenina'' a great novel and not a soap opera. There's no shortage of stories about bored rich women who leave their older husbands and take up with playboys. This new screen version of the novel makes that clear by focusing on the story, which without Tolstoy's wisdom, is a grim and melodramatic affair. Here is a woman of intoxicating beauty and deep passion, and she becomes so morose and tiresome that by the end, we'd just as soon she throw herself under a train, and are not much cheered when she obliges."

"Love," 1927: 21-year-old Greta Garbo stars as Anna for her first time in this silent version. Her real-life lover John Gilbert co-stars as Vronsky, which was a big selling point upon the film's release: Marquees screamed "Gilbert and Garbo in Love!" and the original poster read "John Gilbert in Love with Greta Garbo." The film was also released with two endings, and exhibitors decided which one would screen in which towns. The tragic ending courtesy of Tolstoy played mostly in urban communities, while the sugar-coated ending screened basically everywhere else in the country. The film's budget is estimated just shy of $500K, and made back twice that amount domestically, with a $731K international haul. A juggernaut hit.

"Anna Karenina," 1967: This Soviet version stars Russian superstar Tatyana Samojlova in the title role, with Aleksandr Zharki helming. An epic at 145 minutes, the film demanded two years (!) of shooting in full color 70mm widescreen. The film has a respectable 7.1 on IMDB. Bolshoi ballet star Maia Plisetskaya plays the seemingly kind Princess who at first helps Anna, and then turns her back on her.

"Anna Karenina," 2012: Keira Knightley re-teams with director Joe Wright -- a stylish helmer she fares well with -- for this unusual adaptation. Based on the trailer and an early 6-minute clip, the film has a stage setting, with the actors taking on a manner of theatricality, and waltzing between what appear to be gilded amphitheatres and actual locations. Aaron Johnson co-stars as Vronsky, with Jude Law as cuckold husband Karenin. The film has a November 16 release date (with some European cities getting an earlier release date), and will premiere at Toronto in September, with its Oscar prospects unspooling then.


  • al777 | December 30, 2012 3:53 PMReply

    thought the script and acting was great but was hard to get past the roving production set design, this watching a play on screen adaption...WHY? That part i found annoying and didn't think it worked, it just got in the way of the film. Also, this must be a hush hush on the horrendous financial flop by the media and likes. The production and set design ALONE was $50 million, with $10m domestic and $17m worldwide it isn't looking profitable.

  • JM | August 20, 2012 11:47 AMReply

    What a disappointment in casting. Kiera Knightly is consistently fake and there is nothing interesting about her.

  • David Lean Fan | August 20, 2012 1:34 PM

    What was fake about her performance in Pride & Prejudice? or Last Night? or Atonement? or The Duchess? or Never let me go? Keira Knightley is the only actress in her age group who has consistently delivered a string of fantastic leading performances. Even Natalie Portman, who for some weird reason is loved by critics, has only delivered two or three. Anne Hathaway has only had one good leading performance. She was supporting in The Dark Knight, so that doesn't count. Carey Mulligan, two. Emily Blunt, ZERO! Jennifer Lawrence, one. Amanda Seyfried (sp), zero. Who else?

    It's fine not to find Keira Knightley interesting but you diminish your credibility by calling her acting "fake." This is not a gossip column.

  • David Lean fan | August 20, 2012 11:23 AMReply

    You can always rely on Ms. Thompson for highly original pieces like this. Great work. I am hotly anticipating Joe Wright's version. Of course his stylized take is risky but I am hoping the contrast between the "real world" segments and the theatrical aristocrats in ballrooms illustrates the aristocracy's alienation from the reality/plight of the Russian masses. Leave it to Wright to develop such inventive techniques to evoke the essence of the novel. I am also hoping Keira delivers a career-defining performance. She has been overlooked for far too long. Cheers!

  • Jan A | August 20, 2012 6:50 AMReply

    Thank you so much for this piece and the clips of the older movies. I had no idea that many versions of the movie were made. I'm looking forward to the new one; I like Keira Knightley.

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